As a matter of fact

The truth. Isn’t that the beating heart of everything? 

It’s tempting to say that the issue of what is true, and what isn’t, has never been more important in human civilisation than it is currently. But I suspect that, pre-Enlightenment, people walked round in a fug of myth, misinformation and misunderstanding that makes even today’s world of fake news, ‘alternative facts’ and conspiracy theories seem like a model of clarity and exactitude. 

Nevertheless – and whatever progress has been made since we first latched on to reason and science as the best ways of making sense of the world – the amplifying and distorting effect of social media and the rise of populism are taking us towards a situation in which truth is something many people want to own, rather than respect. 

Having the truth at the centre of public policy seems to me a necessity. If you’re planning some major change in the way the country is run or organised, with significant impact on the lives of millions of people, then it needs to be built on solid foundations. 

Let’s lead into that discussion by taking a philosophical moment to consider the nature of truth. And as fun as it might be to get all existential at this point, let’s just assume that I exist and that you do too (the feedback form is there to correct me if you think I’ve got that wrong). 

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From within that existence, we perceive the world, and a spectrum of things that are more or less real, more or less true. At one end of that spectrum, there are things that just are – for example, the sun rising in the morning. It’s observable, and repeats without fail, even though its manifestation is different depending on where you are on the planet. This is a fact for which the evidence cannot be in dispute (for completeness, and for anyone who might be around in five billion years’ time, things will be a bit different when the sun transforms into a red giant and, consequently, the Earth becomes a barren wasteland). 

At the other end of the spectrum, there are blatant untruths. Here’s a random one I just made up: cats invented street lighting. Why that? I don’t know – it was just the most absurd thing I could think of on the spur of the moment. On reflection, it’s probably as credible as a lot of the other stories circulating on the internet.  

In the middle, between the sun rising and lighting-inventing cats, there’s a lot of stuff that requires more considered and subtle deliberation. Humans have come up with a remarkably powerful approach to this: the scientific method. The great strength of science over many other forms of intellectual endeavour is that it’s about constant testing, experimentation, challenge. It seeks to prove itself wrong. It’s about getting as close to the truth as possible pending a possible better explanation.

If something observable – evidence – is your point of origin, then explaining what it means starts with a hypothesis. This is just an initial idea that you then test, with the possibility that it will develop into a theory, which can be ‘repeatedly tested and verified in accordance with the scientific method, using accepted protocols of observation, measurement, and evaluation of results’.

I labour this point slightly because human discourse all too often rests on the development and propagation of a hypothesis, not a theory. Conspiracy theories aren’t really theories: they’re hypotheses, because they aren’t tested against evidence in the normal sense of the word. 

Of course the evidence that confronts the public policy-maker, whether a Minister or an official, is usually a bit different to the sun rising. Much of it will be about capturing a number to describe the phenomenon in question: crime, unemployment, demand for medical care, rural broadband coverage, and so on. Sometimes it may not be a number, but an observable situation (for example, a foreign government’s intent; or the quality of trunk roads).

Let’s just take a momentary detour into tomatoes. The fact that tomatoes exist is data; the fact that tomatoes are fruit is information; and the fact that you don’t put tomatoes in fruit salad is knowledge (some would say wisdom). You need to know where you are in terms of tomatoes to make sense of the evidence on which you intend to act. 

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Developing public policy solely on the basis of data is likely to be hazardous, as you probably don’t know what they really mean. Supermarkets studying weather forecasts to anticipate the need to stock barbecue ingredients is one thing, but complex policy issues are quite another. Raw data on car theft doesn’t tell you anything about changed levels of car ownership, or the socio-economic profile of an affected area, or the prevalence of the latest anti-theft technology.

Data has to be translated into tomato level 2 – information – to be of real use to the policy-maker. We arrive at information through analysis of the data, not least to ensure that we don’t draw the wrong conclusions from it. 

Better still, information should be overlaid by tomato level 3 – knowledge – to ensure that everything we know about what works, and what doesn’t, is brought to bear on policy. Knowledge, of course, doesn’t stand still, and research seeks to push out our envelope of understanding. 

The hypothesis, in public policy terms, is usually the politician’s narrative. In some cases, it will draw on a body of evidence, perhaps through academic research (for example, reoffending rates in relation to different approaches to offender management), at which point it approximates to theory

We’re living through a time when these definitions and distinctions really matter. Politicians state explicitly that they are seeking to arrive at policy decisions based on scientific advice, and expert advisers are given prominence to a perhaps unprecedented degree. The coronavirus pandemic is a fast-moving situation, and we don’t yet have a ‘Covid Chilcot’ to give us a full understanding of Government decision-making throughout the crisis, but I think it’s worth exploring some of the dynamics in play. 

