Thursday, August 5, 2010

Team Fox or Team Hedgehog?

Team Hedgehog, all the way!

In case you haven't been following, Notorious Ph.D. posted about the differences in academic approaches between “foxes” and “hedgehogs”:

"The fox knows many tricks; the hedgehog knows only one, but he does it well."

I’ll admit it, I am and have always been, a science hedgehog. There’s nothing like a nice 10+ figure paper, replete with detailed, technically exce
llent experiments, explicit consideration of other explanations (negative results, and their controls go here) to get me all hot and bothered. It’s what attracts me, what I find compelling science, and after enough time, I’ve realized that it’s not something I can easily change about myself (part of Notorious’s post concerns exactly that: changing from a hedgehog into a fox, and also how other scholars respond).

And yet, I realize the limitations of such a hedgehogia
n approach. Sometimes, a mix of approaches is required to get an answer; hedgehogs might miss this. Sometimes, you get so deep into something that you lose perspective, seeing only the trees, and not the forest. I get that. Still, there are ways as a hedgehog to evolve without completely changing species. You can be a serial hedgehog, going deep into different topics over time (I’d put my thesis advisor in this category). Or, you could be a topic hedgehog: sticking to one topic, going very deep into it, but bringing in other techniques as needed. I’d put the guy I started grad school with in that group.

But in all the discussion on this, which has largely been pro-fox, there hasn’t been much focus on what the limitations of the fox approach is. Sure, the best foxes are out there seeding fields with new approaches, new techniques, and both answering old questions while raising new ones.
There’s another species of fox too:

We all know them. Shitty experimentalists who flit from project to project, or people with a new fancy trick that they get the same answers people in the field had already gotten (BUT LOOK, IT’S PRETTIER!). Or they ignore the previous results that their "great new technique" doesn't replicate (probably because they don't really understand the earlier results, as they never engaged them seriously).

True, there’s fewer of these kind of foxes around for long, being selected against over time. In this vein, the idea/suggestion that younger scholars must start out as hedgehogs has a lot of merit. But I've seen young foxes; it often ain't pretty.

In the end, instead of pigeonholing hedgehogs as boring old, narrow minded, one trick ponies, and foxes and shallow, incompetent, jacks of all trades, I’d rather people agree that, when well done, BOTH approaches have their merit, and that it’s important to maintain a healthy equilibrium between the two.

1 comment:

Comrade PhysioProf said...

I staff my lab with both foxes and hedgehogs.