The role of evidence in uncertainty

In November, IFF hosted a seminar on ‘The Role of Evidence in Uncertainty’ and welcomed four guest speakers to explore what shifts in attitudes amongst the public towards evidence and experts may mean for social researchers.

Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA

Our first speaker, Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA, invited us to consider the lenses with which different members of our audience should view the presentation of any piece of social research evidence.

Matthew proposed four perspectives through which an individual may see the world, and which influence every aspect of their outlook on the social sphere. The perspectives presented were: hierarchy, individualism, solidarism and fatalism, each of which reflects a potentially different approach to the role of evidence in uncertain times.

  • Hierarchical perspective: A view of society from a hierarchical perspective sees rules, strategy, law and order as key, welcoming evidence as it reinforces the need for and role of experts in society. However, this group may become resistant to evidence when it contradicts their existing regulations or approaches.
  • Individualists perspective: Individualists, view society in terms of opportunities for innovation, competition and are open to risk, and see evidence as a potential resource for new ventures and a driver for competition. Problems with evidence emerge when individualists perceive it as ‘holding them back’ by presenting too many problems or complications, or dismiss it as based in the past, and therefore not necessarily predictive of future outcomes.
  • Solidarist perspective: The third perspective considered was solidarism, which although concerned with supporting others and focusing on the commonalities between people (solidarities), is also a tribal viewpoint, associated with fixed moral opinions. For this group, evidence can play an important role in mobilising people to take action against social injustices, but on the other hand, may reject evidence when it clashes with their moral position.
  • Fatalist perspective: Finally, Matthew discussed fatalism; an apathetic position which prioritises realism. Fatalists are sceptics and cynical towards the role of evidence, considering the world as too complicated to be explained, measured or predicted by any evidence. Fatalists oppose evidence when it is positioned as a route to a solution as fatalist do not consider these solutions to be real or authentic.

Matthew used the EU Referendum debate to illustrate the role of these viewpoints. Social evidence for remaining within the EU was viewed by many as a ‘tool of the elite’, seen as being used to preserve the position of those in power, and therefore rejected by those of a solidaristic prospective. Furthermore, the data presented by the remain campaign failed to gain traction amongst individualists because the statistics presented were too abstract and therefore the public felt a lack of agency regarding the UK’s role in the EU.

What this means for researchers is that it helps to identify how to ensure findings hold weight/chime with their target audiences. Matthew suggested that analysts should always present their data with the likely points of contention in mind.

Richard Bartholomew, editor of the SRA’s research methodology journal

Richard Bartholomew, our second speaker, is an independent researcher and editor of the Social Research Association’s research methodology journal ‘Social Research Practice’, having previously held the role of joint head of the Government Social Research (GSR) service.

Richard discussed the process of making evidence based policy from pragmatic position of a researcher in government, acknowledging that the evidence considered during policy decision-making rarely tends to be conclusive or suggestive of one clear approach, with limitations to their comprehensiveness or simply the timeliness of available data.

Richard also mirrored Matthew’s concerns about the public viewing evidence from experts as ‘hierarchical’ and their role as potentially as undemocratic. He emphasised that whilst policy decisions should be informed by data, they should not be determined by data due to the nature of the available evidence and the need to weigh up the value of different forms of evidence in context at the time of forming policy.

Richard offered numerous suggestions on how the research community can improve the public’s understanding and use of social evidence, with the starting point of improving the quality of evidence gathered, through greater use of Randomised Controlled Trials and longitudinal studies to shed light on causality. Further meta-analysis of existing findings, commonly employed in the field of medical research would also strengthen the robustness of social evidence.

Additionally, Richard sees opportunities for researchers to present data in more accessible formats, supplementing data with narrative descriptions which explain the meaning of their data and its significance, and providing the public with the information necessary for them to evaluate the reliability of evidence.

Izabella Kaminska, journalist for the Financial Times

Izabella Kaminska presented a viewpoint from the world of the media. As a journalist for the Financial Times, Izabella argued for the role of good journalism in the communication of social evidence to the public. She touched upon the topical issue of ‘fake news’ and the role of social media in both the EU Referendum and the recent US election campaigns, which highlighted how the nature of news has rapidly changed in recent years, broadening beyond the mainstream media, and the impact that this has on the public’s comprehension of evidence.

Izabella discussed the need for journalists to consider all aspects of an issue and associated viewpoints in order to present a balance account of evidence. She proposed that all pieces of social research could be subject to bias depending on how they are presented, which echoes Richard’s call for the public to be given the information necessary to evaluate evidence themselves. This reiterates the need for researchers to hold transparency and the clear explanation of findings to non-expert audiences at the forefront of their mind when communicating research.

Jonathan Breckon, Director at the Alliance for Useful Evidence

Our final speaker, Jonathan Breckon, Director at the Alliance for Useful Evidence, invited us to consider what is meant by ‘evidence based policy’. Dovetailing with Richard’s earlier discussion of the limitations of evidence when forming policy, Jonathan reminded us of that the foundations of evidence based policy lie in medicine, where good practice involves triangulating both scientific evidence with professional judgement and the needs of the patient, or in the case of policy, the public.

In terms of the role of researchers, Jonathan observed that the everyday experience of people is not always portrayed accurately by the stories told by statistics; in the case of the UK’s recovery from recession, many people did not feel the impact of an economic upturn in their day-to-day life, despite figures suggesting improved growth. Jonathan advised that the use of holistic research methods – including greater use of qualitative research in addition to traditional quantitative practices – could improve the value and depth of insight provided by social research.

Jonathan further advocated the need for greater collaboration in policy making, calling for academics to become more involved with the provision of policy evidence, and a need to improve democratic engagement with policy making. Jonathan proposed that the public could be better engaged with policy through deliberative research methods and citizen’s forums, expanding on his suggestion that qualitative methods could improve the value of policy evidence.

Finally, Jonathan posed the question of whether policy researchers have fully explored the process of making policy from a psychological decision-making perspective. Whilst there are substantial bodies of evidence about how people come to make choices, Jonathan suggests that more could be done to understand the dynamics specific to making policy decisions, which are often under time pressure and with the need to reach a consensus between divergent positions. Jonathan appropriately summed up this position by encouraging us to be “evidence-based about using evidence”.

Videos of the full event, including the follow-up discussion are now available on our events page. To find out more about this event, or to express interest in attending future IFF seminars please follow the link.