Thursday, 5 November 2009

Where’s the evidence?

It is a political requirement to state that policy decisions should be ‘evidence-based’, yet ‘policy-based evidence’ is what politicians actually want. Professor Nutt claimed that his views on drug classification were evidence-based, but the Home Secretary rightly argued that scientific evidence was just one factor. Building large prisons isn’t evidence-based, while ‘restorative justice’ methods of rehabilitation are, yet are not politically acceptable. What is politically acceptable plays a big part, as does what is affordable. Intuition and common-sense have a rightful role. Myths are powerful but may mislead, as in belief in ‘economies of scale’, where the evidence runs contrary.

Any organisation’s management likes to believe it manages rationally. But there is a more powerful, non-rational side, as the above shows. This includes prejudices, envy, departmental rivalries, networks, groupthink, etc – all more powerful than edicts, rules, codes, databases, targets, budgets, etc. In The Search for Leadership I identify 35 rational components and 40 non-rational ones.

There is scientific evidence that evidence itself is socially constructed. We see what suits our purpose. The banks have evidence that supporting arms manufacturers is profitable, but is that the right question to ask? George Bush ‘saw’ that Saddam Hussein was a friend of Al Qaeda; his ‘evidence’ supported the need for the US to have a strong commander-in-chief – himself.

By all means try to seek out evidence, but please consign the language of ‘evidence-based policy’ to the dustbin of history – or should that be hypocrisy?