Daily Archives: June 24, 2016

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

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 supply people 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 to demand 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.


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

Heresthetics and referendums

Heresthetic(s) describes the importance of the order of choice on political choices. The Scottish referendum process could become a brilliant example ….

William Riker invented the term heresthetics (or heresthetic) to describe the importance of a particular kind of manipulation:

one can help produce a particular choice if one can determine the context of, or order in which people make, choices.

Put simply, if you want to make something happen, it may be better to influence the institutions in which people make decisions, or frame issues to determine which particular aspect of a problem to which people pay attention, than change their minds about their preferences.

The prospect of a second referendum on Scottish independence could provide a nice, simple, example of this process.

Ideally, you would want to know about people’s preferences in considerable detail. After all, life is more complicated than binary choices suggest, and people are open to compromise. Yet, we tend to produce very simple binary referendums because they would otherwise be very difficult for most of the public to understand or for policymakers to interpret.

So, the way in which we simply that choice matters (for example, in Scotland, it led to the rejection of a third option – super dee duper mega max devolution – on the ballot paper, and therefore limited the choices of people who might have that third option as their first preference).

So too does the way in which we make several simple choices in a particular order.

Imagine a group of people – crucial to the outcome – whose main preference is that Scotland stays inside the UK in the EU:

  1. In a referendum in which Scotland votes first, this group votes No to Scottish independence on the assumption that the result will best reflect their preferences (helping produce 55% No).
  2. In a referendum in which Scotland votes after the UK (and the UK votes to leave the EU), many people will change their choice even if they have not changed their preferences (they would still prefer to be in the UK and EU, but that is no longer an option). So, some will choose to be in the UK out of the EU, but others will choose out of the UK and in the EU.

So, the order of choice, and the conditions under which we make choices, matters even when people have the same basic preferences. The people who voted No in the first referendum may vote Yes in the second, but still say that their initial choice was correct under the circumstances (and quite right too). Or, there may not be a second opportunity to choose.

This dynamic of choice is true even before we get into the more emotional side (some people will feel let down by the argument that a No vote was to stay in the EU).

Further reading:

If you want the Scottish argument in a less dispassionate form, read this by Alan Massie. If you want something more concise, see this tweet:

If you want more on heresthetic, google William Riker and take it from there.

Or, have a look at my series on policymaking. In two-dozen different ways, these posts identify these issues of framing, rules, and the order of choice. Search, for example, for ‘path dependence’ which describes the often profound long term effects of events and decisions made in a particular order in the past.

Note, of course, that only some choice situations are open to direct manipulation. In our case, I don’t think anyone managed to produce a Leave vote in the EU referendum to get a second crack at Scottish independence 😉


Filed under agenda setting, Scottish independence, Scottish politics, UK politics and policy

It is weird to blame David Cameron for a vote in a referendum

I argued last week that we should take a minute to celebrate the principle of a referendum because it’s as close as we’ll get to direct democracy in action.

This morning, very few people on my twitter timeline agree (presumably because I tend to follow people who voted Remain). Many blame David Cameron for holding the referendum in the first place.

For me, this is a weird argument because it suggests that representative democracy, in which we elect people to make decisions for us, always trumps direct democracy, in which we signal our decisions directly. It is the ‘government knows best’ mentality that many people would be quick to criticise in other cases (such as when the government makes unpopular choices).

So, I wonder if the argument is as simple as: I blame Cameron for the referendum because it delivered a result that I oppose.

The reality is that almost 52% voted to leave the EU, and it would be ridiculous to blame Cameron for the views of 17,410,742 people.

It seems to be problematic to blame Cameron for not showing enough leadership to either:

(a) ignore strong demands for a referendum (wouldn’t we normally blame elites for being elitist if they took this stance?)

(b) win the argument (didn’t he seem like the person most committed to Remain throughout the campaign, backed by major speechwriting resources?)

(c) make sure that the referendum didn’t provide a forum in which others could stir up division and fear, and lie about the likely outcomes (shouldn’t we blame people like Nigel Farage instead?).

So, in a week in which many of us have begun to call for more respect for hard working politicians, I suggest that we at least give some respect to Cameron for his efforts before we write him off as a dud.


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Filed under UK politics and policy

Brexit: What next for Scotland?

Only hours after the Brexit result, we are already talking about the future of Scotland in the UK.

The theme of almost all commentary so far is that we don’t know what will happen next. For example, Craig McAngus describes the need to weigh up a moment of opportunity with the great uncertainty about the likelihood of a Yes vote this time. I make a similar argument in the Conversation (reproduced below) about Salmond’s phrase ‘Scotland being dragged out of the European Union’:

“The truth is that we don’t know what will happen in Scotland following the Brexit referendum, even though it is tempting to say that Scottish independence now seems inevitable. And, dare I say it, this is possibly the worst time – immediately after an emotionally draining campaign and result – in which to deliberate and come to a decision.

Certainly, the UK vote provides the only plausible trigger, in the short term, to have a second referendum on Scottish independence. For some time, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has argued that, if most voters in Scotland vote to stay in, and most voters in the UK overall vote to leave, it would prompt SNP demands for the second referendum. At the time of writing, this case couldn’t seem symbolically stronger: the vote to leave is 52% across the UK, but in Scotland 62% voted to Remain.

Yet, it is too soon to tell if today’s result will prompt a major and sustained upswing in support for independence. This is partly because it is also too soon to predict Scotland’s place in EU negotiations. The second referendum story requires a heroic and cosmopolitan Scotland fighting to leave the parochial UK to remain in the EU. So, we first need to know Scotland’s likely status in the EU before we can identify the heroes and villains of our next story”.

See also:

EU referendum result: Nicola Sturgeon says Scotland sees its future as part of the EU as Brexit confirmed

SNP Government will seek Scots EU deal

Sturgeon: Vote makes clear Scotland sees its future in EU


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Filed under Scottish independence, Scottish politics, UK politics and policy