Against Evidence-Based Policy-Making

by | Nov 28, 2011

I have a post at the Independent on the Battle of Ideas blog about the problems with ‘evidence-based policy-making’.

The big lie about evidence-based policy-making is that it’s based on evidence. Evidence no more produces and speaks for itself than cars decide their destinations. Policy-making begins when people perceive a need for a policy. Even when it is evidence which moves a person to speak for a policy, such evidence is always seen through the prejudices, preconceptions and presuppositions that every human sees the world through. The desire for objectivity in politics, while seemingly sensible, belies a terrible loss of self-confidence, and can typically hide what should be political decisions under the guise of ’science’.

I was trying to make the point that a lot is presumed about science’s ability to answer deeper political and moral questions, and of course that politicians and other officials are somewhat promiscuous in their use of ‘evidence’. It’s not an argument against evidence, though no doubt some people will read it that way.


  1. Jamspid

    Sorry Ben im off topic as usual but get looking into this one

    Who wants to Bet the Coalition are going to SELL OFF the Met Office

    The biggest f–ck up The RENAMED Met Office ever made predicting the weather was not the last couple of severe winters and the no show summers that arrived late
    It was the last one THE ROYAL WEDDING
    The Met Office said it would rain on the day of the Royal Wedding
    What happened dull day no rain nice sunny afternoon and Kate and Wills going down the Mail in a nice open top MG surrounded by massive heavily armed surcurity (im a 100% Royalist celebrity The Queen and Celebrity Royal Family i brought it i love it i should be ashamed im not Sorry Ben)
    So what pissed of the eastablishment
    They predicted rain and crowd numbers were DOWN wasnt as good on the Telly unlike Diana,s big day

    So the govenment wants to off load the Met Office get rid of a load of civil servants and thier pensions (which is what Wednesdays strike is about)
    So a Privatised Met Office will simply collect and post the weather data on a SUBCCRIPTION web site
    The media and corporates buy the Data and run their own forcasting programs and Apps
    The govenment makes and saves a bit of cash BUT what i suspect is
    The Establishment wants to DEPOLITICISES THE WEATHER
    The Govenment dosent want to kill the Frankensteins Monster that is Climate Change thats gots a lot bigger than they are and certainly they can no longer control
    No they just wants to Off load it

    So the Met Office changed its name to The Office for Meterology and Climate Change
    With those last 2 words they sold thier soul to the the politicians
    They gave up their scientific integrity and independance
    And how have they been rewarded
    Those meterolgists who used to do such a bad job of analysing the weather data
    See them in the Bracknell Job Centre soon

    Take heart at least they wont be hearing these word anymore
    “If you couldnt tell us if it would rain sleet snow or get sunburn yesterday how can predict Global Warming tommorow”

    They got into bed and then were surprised when they got well shafted by the politicians
    Its 2nd favourite political saying after Bill Murray in Ghostbusters “saving the lives of millions of potential voters”
    My 1st saying is from The Hunt for Red October
    The US Secretary for Defence played by Richard Jordan says to former Navy Seal and rising star CIA agent Jack Ryan played by Alec Baldwin before Harrison Ford got the gig
    “Im a politician when im not kissing babies im stealing their Lollypops”

    Which reminds me i must find that on Youtube and send it Dellingpole

  2. Lewis Deane

    I wrote and paste here, just in case it gets lost, in your support and because I could see that few seem to understand what your saying:

    There is some confusion amongst commentators about what Ben Pile wrote and, indeed, about their own democratic rights and responsibilities. The point here is the replacement of democratic accountability and the responsibility to openly put forth and debate policies by a parsing of policy with ‘evidence’. The real ‘constituent’, that is to say, for Politicians is no longer the electorate, the ‘people’ but rather the ‘experts’ and, if, for instance, the BMA says we are eating to much of this or that, no matter whether we the people have decided, after weighing up the risks/benefits (pleasures? God forbid!) and decidedly coming down on eating more, all political parties will side with those ‘experts’ – as if the experts themselves were not also people and people of passion and perspective. The real point is you are either for democracy, in which case deciding against an experts advise is also an option and debate and negotiation a necessity or your against democracy, in which case, you can have your government of ‘Technocrats a la Greece and Italy (and soon who?) and let them decide for you – which are you?

  3. andrew staines

    most evidence based policy works and there is no confusion with Ben’s article. I think Ben is discussing the whole subject amorphously without any strong points or experience of policy making. I know everyone can be a Google expert now, but experts generally know what they’re on about and there’s loads of ways to access the democratic aspects of government its just that most people can’t be bothered.

  4. Ben Pile

    “most evidence based policy works”

    Of course it ‘works’; all forces ‘work’. Perhaps, even ‘most’ (how many, of how many?) policies deliver what they are intended to deliver. There is ample evidence that summary execution of criminals reduces the rate of recidivism by 100%. Such a policy would no doubt ‘work’.

    Here’s a policy from the vaults.

    Monday, November 23, 1998 Published at 19:03 GMT
    UK Politics
    Prescott defends ‘quality of life’ barometer
    Individuals and industry will be urged to make improvements when the government publishes a new barometer showing the quality of life in the UK.

    Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott has revealed a set of 13 indicators which will be published each year.

    The index will comprise facts and figures, ranging from housing to wild bird populations, which can be used to judge the government’s progress.

    Mr Prescott told the BBC the government would make policy decisions based on the findings, but that it would also be down to business and people to help improve the quality of life, by being more environmentally-friendly, for example.

    He said: “This is the first time any country has tried to put these indices – the social and the environment – alongside the economic and I’m quite proud to be doing it.”

    It didn’t work. It has been reinvented, however, by the coalition, who will measure the ‘happiness index’. No doubt there are lots of experts in happiness. No doubt there is lots of ‘evidence’ in support of this policy.

