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).
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.
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.
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).
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.