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March 08, 2013


Dave Timoney

On Exactitude in Science

In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

Jorge Luis Borges

Will Davies

well quite!

Ian C

A great post - thanks.

But the state commissioning all this 'what works' analysis is anything but 'theory-less', and that makes a big difference to the kinds of utilitarianism on offer. At least three ruling presuppositions can be identified, and arguably they inform everything that happens in the development of supposedly evidence-based policy. First, no evidence or analytical framework can be admitted that does not assume the desirability and infinite capacity for economic growth. Second, a crude utilitarianism applies to working out whether a body of evidence provides value for money or not, since state spending is inherently prone to be wasteful or pointless. Third, policy is aimed at influencing individuals, with the structural features of economy and society seen as a taken-for-granted backdrop except where these involve state ownership and service provision. All sorts of other prejudices apply about the motivations of the poor/rich and the kinds of incentives we respond to.

On the point about growth, note that almost any agency in Whitehall and beyond is now being designated a Growth Delivery Body. This has just happened to - of all agencies - Natural England, the state's environmental conservation advisor. Presumably the next step will be to impose performance targets and 'what works' evaluation systems on wildlife. That'll teach the bloody badgers.


Thanks for this great post.

I have been trying to think through this return to the rhetoric of 'evidence-based' policy & its new institutional forms myself, but wasn't able to articulate the problem as you have here. Related to your point about the centres creating a supposedly theory-less arena for policy, it strikes me that this plays into a deep-seated, and perhaps quite British, desire for neutral, unmediated empiricism, i.e. letting the 'facts' speak for themselves - though this is ultimately unobtainable. The centres represent, to me, the height of technoscientific optimism, assuming that we have the capacity to know unproblematically, universally and with certainty 'what works', never mind be able establish standards of value which would be able to assess this. [Here is my attempt to examine this: http://thetopograph.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/evidence-based-policy-and-problem-of.html ]

I find it troubling that though the inherently political nature of all of these policy decisions is openly acknowledged by 'evidence-based policy' proponents, there is still an underlying assumption that these facts and values can be separated.

As somebody who works in public participation in science policy, I also whole-heartedly agree with Ian C's point that the working definitions of 'evidence' in these centres are likely to remain fairy narrow and exclusive.


This praise for economics over EBM - because economics posits theories, while EBM merely measures whether something works - reminds me of the old joke about the economist, who says:

"Yes, it works in practice. But does it work in theory?"


I always thought that joke was about French politicians...

It's scarcely praise for econonomics. It's just an attempt to tease out what is going on here pragmatically. From a sociological perspective, the problem the state (and its various officials and experts) faces day-to-day is not 'is X true?' but 'what should we do next?'. This is conditioned by other questions such as 'what can we afford to do?' and 'what can we get away with doing?'. The extent to which empirical learning becomes adopted by the state depends heavily on how it assists with answering those questions. So of course, new methods and data are useful, but we need to be realistic about how much autonomy scientists can have in such a situation.

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