Politicians have a bad relationship with evidence. Like the rest of us, they’re quick to seize on facts that support their beliefs, and heroically slow to notice ones that don’t. No political party, left or right, has given us a ‘golden age’, where policy was based on objective effectiveness rather than on prejudice or political expediency. But if we’ve never had our golden age, we’ve certainly had our dark ones. And right now we’re living through one of them.
Fans of evidence (or as Karl Rove once reportedly put it “The reality-based community”) had plenty to complain about during the Blair-Brown years –the sacking of David Nutt being an example worth remembering. However, that could be considered a mere trifle next to the consistency and sheer, towering arrogance with which the coalition government now dismiss any science they disagree with. They are so imperturbably convinced of their own rightness that anyone arguing to the contrary must, ipso facto, be either an idiot or a scoundrel (or both). Witness Michael Gove’s response to a letter arguing that socialisation and play might be more important for very young children than formal teaching and testing. He could have simply disagreed, or better yet, cited some evidence of his own. Instead he described the letter’s authors (including education experts and academics) as “…a powerful and badly misguided lobby” who “bleated bogus pop-psychology” and were “responsible…for the culture of low expectations in schools” – his previous career as a journalist clearly qualifying him to decide what constitutes legitimate research in developmental psychology.
Iain Duncan Smith is another high-profile offender. He has a nasty habit of backing up his welfare changes with dodgy numbers (a proclivity for which he has been repeatedly reprimanded by various statistical authorities). His appearance on the Today programme in July this year saw perhaps my favourite attempt to justify these statistical deceptions. The UK Statistics Authority had just politely informed him that his claim to have forced 8,000 benefit claimants back into work could not be proven with his numbers. His response: “I have a belief that I am right…you cannot disprove what I said”. In its way, this is a remarkably honest admission that he simply does not care what the numbers say. He just knows because he knows. This might explain why other Conservative figures have also proved so comfortable relying on faulty statistics. If you know you’re right, then does it matter if you make up the numbers?
These are just two recent (albeit particularly egregious) examples. We haven’t even got to Tory backbenchers describing a UN Special Rapporteur as “a loopy Brazilian leftie with no evidence”, or to George Osborne’s complete denial of any possible alternative to austerity. This antipathy for evidence runs deep in the current Conservative party. But where does it come from?
In an uncharitable mood, I might say it’s necessity. If all the facts are against you, your best tactic is to make stuff up and hope you can shout the other person down (changing your mind obviously not being an option). But more than this, I think their vocal resistance to evidence reflects a peculiarly (small-c) conservative frustration with ‘liberal’ science. Social scientists, the ones doing a lot of the policy-relevant research, tend to skew left in their politics (economists being the exception). Social-scientific findings also have an annoying (if you’re a conservative) tendency to support fluffy progressive ideas; like children doing just as well with same-sex parents, or custodial sentences not helpingto reduce criminal reoffending.
Inside the Conservative bubble it’s obvious these ideas are wrong. Hard facts are obviously better than woolly ‘socialisation’ or ‘self-esteem’. Gay couples can’t be as good at raising children as traditional ones. If the scientific evidence says otherwise, then it must be the science that’s wrong – the scientists “misguided” by their loopy liberal ideas.
This combination of arrogant self-righteousness and suspicion of the liberal academy is absolutely poisonous to good policymaking. The objective of any policy worth the name should be to make things better – to make kids smarter or happier; to help people find good jobs or lead better lives. If your fundamental mindset rules out whole fields of accumulated knowledge because, for example, they’re part of some Marxist scientist conspiracy to ruin education, then you’re not off to a good start.
To inject a note of selfishness right at the end, this dismissal of evidence is also kind of a bummer for the scientists themselves. Our job is to try and find out how things work. What interventions cause what outcomes, how certain policies might help and how they might hurt, and so on. This sort of presupposes that the people in a position to change things actually care about how the world works, rather than how they think it should work. I guess I’m not holding my breath on that score. But for now I’d be happy not being told what constitutes legitimate science by people who have no earthly idea what they’re talking about.