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


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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Marvin Jones

30th June 2020 at 3:45 pm

My disconnection with religion, god and mental torture of my innocent brain being drilled and filled with sewage of catholic teachings began long ago, but my extreme interest of science and astronomy has confused me further. This obsession with the planets and the mysteries of the Universe has left me in an irreversible disbelief in gods and pixies, but yet wonder about the ambiguous theories, almost belief in “dark matter, the big bang, black holes and life out in remoteness of space” when there is no evidence, which is the essence of science.

Jonathan Swift

25th May 2020 at 3:36 am

Is it “global warming”, “man-made-global warming”, or “climate change”? When should we believe scientists?

Masks make a difference. Masks don’t make a difference. Masks make a difference. If masks make a difference, why do you need social distancing?

If people who get sicker have low Vitamin-D, they why do some places arrest people for going to the beach to get Vitamin-D?

Florida, “the Sunshine State” doesn’t arrest people for going to the beach and also has more people than New York State and a lot less Wuhan Virus/CCP Virus/COVID-19 cases.

Bruce Wilson

22nd May 2020 at 7:29 pm

We must get rid of this reliance on evidence so we this bludgeon people, into implementing what we , and all the people we talk to, believe in.

Marvin Jones

21st May 2020 at 2:43 pm

Like that cloak that makes one invisible, following the science is something to hide behind when the crap hits the fan. This policy and belief in deceit and lies has been prevalent since Cameron got into power, through his ability to prove to us that the highest education of this land does not mean intellect and common sense to see things for oneself, but to depend on 30 or more advisers for the simplest things in life. Hence the cowardice when surrounded by the hyenas of Europe.

Al Wilson

21st May 2020 at 10:45 am

PR, how they appear to the public, and ‘can we get away with this lie?’ seem to be the first considerations. They say they’re ‘following the science’ when it goes tits up.

fret slider

21st May 2020 at 10:21 am

[ ‘Evidence’ has been turned into a gospel truth ]

Which is why cannabis is legal, right?

Michael Fereday

20th May 2020 at 10:15 pm

The evidence would support that one German leader, in the 1940s, took action that would turn a slum and defeated nation in to a power house (that then went on to wage war on the whole of Europe)…But we can logically state that every decision he took was cruel, wrong and evil!

Christopher Tyson

20th May 2020 at 8:13 pm

The ‘precautionary principle’ always was a pseudo scientific idea, a dressed up version of the old proverb ‘better safe than sorry’. But sorry for whom? The ‘precautionary principle’ does not even have a claim to scientific objectivity. Where were all the facts and statistics, risk assessments and contingency plans for the lockdown? Clearly the precautionary principle did not apply for the lockdown, why not? As I’ve said before it was akin to an emergency stop when driving, avert the imminent danger, (someone could crash into you from behind, or swerve dangerously, you cannot consider this in a split second). So such was the imminent crisis facing the government, they did not have time to consider the consequences of lockdown, that is the charitable view.
On the other hand the government could foresee, carnage in the hospitals, dying people being turned away, devastating headlines in the press, the collapse of the health care system, the attribution of responsibility and blame. These in Rumsfeld speak, are the known knowns. How about the unknown unknowns? Out of site and out of mind perhaps, (jurors I refer you to the band UB40, and let’s not forget that, despite the troubles and controversies that have engulfed the band in recent years, they did make some really good record, allow be to finish your honour, I refer you to the hit song ‘1 in 10’ I won’t sing it, you can find it on you tube). Basically the government is now being called upon to advise on opening up things it didn’t even know it had closed down, and all manner of misery and hardship has been caused. They don’t feel the need to justify the lockdown in these terms because these are unknown unknowns, they are not responsible. The thing is they are not ‘unknown’, perhaps they are unknown to ‘you’. Perhaps it is not ‘the’ precautionary principle but ‘my’ precautionary principle, protecting ‘my’ reputations, and absolving ‘me’ of responsibility.
Some have even been thinking ahead to the post-covid enquiry, in the past radicals knew that government enquiries were a means of kicking awkward questions into the long grass, but scientists need to watch their backs, because it will be the politicians turn to have the upper hand, to show what they are good at; getting out of a fix, passing the buck, finding a scapegoat, burying the truth under crate upon crate of evidence.
In the interest of balance, I wouldn’t pretend that the government had an easy job, and many critics of the government are themselves pretty unimpressive.

nick hunt

20th May 2020 at 7:27 pm

‘The science’ is an excellent use of scare marks. Science is not settled nor a singular voice. It is built on diversity and disagreement. Truth progresses, dogma does not. Assuming that a single science advisor channels ‘science’ as truth is like depending on a prophet. The same mistake informs official policy on climate change and hydroxycholoroquine, to name two key current examples. Ministers and advisors desperately need to learn that science is endless scepticism or ‘belief in the ignorance of experts’, as Richard Feynman put it so succinctly. After the tragic sagas of Ferguson and Fauci, let’s hope government and government scientists can overcome their profound illiteracy about science.

Highland Fleet Lute

20th May 2020 at 4:59 pm

Most likely, the propaganda will continue, the lockdown will stay, and the government will be directing all efforts at finding ways of avoiding any culpability for this absolute historic disaster.

To do otherwise would be like turkeys voting for Christmas in Bucharest…


They must be crapping themselves.

In2 Minds

20th May 2020 at 3:56 pm

It’s all well and good blaming the wrong kind of science for the Covid-19 mess even though much of the opinion offered was dubious. When it comes to HS2 the supporters of this project told lies and could not be trusted but still the government went along with it. Regardless of who is to blame the government is responsible.

Dominic Straiton

20th May 2020 at 3:38 pm

When you embark on economic suicide with useless “green” carbon neutral nonsense because the “science is settled”. When you introduce the most expensive legislation in British history ( climate change act) with no debate with three votes against because of “the science” dont be surprised politicians will hide behind “the science” time and time again. “The science” is politics.

Dominic Straiton

20th May 2020 at 5:42 pm

The “march through the institutions” means there is only one point of view and its all left. The “conservative” party could have done something about it but are to scared, like children of twatter.

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