    I think Ben is discussing the whole subject amorphously without any strong points or experience of policy making.

    I think I can say that I draw from those with real experience of policy-making — they seem pathologically inclined to condescension, not only in their policies.

  5. Lewis deane


    There can’t be any thing more ‘amorphous’ that meaningless sentences like:

    ‘experts generally know what they’re on about and there’s loads of ways to access the democratic aspects of government its just that most people can’t be bothered’

    Who are these ‘experts’ and what ‘access’ do you mean? I love the word ‘access’! And what are the ‘democratic aspects of government’ and as opposed to what? The tyranical ones, perhaps?

    I trump your ‘amorphousness’ with the ‘amorphousness’ of really, messy, democratic debate and negotiation and the right of any person or people to say to ‘experts’, ‘wise people’, God forbid, Technocrats “We appreciate your sapient advise but, you know what, we will decide to go against it!”

  6. Mooloo

    but experts generally know what they’re on about

    Actually, most experts don’t know what they are talking about much of the time. Most scientific papers are wrong. Doctors routinely make mistakes. And that’s without mentioning the softer fields which are almost entirely built on shakey intellectual foundations (much psychology, education theory, economics, etc).

    Some of the worlds greatest brains believe total tripe: Linus Pauling was a genius, and an idiot at the same time.

    Sufficient experts, when working in co-operation, can usually get a decent something approaching a decent answer.

    And that is precisely what we do not have in climate change circles, either scientific or political. All attempts at discussion are closed – “the science is settled” and “we’re running out of time”.

  7. Lewis deane


    Although ‘climate science’ is en point, I think a more interesting point is being missed here. In a sense, we could divide perspectives between those who ‘trust’ the ‘people’ and those who don’t. I have found, throughout my life, the latter have never been ‘people’ – that is ordinarily struggling for life among people, with them and against them, thinking how you’re going to feed yourself or your family, struggling with bills and the very rational choices that my friends have to make between getting this for Christmas for that child and working how to budget for the food etc etc. The extraordinary rationality, ‘common sense’ of this ‘everyday’ rational thinking and weighing of choices is beyond those who look at us an ‘amorphous’ mass of ‘manipulated’ fools. And yet these are the wheels upon which the table walks. And these are the people that experts and there mouthpieces have the cheek to patronise!

  8. George Carty

    If we really were “running out of time” then (unless the politicians actually wanted climate catastrophe to happen) every country would be building nuclear power stations as fast as possible, and machine-gunning any protesters who tried to stop them, wouldn’t they?

  9. Lewis deane

    There are interesting ‘asides’ to this debate: How does ‘journalism’ deal with ‘science’ – one has too many anecdotes to point to but we know how it goes – especially with ‘medicine’ – a ‘charity’ grabs hold of a paper about the latest cancer saving drug – by the way, no one asks whether such patients want to be saved, do they? – which has been tested on about 5 rats, one monkey and one and a half humans – which apparently will save you a day before death but, of course, cost more than your arm, lung or leg, and the BBC, without thought or investigation, because it’s the ‘experts’ what tell us, decides to ‘inform’ of this! And it is always those pr’s for various companies and ‘special’ interests – what are the so called cancer ‘charities’ but bought and paid for front advertising for pharma, notwithstanding the sincerity of those who work for them (and, therefore, work against the inevitability that we all must die, in some way, if not cancer then there’s always the ‘heart’ ‘charities’!) It’s not just the so called ’24 hour cycle’, for look at Sky verses the BBC. It is a way of thinking, a sclerosis of thinking, if you’ll excuse the pun. No, journalism ‘proper’ is not dead but it’s in it’s, I love the cliché, last chance saloon (tell me that bar – I need to be there!)

    Anyway, to give a coda to this comment, and because I’m very much preoccupied with the ‘fourth estate’ and it’s more than seeming irresponsibility but also the egregious possibility that gov might intervene, I paste a comment I made in defence of the venerable Andy Revkin, after a stupidities attack:

    I admire, with Steve Mosher and Andy Fuller ‘et al’, Andy Revkin, I admire his balance and good sense, his strong journalistic sagacity which propels him, despite his feelings and possible politics, to report and give hearing to both sides. He’s the best that we have and it was a great pity that he decided to stop being the NYT’s chief environment reporter but, o well!

    I would only say that some might intimate from his thinking and comments a family failing – the family of what you Americans call ‘liberals’ but it is true with the Inhofes and Moranos, too – though more honestly so and, therefore more cynically! – of having the ‘typical’ NYT’s contempt for the ordinary Joe and Jane.

    That said, and despite his headline writer (!), I think we know Andy and Andy will, I hope, let this nonsense wash out.

  10. Lewis deane

    Another ‘paste and post’ but never mind!

    Unfortunately you seem to be right – that is to say, that is the unfortunate mess of our modern democracies. Is it my illusion and nostalgia that makes me think, because of the great and massive tyrany in the east our democracies were then more responsive to their people? I wonder. I wonder especially now that Technocratic putch’s are happening all over Europe. Who would have believed, in those benign eighties, that both Greece and Italy, and who next? could have been, as it were, annexed by Europe’s beaurocrats and no one even sigh! Who could have believed, then, that a painful, stupendously stupid and, ultimately, self defeating, Climate Change Act could have been put through our British parliament (the ‘mother of parliaments’) without more than one or two contrary votes? And that such a parliament, now that energy bills are biting them in the arse, can debate such bills without even a mention of the aforesaid Act? And, Roger Harribin, chief environment correspondant for the BBC, has the cheek to say that, because all the political parties are agreed, there is no debate to have! No, I demand my own ‘stupid’ democracy because, you know what, if we can’t have it, we get will raid the ramparts and get it!


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