The pandemic has illustrated to a wider audience something of the nature of science. A fantastic amount has been learned very quickly, globally, but we are still collectively some way short of finding all the answers. The facts, therefore, need to be handled with care and not presented as definitive until they are. In this context, ‘following the science’ should mean public policy responses that get ahead of possible impact on the general population, not a reflex response to each and every emergent piece of scientific information. 

The situation has also highlighted the tensions between two policy strands: public health and economic well-being. Politics is often about weaving together competing priorities based on a value judgement, balancing facts that exist in different policy spheres. In doing so, it’s also of course important to recognise the feedback loops between those policy spheres: for example, well people are more likely to be able to contribute economically; while an ailing economy can have its own ill effects on public health. As I said in my first blog, the business of government is difficult.

The situation has also highlighted that the need to gather evidence, of the highest possible standard, is of direct relevance to the public good. If you don’t know absolute levels of infection from the earliest stages, you don’t have a baseline against which to measure future progress and plan action. And if you struggle to track levels of infection successfully at a later stage, then you don’t have satisfactory data (let alone information) to measure against that baseline. 

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Beyond the pandemic, and across the spectrum of public policy, a range of other factors come into play in determining the facts of a situation. Programmes and projects, for example, prosper if they stay in touch with reality. Outside of authoritarian and totalitarian states, no amount of story-telling can hide the fact that a project is badly over-spent, over-time and failing to deliver what it promised. 

Some facts are human constructs. Money, for example. The amount of available financial resource to support a project is an unavoidable, if sometimes negotiable, fact. A common human response when presented with financial reality is to assume that there’s an alternative set of facts where aspiration and financial reality align, despite evidence to the contrary – ‘optimism bias’.

Another human construct is the law. This is the most concrete of social contracts, and therefore the most binding of facts in public policy, reflected in the fact that Civil Servants are required to ‘comply with the law and uphold the administration of justice’. The principle of adherence to the law extends not only routinely into UK foreign policy, but also into our proponency of the ‘rules based international system’. 

A further fact is the existence of human beings as curators of and customers for evidence and analysis. We’re a flawed bunch, with egos, biases and opinions. Some analysts and experts are better than others at connecting their insights into policy; and some policy-makers are better than others at seeking out the evidence and analysis they need to test their assumptions. If there is something of CP Snow’s ‘two cultures’ in Government, then the most effective members of either camp are those who are most adept at bridging the gap. 

Conscious of these human factors, both analyst or policy official must embody the rational, evidence-based perspective. The key tenet of ‘objectivity’ in the Civil Service Code stresses that advice and decisions must be based on ‘rigorous analysis of the evidence’ and ‘take due account of expert and professional advice’. The Civil Servant must not ‘ignore inconvenient facts or relevant considerations when providing advice or making decisions’. Similarly with ‘impartiality’: ‘(act) solely according to the merits of the case and (serve) equally well governments of different political persuasions’. These are inherent strengths of the UK system of government which we diminish at our peril. 

At the same time it’s possible that a political hypothesis unsupported by existing evidence, analysis or research, is right. Officials are experts in what they know, but there could be a paradigm shift on the way, a political analogue to the advent of quantum theory as the successor to Newtonian mechanics (though this is itself an unsatisfactory analogy, because that shift was driven by experimental data). If this is the case, it still needs to be tested against the best possible information, including modelling to explore the range of outcomes (noting that some techniques apply scientific discipline rather than science, as they have limited or no access to empirically derived data or information). 

Schrödinger’s Equation (Introduction to Quantum Mechanics, PT Matthews, McGraw-Hill 1974)

How, then – and taking into account all of the above – do we ensure public policy is best supported by evidence and analysis?

First, a good rule of thumb is that something is more likely to be true if a good deal of effort has gone into testing its underlying hypothesis. It also helps if those testing the hypothesis are highly skilled professionals, though it’s also good to incorporate an independent – maybe even, inexpert – challenge function (the ‘stupid question’ can often be the one that gets the experts thinking). 

Second, it’s wise to be sceptical of ideological approaches to the ‘truth’, in which claims (often associated with the proclamations of charismatic individuals or their followers) are made without evidential underpinning. As my previous blog noted, these stories can be engaging and involving, and once established develop a dangerous momentum of their own, impervious to evidence. 

Third, it’s important to engage with social media, not shy away from it. The internet may be an amorphous, fluid ecosystem at times, but it’s still important to lay foundations for truth within it. Fact-checkers are increasingly doing this, and it’s important for Government to attempt the same

Fourth, the policy maker and implementer needs to watch out for early signs that the narrative and its supporting evidence have begun to drift apart. Having solid metrics through which to judge this is essential. You can’t tell whether you’re winning if you don’t know where the winning line is.  

