In these days of spinmeisters and talking heads, figuring out who to pay attention to is a difficult task.

In two recent studies Cameron Anderson and Galvin Kilduff discovered that people who offer suggestions first and most often in a group are generally perceived by that group to be the most competant (regardless of the merit of the actual suggestions).

Philip Tetlock,  an expert on experts, is a professor of organizational behavior at the University of California-Berkeley’s Haas Business School, and has been studying experts for 25 years.   Tetlock’s research found that one kind of expert turns out consistently more accurate forecasts than others.

The most important factor was not how much education or experience the experts had but how they thought. You know the famous line that [philosopher] Isaiah Berlin borrowed from a Greek poet, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”? The better forecasters were like Berlin’s foxes: self-critical, eclectic thinkers who were willing to update their beliefs when faced with contrary evidence, were doubtful of grand schemes and were rather modest about their predictive ability. The less successful forecasters were like hedgehogs: They tended to have one big, beautiful idea that they loved to stretch, sometimes to the breaking point. They tended to be articulate and very persuasive as to why their idea explained everything. The media often love hedgehogs.

How do you know whether a talking head is a fox or a hedgehog?

Count how often they press the brakes on trains of thought. Foxes often qualify their arguments with “however” and “perhaps,” while hedgehogs build up momentum with “moreover” and “all the more so.” Foxes are not as entertaining as hedgehogs. But enduring a little tedium is worth it if you want realistic odds on possible futures.