Why the government should not always ‘follow the science’

'Evidence' has been turned into a gospel truth and that's bad for political decision-making.

Frank Furedi

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Since the outbreak of Covid-19, the word ‘evidence’ has turned into a quasi-religious concept. There are constant appeals to ‘the evidence’. We need more and more of it, we are told. Politicians and policymakers insist that they are ‘led by the science’ and would not dare to breathe a word unless it was backed by evidence.

As a result of this sacralisation of the term evidence, no one dares take a decisive step or float a policy idea unless it can be shown that the evidence supports it. An absence of evidence can lead to even the most commonsensical proposals being shot down. So the teaching unions are justifying their opposition to reopening schools on the basis that ‘the evidence’ doesn’t support such a course of action.

Teaching-union officials are openly relying on an absence of evidence to justify their reluctance to go back to work. You could almost hear a sigh of relief from Patrick Roach of the NASUWT when he reported after a meeting with the government’s top advisers that ‘no information was provided to change the widely held view that the evidence base for opening schools from 1 June is weak’.

Supporters of the teaching unions are vociferously demanding to ‘see the evidence’. ‘Government must show parents scientific evidence on safety of schools’, reports the Yorkshire Post.

The implication of all this is that what we need is an evidential truth that transcends all the conflicting evidence. Some believe that such truth might be provided by an epidemiological model. Sarah Owen, MP for Luton North, has urged the government to publish its latest modelling evidence before sending kids back to school.

The sacralisation of evidence is now so extensive that even the most unlikely outlooks can be justified by appealing to it. Mark Drakeford, the first minister of Wales, promised that fines for breaking the lockdown would be increased if evidence supports it. This reliance on evidence to determine how people should be punished confirms that evidence is now viewed as a transcendental sacred force, which politicians must give voice to. Drakeford would appear to have no views on the moral rights and wrongs of fining people for sunbathing in a park. No, he only makes decisions that ‘the evidence’ supports.

With so much cultural and moral capital invested in ‘the evidence’, it is inevitable that politicians will opportunistically use evidence to back up their arguments. In her attack on protesters demanding an end to the lockdown, the governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, declared that there is ‘evidence’ that demonstrators ‘may’ have spread the virus to other parts of the state.

In recent years, many politicians have adopted what is referred to as ‘policy-based evidence’. Policy-based evidence is the result of ‘policy-led research’, which is really a bogus form of research designed to provide evidence for the policy preferences of the people who commissioned the study in the first place.

Governments have embraced evidence-based policies in order to bypass the need to argue for and justify difficult decisions. In the UK in the 1990s and 2000s, the New Labour government turned evidence-based policymaking into a veritable ideology. Its 1999 ‘Modernising Government’ white paper asserted that ‘policy decisions should be based on sound evidence’. Since the turn of the century, all the major parties in the UK have declared their commitment to evidence-based policymaking.

But evidence-based policymaking is not driven by a philosophically informed commitment to a radical empiricist view of the world. Indeed, most new policies are really political experiments, for which policymakers cannot predict outcomes. Rather, the turn towards evidence is a symptom of the exhaustion of the political imagination. Political ideals no longer inspire policymakers. Politicians find it difficult to justify their decisions and outlook through morality or ideology. So they promote policies on the basis that they are ‘evidence-based’ rather than because they are right or good. In policymaking circles, the language of right and wrong has been displaced by the phrase ‘The research shows…’.

However, even at the best of times evidence is an insufficient basis for policymaking. As the current debate on the Covid pandemic shows us, one form of evidence conflicts with others. There are numerous studies, models and surveys offering differing views and outcomes on Covid-19, all of which could be used as evidence. What we are left with is not ‘the evidence’, but a plurality of evidence.

Much of what is described as evidence is junk, and some is the outcome of sound and rigorous research. It is the job of political advisers and policymakers to assess which evidence to follow and which to ignore. It is through the use of analysis and political judgement that evidence becomes a useful resource that governments can draw on. However, even once it has been designated as useful, evidence does not determine policy. It can inform it, but it should never determine it.

When a government ‘follows the science’, it is giving up its leadership role and embarking on a directionless, aimless path. That is why, in the first instance, policymakers have to determine the aim of government and the values it believes in. The role of evidence should then be to help inform policymakers about the obstacles that stand in the way of realising the government’s aims, and to provide insights into the practicalities of realising these aims. Even the most conclusive piece of evidence does not relieve political leaders of the burden of making judgements.

The demand for certainty

Earlier this week, the cross-party group of MPs in the science and technology committee complained that without the summary of the advice given to Boris Johnson, ‘it will be difficult to corroborate the government’s assertion that it always follows the scientific advice’.

But we should hope that the government doesn’t ‘always follow the scientific advice’. Why? First of all because there is no scientific advice in the singular. Instead of ‘the scientific advice’ we have different, sometimes conflicting, types of advice. Secondly, because a term like ‘the scientific advice’, as with ‘the evidence’, suggests that there exists an incontrovertible form of knowledge that policymakers can draw on. But that is often not the case. Right now, in particular, policymakers are faced with many unknowns in relation to the Covid pandemic.

The science surrounding Covid-19 is evolving all the time. Policymakers cannot wait until the scientific understanding of the virus is complete before they make judgements and decisions. The understandable desire for the certainty provided by ‘the science’ can paralyse decision-making and slow down the development of effective policies that could counteract the destructive consequences of Covid-19.

We should act on what we know. That is how we can achieve a greater understanding of the problem at hand. For example, the reopening of schools is necessary – not only for the wellbeing of children, but also because it could provide important information on how to achieve a balance between protecting pupils and giving them the freedom they need to flourish.

Policymakers have no choice but to rely on imperfect knowledge and make judgements based on what is known so far. Such judgements are not made in a vacuum, but in the context of the values and objectives that a government is keen to promote. Scientific research and the evidence it provides are essential for containing the threat of Covid-19. But policymaking and leadership are about so much more than ‘following the evidence’. They require initiative, courage and the use of judgement based on understanding and intuition.

The quest for evidence is a fool’s errand. The sacralisation of evidence has fostered a climate in which politicians have become wary of relying on their judgement and exercising real leadership. Far too often they hide behind ‘the science’ and help to bring about political paralysis. Instead of following ‘the science’, the government should harness its own insights for the realisation of the policies that it thinks are necessary and good for the future of society.

Frank Furedi’s How Fear Works: The Culture of Fear in the Twenty-First Century is published by Bloomsbury Press.

Picture by: Getty.

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