Friday, July 09, 2010

Lies, damned lies ... and evidence

The following is the original of a short article published in the Staffordshire Sentinel on Wednesday 7th July 2010. You can read the published version here.  

There are lies, damned lies, and ... evidence.

No, that’s not the real quote from Oscar Wilde, but it might as well be.

Some recent research looked into people’s opinions and how they were affected by hard, solid evidence.

Two groups with strongly opposing views - the chosen topic was the death penalty - were presented with articles which claimed to show solid evidence that refuted their point of view.

Now, you might have thought that those surveyed would have reconsidered their ideas.

Actually, the researchers discovered the opposite. Far from being shaken in their views, the test groups were more likely to disbelieve the evidence. They hunted for flaws in the articles, weaknesses in the argumentation.

We shouldn’t be surprised. We know very well in our own conversations that strong evidence always has a hard time when up against a strongly held view.

Sometimes we call this prejudice - judging before we have the facts - though this is too simple. People hold to the same views even after they have the facts.

And if we come across this in our daily lives, we see it in public life too.

The last government made a big fuss about ‘evidence based policy’. No longer, it was argued, would gut feeling or traditional attitudes define public policy, but the evidence would be followed. Wherever it led.

But like so many great ideas, so grand and impressive, it only went so far.

When the evidence about drugs policy became uncomfortable, the advisers were sacked. Foreign policy decisions were still based on the old fashioned considerations of alliances and self-interest.

Suddenly “evidence” became less compelling.

But there was a reason behind all this concern about “evidence”. The drive for “evidence based policy” was all about the use of science, especially in those very sensitive areas of life, living things, and death. It was about stem cells, cloning, fertility and infertility, abortion, care of the dying, genetically modified crops - areas where science touches Life itself very intimately. All of these were issues gripped in a morass of opinion which sometimes used the evidence and sometimes didn’t - which sometimes talked about the danger and damage of such procedures and sometimes just talked about “playing God”. If only we could cut through all this - they thought - draw out all the opinion and just follow the evidence ... surely that will be much better. At a stroke the loud and opionated will have the branch taken from under them ... won’t they?

Well, yes ... and no. So long, it seems, and only so long as the evidence goes the right way.

Here’s a recent example. Anti-abortion campaigners have long claimed that the child feels pain in the womb, and unborn babies have even been give anaesthetic ... though recently others have produced evidence that the foetus cannot feel any pain until very late in its development. So, is abortion right or wrong?

The trouble with just following the evidence is that it leaves out right and wrong. Without this evidence is just ... evidence. It is our moral sense which enables us to make the decisions.

Sometimes things are still wrong, because they are wrong, whatever the evidence may be.

This doesn’t mean we can ignore evidence, facts and figures, of course not. But questions about the death penalty, stem cell research, abortion and euthanasia, drugs policy, war and peace, must be always be matters of morality, not statistics.

And oh yes - those people who questioned the evidence they didn’t like? They got it right after all: the ‘evidence’ had been concocted for the purposes of research.

No comments: