RIP Evidence Based Government: 12th May – 27th May 2010

Some of the examples of the last administration’s policy based evidence making are well known, others are less well known but equally damning. Last year The Heresiarch highlighted an article by Nick Davies of Flat Earth News who highlighted the manipulation of figures coming out of the Home Office, bending evidence to agreed upon policies.

First, estimates were made using flawed methodology and unjustified assumptions – often by researchers with a settled view (that all prostitutes are by definition abused victims, for example, or that all foreign sex-workers are by definition “trafficked”). