More on ‘guided by the evidence’

Liz Stanley

An interesting analytical consideration of the mantra of ‘guided by the evidence’ by Roger Stewart has been published in the Daily Maverick, 11 June 2020. He is a former South African Medical Research Council academic who knows what he is talking about. Not only does the problem as perceived regarding Covid-19 change shape, but also the powers accorded to science and evidence quickly dissolve into something that reveals what he calls “the dark side of evidence-guided decision-making”.

The scientific method promises much but rarely comes up to scratch in complex moving situations, he comments. Measurement in science cannot provide complete information, not least because the data necessarily leaves out so much of the complexity of social life. Measurement involves distortion, delay bias and error not because it is done by ‘bad people’ but because they are people and have points of view which guide what they do and what they think. While combining scientists and other experts in groups can help overcome some problems, there are group effects, including group pressures to conform to norms and also that some groups can become the tame pets of those higher up the governance foodchain. And anyway, as we in the UK have amply witnessed, evidence does not necessarily mean that people believe it or take notice of it even when they do.

Stewart continues making a series of interesting points, including commenting on social systems as intricate networks of feedback with implications for the relationship between policy makers and citizens. This is a thoughtful piece of writing which this brief commentary has only touched the surface of. Visit the link above to read the whole article.

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Liz Stanley

Liz Stanley is Professor of Sociology @ University of Edinburgh, email liz.stanley@ed.ac.uk. I’m a feminist sociologist who works on everyday documents of life, particularly letters, to research social change over time.

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