Is there any hope for evidence in emotional debates and chaotic government?

Two recent news features sum up the role of emotion and ‘chaos’ in policymaking.

The first is ‘Irritation and anger’ may lead to Brexit, says influential psychologist in The Telegraph. The headline suggests that people may vote Leave for emotional reasons, rather than with reference to a more ‘rational’ process in which people identify the best evidence and use it to weight up the short and long term consequences of action.

Yet, the article confirms that we’re all at it! To be human is to use emotional, gut-level, and habitual thinking to turn a complex world, with too much information, into a good enough decision in a necessary short amount of time.

In debate, evidence is mentioned a lot, but only to praise the evidence backing my decision and rejecting yours. Or, you only trust the evidence from people you trust. If you trust the evidence from certain scientists, you stress their scientific credentials. If not, you find some from other experts. Or, if all else is lost, you reject experts as condescending elites with a hidden agenda. Or, you say simply that they can’t be that clever if they agree with smarmy Cameron/ Johnson.

Lesson 1: you can see these emotional and manipulative approaches to policymaking play out in the EU referendum. Don’t assume that policymaking behind closed doors, on other issues, is any different.

The second feature is Lost in Transit: chaos in government research in The Economist.

It describes a Sense about Science report which (a) was commissioned ‘following a spate of media stories about government research being suppressed or delayed’, and (b) finds that ‘The UK government spends around £2.5 billion a year on research for policy, but does not know how many studies it has commissioned or which of them have been published’.

The Economist reports the perhaps-unexpected result of the inquiry:

But the main gripe is the sheer disorganisation of it all. The report’s afterword states that “Sir Stephen looked for suppression and found chaos”.

Such accounts reflect the two contradictory stories that we often tell about government. The first relates to the Westminster model of democratic accountability which helps concentrate power at the centre of government: if you know who is in charge, you know who to blame.

The second, regarding complex government, describes a complicated world of public policy in which no-one seems to be in control. For example, we make reference to: the huge size and reach of government; the potential for ministerial ‘overload’ and need to simplify decision-making; the blurry boundaries between the actors who make and influence policy; the multi-level nature of policymaking; and, the proliferation of rules and regulations, many of which may undermine each other.

The problem with the first story is that (a) although it is easy to tell during elections and inquiries, (b) you always struggle to find it when you actually study government.

The problem with the second is that, (a) although it seems realistic when you study government, (b) few people will buy it when they are seeking to hold ministers and governments to account. This problem may be exacerbated by the terms of reference of reports: few will accept a pragmatic response, based on the second story of complexity, if you start out by using the first story of central control to say that you will track down and solve the problem!

Lesson 2: if you assume central control you will find chaos (and struggle to produce feasible recommendations to deal with it). The manipulation of evidence takes place in a complex policymaking system over which no individual or ‘core executive’ has control. Indeed, no single person or organisation could even pay attention to all that goes on within government. This insight requires pragmatic inquiries and solutions, not the continuous reassertion of central control and discovery of ‘chaos’.

It might be possible to develop a third lesson if we put these two together. One part of the EU debate reflects our inability to understand EU policymaking and relate it to the relatively clear processes in the UK, in which you know who is in charge and therefore who to blame. The EU seems less democratic because it is so complex and remote. Yet, if we follow this other story about complexity in the UK, we often find that UK politics is also difficult to follow. Its image does not describe reality.

Lesson 3: when you find policymaking complexity in the EU, don’t assume it is any better in the UK! Instead, try to compare like with like.

See also

I expand on both lessons in The Politics of Evidence-Based Policymaking

Cock-up, not conspiracy, conceals evidence for policy

Government buries its own research – and that’s bad for democracy

The rationality paradox of Nudge: rational tools of government in a world of bounded rationality


Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy, UK politics and policy

5 responses to “Is there any hope for evidence in emotional debates and chaotic government?

  1. Pingback: the role of science and evidence in decision-making processes - jfleck at inkstain

  2. Thanks for this. Two thoughts:

    1. An epistemological review of the EU referendum debate (or even a comparison with the Scottish ref) would be interesting. What kind of evidence as being deployed, when and by whom?

    2. What is the normative position re ’emotion’ in EBP? It’s good to highlight that emotion does exist, but should it? (Depends on definition, I guess)

  3. Pingback: Celebrate the referendum, and celebrate politics, even if it looks crap | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

  4. Pingback: We are in danger of repeating the same mistakes if we bemoan low attention to ‘facts’ | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

  5. Pingback: We are in danger of repeating the same mistakes if we bemoan low attention to ‘facts’ | The Knowledge Exchange Blog

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