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.
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.