Thursday 4 April 2013

Where is the evidence for evidence-based policy?

‘Evidence-based policy’ seems to be all the rage these days. And little wonder. Because it is actually fallacy-based policy that is all the rage.

Reactions to the Philpott manslaughter case are the most recent example. The tone was set by yesterday’s appalling Daily Mail front page. The airwaves have been full of Tory MPs – oblivious of the old adage ‘hard cases make bad law’ – claiming that the Philpott case is an argument for cutting back on welfare payments generally.

Nick Clegg’s immigration speech last week was informed primarily by a need to mollify popular irrational feelings about immigration.

The most notorious case was the MMR vaccine controversy, which led to a sharp drop in vaccination rates, resulting in several deaths. And as the news from Swansea shows, this 15-year-old groundless scare is a gift that keeps giving.

Fallacies are powerful. They are promoted by charlatans, whipped up by the tabloids, swallowed whole by a credulous and irrational public, and adopted by cynical politicians eager to follow rather than lead public opinion.

And these fallacies are not isolated cases. Their prevalence can be judged by the need for websites like Dr Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science blog, Channel 4 News’s FactCheck Blog, and the independent fact-checking organisation Full Fact.

There is a rational answer to all these fallacies: evidence-based policy. Never mind fallacies, prejudices and dogma; just ask the experts what the evidence says and – hey presto! – there’s your evidence-based policy. And why stop there? If there is one evidence-based answer to every political question, why bother with elected politicians? We could simply be governed by unelected technocrats.

There’s just one snag. Technocracy has no place for morals. Which is important, because politics is ultimately about making moral choices. Evidence-based policy can tell you “what works” but even that is problematic. As Alex Worsnip explains on Prospect magazine’s blog:
The notion of “what works” is amorphous and vague. One can only assess whether something is working against some kind of a standard for what a well-functioning society looks like; for what it is that you want to work and how. As an economist might put the point, you have to have a utility function to maximise; you can’t just maximise.
Is a society “working” if GDP rises steadily but citizens are drastically unequal? What about if people of different races and religions have different access to opportunities and goods? These questions are ineliminably moral, and must be answered in detail before we can have a useable notion of “what works.” The attempt to find some value-neutral standpoint from which to assess what works – the aspiration for an escape from ideology altogether – is an impossible one. Deciding how to weigh up different social benefits and harms is hard; it goes to the core of what we want our society to be like. But these questions are just made harder by reducing a vast swathe of distinct and often competing considerations to a single, sweeping judgement of “what works.”
The error here is not just a philosophical one. When politicians talk about what works, they make tacit assumptions about various moral questions concerning the proper aims of public policy. But by presenting themselves as “non-ideological pragmatists,” they get away with leaving these assumptions unarticulated and undefended. And so we get a particular value-laden agenda – often, though not always, that of the ruling class – smuggled in, under the banner of anodyne pronouncements about the need to sometimes make compromises or to be sensitive to empirical evidence.
At its worst, this can amount to making a set of value-assumptions seem like incontestable and ineradicable features of the world; to what the sociologist Max Weber called the “routinisation” of value. Those who oppose a particular agenda are characterised as “living in the past” or as failing to recognise the facts of the modern world. Likewise, talk of “possibility” is frequently used to delimit the range of political options, without it being made clear in what sense and why a particular course of action is supposedly “impossible.”
In short, ‘evidence-based policy’ carries the risk that it can be exploited by politicians claiming that theirs is the only option. It can be used to deny alternatives and shut down debate. This outlook is the source of Nick Clegg’s dubious claims that he is not ideological but “pragmatic”.

On the LSE’s British Politics and Policy blog, Professor Michael Bassey suggests that the problems with evidence-based policy are basically methodological, arguing that the best we can hope for is “what may work” rather than a definitive solution. He is correct up to a point, but ignores the moral dimension.

We should always insist that policies do not fly in the face of the evidence. But evidence does not resolve moral questions, and moral choices are what politics is ultimately about.

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