John Terrill, faith and work, statistics, research, improvement, tools

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What Does the Fox Say?

The faith and work conversation needs better tools and more calculated strides.

In his classic essay, The Hedgehog and the Fox, Isaiah Berlin cites this ancient Greek aphorism from the poet Archilochus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” 

Here, Berlin differentiates between two kinds of writers and thinkers. On one hand, hedgehogs know “one big thing” and have an overarching framework for understanding the world. On the other, foxes are interested in complex patterns since they don’t believe that one big idea can explain the arc of history.

In short, foxes make better predictive decisions than hedgehogs.

For too long, leaders in the faith, work, and economics conversation have relied primarily on “gut” to determine what does and doesn’t work when seeking to help others integrate faith and work. It’s time for the conversation to take the next step in growing up. 

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel prize winner, psychologist, and economist Daniel Kahneman posits, “The illusion that we understand the past fosters overconfidence in our ability to predict the future.” He continues, “Those who know more forecast very slightly better than those who know less. But those with the most knowledge are often less reliable. The reason is that the person who acquires more knowledge develops an enhanced illusion of her skill and becomes unrealistically overconfident.”

Kahneman draws on the work of political scientist Philip Tetlock, whose work draws on the language of Berlin. Tetlock conducted a large study of political and economic prognosticators that yielded this astonishing observation: Their predictions were accurate at a rate lower than chance. 

That foxes make better predictive decisions than hedgehogs provides a backdrop for statistician Nate Silver’s prescience in predicting baseball and election outcomes. In the preface to his 2020 updated version of his 2012 bestselling book, The Signal and the Noise, Silver credits Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2 thinking as inspiration for his breakthrough work. These two thinking systems operate as distinct, yet interdependent, parts of the brain. For instance, System 1 functions automatically, with little need for voluntary effort or control. By contrast, System 2 requires mental effort and intricate computations. In Kahneman’s words, “The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.”

Amid the nuanced complexity of economic demands, industry expectations, Christian traditions, and personality types, the leaders of the faith, work, and economics conversation need better tools to help people become more integrated and flourishing workers. 

Effective assessment is part of the solution. Whether qualitative or quantitative in design, validated measurements can help ministry leaders recognize patterns, gaps, and change that results in greater integration and impact of their initiatives over time. 

Psychometrically sound assessment is like the man who dug a foundation and constructed his house upon a rock: “When a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built” (Luke 6:48). Measurement brings much-needed clarity about how and where we find our deepest footings.

Qualitative data is best collected through trained observation, focus groups, and interviews. Social scientists skilled in these methods can help the movement achieve greater proficiency. Quantitative research collects numerical data through surveys and questionnaires to perform statistical and mathematical operations in order to locate patterns, test causality, and make predictions. 

Since social scientists, statisticians, pollsters, and medical researchers regularly engage in this kind of analysis, they can help faith-at-work leaders gain expertise. Here, it bears mention that there are countless traps one must navigate in order to make accurate inferences, associations, and causal statements. 

For example, imagine a fictional study with the headline, “Long-Term Christians More Likely to Develop Heart Disease than New Christians.” The study may indeed detect a positive correlative relationship between the number of years one self-identifies as a Christian and a medical diagnosis of heart problems. But it may do so by ignoring or failing to control for a vital statistical variable — the age of the person. 

Why do we need more sophisticated techniques for assessing effective integration? Because human behavior is complex, and the factors that lead to change are multi-faceted. It’s possible that our intuition about what leads to change might be wrong. 

Consider Jesus’ response to the Pharisees when asked which commandment in the law is the greatest: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:37-39). The Greek word for soul in this passage — ψυχῇ, or psuché — can also be understood as the vital breath of life, involving both the affections and the will. Thus, in this single text we see the centrality of our affections, actions, and cognitions in loving God well. A mature believer will bring each of these dimensions to the workplace, as well as love for his or her neighbor. 

As workplace theologian R. Paul Stevens observes in his essay “Living Theologically: Toward a Theology of Christian Practice,” God “invites us to holistic living that embraces propositional truth, as well as truth learned through image, imagination, and action, all in a seamless robe.” Good assessment enables us to comprehend the weave of this garment.

In 2016, the Oikonomia Network — a learning community of theological educators focused on fruitful work, economics, and whole-life discipleship — formed a working group to study existing assessment tools for whole-life discipleship and economic stewardship. The group’s final report highlights a list of recommended assessment tools. For those less familiar with assessment best practices, this report is a good place to start.

Peter Drucker — the father of modern management thinking — is credited with saying, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” Leaders in the faith-at-work field should embrace this maxim. In recent decades, a growing number of leaders have mainstreamed the conviction that people of all walks of life are engaged in sacred activity. Seminary classes, sermons, books, conferences, marketplace ministries, and other resources have brought focus to these theological needs. Care must be taken to recognize that good activity can easily cloak deeper comprehension of what effectuates actual change. 

The time has come to measure impact more effectively and to admit that our reflexive, hedgehog-like, System 1 thinking has limitations. To help the conversation stride forward, we are better served by the methodical, foxlike approach of System 2.

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