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Archive for April 30th, 2009

Skeptics in the Pub – evidence-based-policy-making versus policy-based-evidence-making

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Monday’s book talk at Skeptics in the Pub certainly wasn’t my best, though things warmed up a bit with the Q&A discussion at the end.

My main focus was on the value of scepticism in, and about, politics – and I put forward three key examples to try to illustrate this: the case of the Soviet pseudo-scientist Trofim Lysenko, the UK government’s misleading statements about Iraq’s “WMD”, and the South African authorities’ embrace of “AIDS denialism” in the year 2000.

All three of these cases arguably involved costly government decisions being made on the basis of bad evidence that had not been properly scrutinised.

Lysenko’s theories about agriculture were far-fetched and unworkable, but they were ideologically agreeable to the Communist regime, and after he rose to prominence the totalitarian nature of the Soviet system made it very difficult for anyone to challenge his authority. When Lysenko’s ideas were implemented in China, they contributed to a famine that is believed to have claimed up to 30 million lives.

The evidence cited by the UK government in support of its view that Iraq possessed chemical weapons was famously “dodgy”. It’s widely believed that the Prime Minister at the time, Tony Blair, lied about the strength of that evidence, and about the views of his own experts (many of whom, it later, transpired, had grave doubts about the claims being made), not only to the public at large and the UK’s Parliament, but also to many members of his own cabinet. One ex-minister, Clare Short, has suggested that Blair believed he was engaging in an “honorable deception” for the greater good. But whatever his motives, in lying to his own cabinet and Parliament, Blair was effectively shutting out of the decision-making process the very people whose job it is to scrutinise the evidence on which government policies are based. John Williams, one of the spin doctors involved in drawing up the famous “dodgy dossier” – which at the time the government insisted was the unvarnished view of the intelligence services – later admitted that “in hindsight we could have done with a heavy dose of scepticism” (though it should be said that some of his statements raise more questions than they answer).

In South Africa in the early part of this decade, President Thabo Mbeki chose to believe the unsubstantiated claims of fringe scientists and conspiracy theorists over those of established AIDS researchers – including members of South Africa’s own scientific community. Under the influence of denialists who insist that HIV is not the cause of AIDS, and that AIDS deaths are in fact caused by the lifesaving medicines given to people with HIV, Mbeki’s government chose to block the availability of anti-retroviral drugs in South Africa – even after the pharmaceutical companies had been shamed into slashing their prices and international donors were offering to fund the distribution. It was only after a series of court cases by the indefatigable Treatment Action Campaign that, in 2004, the authorities began to change their position. A recent study by Harvard University concluded that the deliberate obstruction of the roll-out of lifesaving drugs may have cost more than 300,000 lives.

The broad conclusion I think all of this points to is that the truth matters more in politics than ever before. Because of power and influence that governments now hold, the consequences of a bad policy implemented on the basis of bad evidence can adversely affect millions.

In an ideal world governments would be engaging in evidence-based-policy-making: deciding policy on the basis of the best available evidence – rather than policy-based-evidence-making: cherry-picking or concocting evidence to support a decision that has already been made. But obviously this doesn’t always happen, and as a result wholly preventable mistakes continue to be made.

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