We are in danger of repeating the same mistakes if we bemoan low attention to ‘facts’

C4001BDB1C

Guest blog post, by Paul Cairney

A key theme of some of the early analysis of Brexit is that many voters followed their feelings rather than paying attention to facts*.

For some people, this is just a part of life: to describe decision-making as ‘rational’ is to deny the inevitable use of heuristics, gut feelings, emotions, and deeply held beliefs.

For others, it is indicative of a worrying ‘post-truth politics’, or a new world in which campaigners play fast and loose with evidence and say anything to win, while experts are mistrusted and ignored or excluded from debates, and voters don’t get the facts they need to make informed decisions.

One solution, proposed largely by academics (many of whom are highly critical of the campaigns) is largely institutional: let’s investigate the abuse of facts during the referendum to help us produce new rules of engagement.

Another is more pragmatic: let’s work out how to maximise the effectiveness of experts and evidence in political debate. So far, we know more about what doesn’t work. For example:

  • Don’t simply supplypeople with more information when you think they are not paying enough attention to it. Instead, try to work out how they think, to examine how they are likely todemand and interpret information.
  • Don’t just bemoan the tendency of people to accept simple stories that reinforce their biases. Instead, try to work out how to produce evidence-based stories that can compete for attention with those of campaigners.
  • Don’t stop at providing simpler and more accessible information. People might be more likely to read a blog post than a book or lengthy report, but most people are likely to remain blissfully unaware of most academic blogs.

I’m honestly not sure how to tell good stories to capture the public imagination (beyond that time I put the word ‘shite’ in a title) but, for example, we have a lot to learn from traditional media (and from some of the most effective academics who write for them) and from scholars who study story-telling and discourse (although, ironically, discourse analysis is often one of the most jargon-filled areas in the Academy).

We have been here before (in policy studies)

This issue of agenda setting is a key feature in current discussions of (the alleged lack of) evidence-based policymaking. Many academics, in areas such as health and environmental policy, bemoan the inevitability of ‘policy based evidence’. Some express the naïve view that policymakers should think like scientists and/ or that evidence-based policymaking should be more like the idea of evidence-based medicine in which there is a hierarchy of evidence. Others try to work out how they can improve the supply of evidence or set up new institutions to get policymakers to pay more attention to facts.

Yet, a more pragmatic solution is to work out how and why policymakers demand information, and the policymaking context in which they operate. Only then can we produce evidence-based strategies based on how the world works rather than how we would like it to work.

See also:

The Politics of Evidence Based Policymaking:3 messages

Evidence-based policymaking: lecture and Q&A

‘Evidence-based Policymaking’ and the Study of Public Policy

Paul Cairney (2016) The Politics of Evidence-based Policymaking(London: Palgrave Pivot) PDF

Paul Cairney, Kathryn Oliver, and Adam Wellstead (2016) ‘To Bridge the Divide between Evidence and Policy: Reduce Ambiguity as Much as Uncertainty’, Public Administration Review, Early View (forthcoming) DOI:10.1111/puar.12555 PDF

* Then, many people on twitter vented their negative feelings about other people expressing their feelings.

Paul Cairney is Professor of Politics and Public Policy at the University of Stirling, Scotland, UK. He specialises, and is widely published in, public policy research publications relating to:  Scottish public policy; the use of evidence within policy making; and how researchers and producers of evidence can interact with, and impact, policy makers. Earlier this year he launched his new book, The Politics of Evidence Based Policy Making. He also blogs regularly on issues around: evidence based policy making (EBPM); Scottish public policy; and UK and Scottish policy styles, including prevention and early intervention.
p.a.cairney@stir.ac.uk twitter: @cairneypaul


Subscribers to our Idox Information Service can find out the latest commentary and analysis on EBPM and the EU referendum through our weekly bulletins and alerts. To sign up to our weekly bulletin click here.

One thought on “We are in danger of repeating the same mistakes if we bemoan low attention to ‘facts’

  1. Well said, Sir. Having largely given up on mainstream media for reliable commentary I find myself increasingly drawn to The Conversation (https://theconversation.com/uk) for evidence-based inputs from solid academic sources. Subject experts do not always excel in communication of their work to non-expert audiences but the resources behind The Conversation do seem to meld great writing with good thinking.

    Like

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s