Fifth, it’s essential not to leap to conclusions where there’s a lack of evidence. It’s been said that ‘an absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence’, which strictly speaking is true, but which also presents a number of potential policy pitfalls. At the extreme end of the spectrum, conspiracy theories/hypotheses thrive on evidential vacuums which they fill with credulity-stretching stories. The lack of evidence that cats invented street lighting, for example, leaves open the possibility that they did. 

So that’s it – the truth. The beating heart of everything. In counterpoint with narrative, the wellspring of public policy. 

And even though you might think it has no place in a discussion of objective truth, let’s let emotion in for a moment. I feel very strongly that, if we’re to survive and thrive as a species, Truth, together with its siblings Fact, Evidence and Analysis, should be placed on a pedestal. Anything less, and we’ll be long, long gone by the time that red giant sun is filling the earthly horizon. End of sermon. 

But how does all this land with the ordinary person – the voter, the citizen, the individual just trying to get on with their life? That’s my theme next time, so hope to see you then.

Autumn in Whitehall

15 thoughts on “As a matter of fact

  1. As always, wise and thought-provoking. I wonder, though, about economic policy and its relationship to truth. Of course, there are competing alternative ways of analysing data, but there’s also disagreement about the nature of the data. Who, for example, counts as “unemployed”? When engaged in requirement scrutiny some years ago, I was told that the Dutch government, when considering expenditure proposals, insisted that the investment appraisal should take into account data about the savings in unemployment benefits from the jobs created by the project. So far as I’m aware, we’ve never done that in the UK. And of course, there’s the famous old chestnut about an economics guru revisiting his old college and asking to see the latest finals paper: “Why, those are the very same questions that were in the finals paper I took twenty years ago.” “Yes, of course. The questions are the same every year. It’s just the answers that change.”

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    1. Thanks, Richard. I think you’re right that economics enjoys a particular place in these deliberations. I was brought up in a non-neoclassical school, so am always sceptical about ‘simple’ supply and demand economics, particularly since the advent of behavioural economics (Kahneman et al). Nevertheless, it’s an attempt to quantify and codify a complex element of human existence, so deserves its place in the ‘evidence’ category, though perhaps with more scrutiny than some other disciplines.

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  2. Another beautifully constructed piece.

    I agree with so much of what you say (except didn’t relativity displace Newtonian mechanics?).

    Facts are slippery fish. I like the concept of the “half-life of facts” which helps me visualize their ever changing nature. Only in pure mathematics are facts immortal.

    There is also an interesting point, demonstrated neatly by your scientific analogy: even if we agree upon a set of facts we can come to wildly different hypotheses. Not all hypotheses are testable. And out of the laboratory, in human systems, two rival hypotheses may each reflect truth.

    I look forward to your next post. You’re going to have to stumble into ethics soon…

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    1. Thanks for your kind comments, Gerard. My physics is distinctly rusty (graduated 1983), but I’m pretty sure it was the data on the behaviour of systems at the sub-atomic level that showed that Newtonian mechanics no longer worked and therefore led to the development of quantum mechanics. But equally you could say the same about relativity and macro systems like planets. When I get a moment, I’ll look into that again and make sure I’ve got it right!

      You make an interesting point about the half-life of facts. I guess the transformation of the sun into a red giant in 5 billion years is an illustration of that, though in the domain of public policy the timeline is clearly much more compressed. The point you make about different hypotheses is really the one I was trying to capture in mentioning the public health and economic well-being perspectives on the coronavirus crisis. As to ethics, I have done a bit of thinking on this in the past and presented a couple of times, largely from a humanist perspective (trolley problem and all that). Let me think about it…

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  3. ‘Politics is often about weaving together competing priorities based on a value judgement, balancing facts that exist in different policy spheres….’
    I fondly remember two Coalition-era schisms in this vein. Firstly, the parallel reviews of Phillip Green (how to get better value from public sector contracts; the obvious answer was to merge them into big contracts, and thereby pile ’em high), and of Lord Young of Graffham (how to help SMEs get access to public sector business opportunities; the obvious answer was to break up big contracts into smaller contracts so that SMEs could credibly tender for them). Simples. I was unable to discern what actually changed, and the EU procurement process kept calm & carried on.
    The second was as Martha Lane Fox et al were working on Gov.uk (a stellar result, as it transpires), for which departmental Chief Information Officers were quite rightly directed to review all publicly visible content on their websites, and get rid of all the nugatory or backdated material that was obscuring the public’s access to the information they need. Of course, with this sensible direction underway, it was no surprise that an Open Data call went out for Chief Information Officers to make available their big departmental datasets. On their websites. Where else? I think it was hoped that this would create commercial opportunities for those bedraggled SMEs, given that the promised smaller contract opportunities were still glued firmly together with EU adhesive.

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    1. Those are interesting reflections, Walter – thanks. Having worked on digital quite a lot in recent years, I remember very well the transition to GOV.UK. There are a number of apps (for example, relating to public transport) which rely very heavily on open data sets. On a slightly different tack, I thought the creation of the Government Digital Service a great success in incentivising a different way of approaching issues.

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  4. Another great, thought-provoking blog Roger.
    In my experience, the very concept of “true” is not universally shared. Even if one has done the hard research, marshalled the facts, formed an objective assessment, the “truth” of one’s proposition can still be rejected by those that apply the doctrine, “well it’s true for me”. They prioritise their own subjective, personal sense of what is right. When faced with complex decisions, humans tend to adopt heuristics to short-cut the hard business of thinking about stuff. From Brexit being a good for the economy, to having Covid is just like having flu, “True for me” makes life so much easier for its adherents.

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    1. Thanks, Laurence. I agree with your point about subjectivity, which I guess is the point I was getting at in my previous blog about narrative. It’s a bit like the ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’ thing – there’s a danger of narrative eating evidence for breakfast. And yes, it’s all about heuristics, which are essential for the mundane business of living day-to-day, but sometimes not so helpful when making sense of complex issues.

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  5. Roger,
    Thank you for this. I found it thought provoking.
    I thought your definitions of truth and untruths a bit black and white – and I’m very unsure that the ‘truth’ about the sun rising in the morning is true other than in the observable past.
    I would prefer to think of truth in more greyish terms: a glass half full and a glass half empty are both true statements about a single observable event. I think most of the things we deal with in life fall (or could fall) into that observation and analysis of ‘facts’.
    That is particularly the case in the analysis of data -as we have seen so clearly in the last 6 months.
    It was of little surprise that there wasn’t much data around in February/March but I was absolutely astounded that more effort wasn’t made then to hoover data to feed into the models. In my view, nothing is more inexcusable than the fact that 6 months into one of the most extraordinary events in my lifetime, we still have to hear that there may be a lag in data for the weekends.
    There has to be careful analysis but there also needs to be a robust bureaucratic response to ensuring that accurate data is available for that analysis. I don’t see any evidence to suggest that has happened
    The net result is confused and confusing advice.
    Ministers have to take responsibility for their decisions – but I am beginning to think that officials should also be held to account for the advice being proffered.

    Keep up the good work

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    1. Thanks, Paul. Really great insights. I would argue, though, that some truths are black and white, once you’ve made the assumption that we actually exist as we think we do, and not as nodes in some kind of Matrix-style computer model. The speed of light is 3×108 m/s (sorry, WordPress appears not to do superscript, so I’ve italicised the ‘to the eighth’) wherever you are in the Universe, and underpins much of what is empirically provable about the natural world. I chose the sun rising as an informal example of the much more complex and empirically provable phenomenon of planetary motion (unless we live in the Matrix-style existence mentioned above, in which case the planetary motion we measure with such astonishing accuracy these days is simply a line of coding). That’s not to say that there aren’t other issues in science where truth is more provisional, and that is the whole point of the scientific method – to test, test and test again. That’s why science actually works, unlike many other systems of thinking. (Sorry, but you’ve brought out the passionate rationalist in me!).
      I think you’re right, however, about the full/empty glass example in the world of public policy. I haven’t ventured into Brexit in my blogs yet, but it’s clear that one side of the argument’s total disaster is the other side’s strategic triumph. That’s where it’s really important to see the evidential underpinnings of each side’s thinking, and to judge accordingly. On the Covid example I touched on in the blog and that you mention, I think the core of any assessment of what’s happened will weigh the balance between the ‘insurance policy’ approach (akin to the maintenance of armed forces in case there’s conflict) versus the ‘just in time’ approach (rely on contracted help as and when you need it). The latter feels cheaper, but could be costlier in the long-run. ‘Covid Chilcot’ will no doubt clarify some of these issues, when it happens!

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  6. I feel like I am learning reading your blog. Thanks for sharing. I would be interested in your thoughts around leadership in the policy space (and other spaces) ….

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    1. Hi, Dympna. Thanks for your kind comments – I really appreciate that. Funnily enough, I plan to move on to leadership after my next blog, so about a couple of weeks away. It’s a big subject, though, so I think I’ll need to address it over several blogs…

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