Philip Whiteley's Blog

May 16, 2016

Evidence is not enough

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 8:15 am

It’s taken for granted, in our scientific democratic age, that public policies, and the settled view on potentially controversial matters, must be ‘evidence based’, in pleasingly rational contrast to beliefs based upon superstition or an established religion.

It sounds like progress, but in recent years I’ve come to learn that the phrase ‘evidence-based’ is not a synomym for ‘honest and scientific’. The problem with evidence is that it’s like statistics: you can use factual evidence to prove any case you wish to promote, if you are selective enough. I have come across PR officers, and even eminent scientists in the pay of a vested interest, who treat evidence rather like a toddler treats a fruit cake studded with sweets: picking it over for their favourite bits.

A couple of years ago, investigating the scandal of an unrecognized industrial illness, I learned that a government inquiry had cleared the sector concerned of any wrong-doing. Mmm, I thought, I bet there’s the phrase ‘no evidence’ in the Executive Summary of the report, and I bet the research had been reverse-engineered to produce this phrase. There was, and it had been. The study hadn’t even been completed, so the ‘no evidence’ bit was a self-fulfilling prophecy. It had been carried out by a perfectly respectable scientific institution, but one sponsored by the industry in question.

The phrase ‘There’s no evidence…’ that one hears frequently from corporations, government departments and the like, in practice is sometimes a code for one of the following statements:

  • ‘There’s only no evidence because we’ve blocked funding for the relevant research.’
  • ‘There’s quite a lot of evidence, but it’s failed to convince me.’
  • ‘There’s quite a lot of evidence, but I’ve chosen to ignore it.’
  • ‘There’s a huge amount of damning evidence contrary to our policy, but we still prefer it anyway, because we fear the consequences of a change in stance.’

This calculated, selective approach contrasts unfavourably with, for example, the discipline for encouraging reliability of evidence in a court case. This is based on Judeo-Christian principles: one is invited to hold the Bible and swear to tell ‘The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.’ The practice of being ‘evidence-based’ typically means dispensing with the latter two elements of the oath.

Evidence needs supplementing by things like examination of conscience; an understanding of the consequences of one’s actions or inactions; a sense of social responsibility. There is an essential role for concepts that are not testable scientifically: wisdom, judgement, responsibility, care and love.  At a very personal level, this means knowing that presenting available evidence in such a highly selective way that it amounts to a deception of the public is morally wrong. You can’t prove this scientifically; it stems from values. As Moses put it (Exodus 23: 1-2 and 6-8):

“You shall not circulate a false report. Do not put your hand with the wicked to be an unrighteous witness. You shall not follow a crowd to do evil; nor shall you testify in a dispute so as to turn aside after many to pervert justice. … And you shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the discerning and perverts the words of the righteous.”

This advice is as relevant to an eminent scientist in an esteemed university or investment banker or politician today, as it was for a trader in pre-Christian Judea. We wouldn’t have had the banking crisis, or other recent scandals, if as a society we’d been more or less following this timeless guidance.

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