Last week I attended an event organised by The Alliance for Useful Evidence and Wales Public Services 2025 (#a4ue on Twitter). The aim was to work out how you get policies developed and practices delivered that are better informed by evidence. The problem seems to be that millions of pounds (of taxpayers money) is spent on things for which there is limited evidence of success.
There were lots of views about how you collect better evidence and a bit of ‘hand wringing’. Why is it that evidence doesn’t get used properly? To paraphrase; “We produce compelling, factually accurate evidence yet the politicians ignore it and make decisions based on political values, not the evidence we put in front of them……”.
This situation could apply almost anywhere. Head down to your Local Council Planning Committee and you probably won’t have to wait too long before you see the Committee Members overrule some technically correct, fully evidenced advice from the Planning Officer. A cruel but compelling spectator sport.
In their defence I’d say its not just politicians that are ‘guilty’ of this, and in fact, it’s more to do with how you communicate the evidence. Here’s a personal experience.
Lets clean up the Gas Works. About 20 years ago I was working in environmental protection when a proposal to clean up a former heavy industry site landed on my desk. This was an imaginative and cost effective proposal that would deal with the huge quantities of toxic waste that had blighted a local community for over a 100 years. In three years time the site would be regenerated, creating space for new clean employment opportunities and a community recreation facility. What could possibly go wrong?
The Public Meeting. Imagine this, a village hall packed with about 100 local citizens and a bunch of experts sat on the stage. The experts had absolutely tons of carefully researched scientific evidence about why this proposal was a good thing:
- Long term risks to health from the site would be removed;
- Risks during cleanup would be minimal and well managed;
- Economic benefits during the clean-up would be significant (jobs);
- Long term job opportunities were predicated;
- River water and ground water quality would improve significantly;
- The Environment and biodiversity in the valley would be improved; and
- Sustainability was constantly mentioned.
This was a very logical, rational, well balanced and fully evidenced argument to proceed with the scheme. As a trained scientist I was completely convinced.
The Counter Argument. A lady stood up at the back of the room and yelled “what about the babies……?”. She then proceeded to describe in graphic detail a case of birth abnormalities that had occurred close to a waste management facility in a nearby community. That situation was completely different to what we were talking about, but that didn’t matter. The damage had been done. The carefully prepared evidence had been rendered useless by 30 seconds of pure emotion. That’s where I learnt the phrase, “one ounce of emotion beats a ton of scientific evidence”.
As I recall, the clean up of the site was delayed for several years (of continued pollution) while an agreeable compromise was reached.
Why don’t we accept what experts say? In this seminar I heard Dave Snowden talk about how you need to be prepared to accept new ideas. Patterns of recognition need to be developed beforehand so that you can accept the new idea. If we don’t recognise what is being offered we are more likely to reject it straight off. I’ll dig out my notes from the session and put together a more substantial post.
For me the learning from “what about the babies…”, has great relevance to the ‘useful evidence’ debate. It’s all about choice. Whether you are a local citizen, policy maker, delivering a service or a politician you have the choice of ignoring or using evidence. Understanding that people will make choices about what they absorb, no matter how scientifically accurate, is worth thinking about if you are trying to get people to use your ‘really useful evidence’.
So, whats the PONT?
- People can choose what evidence they accept. Scientific ‘fact’ does not automatically equal acceptance.
- How evidence is presented is important if you want people to understand and accept it. Recognition of something familiar is important.
- Emotion will beat evidence and facts, just remember “the babies……”
Picture Source: Just a thought. The evidence bag in the picture says ‘to be opened by authorised personnel only’. I wonder how much other evidence is given this ‘experts only’ status!
Linked posts: How Florence Nightingale used infographics to convince Civil Servants and Politicians that they needed to improve sanitary conditions to reduce deaths during the Crimean War. https://whatsthepont.com/2013/01/27/florence-nightingale-the-mother-of-infographics-btw-she-was-also-a-nurse/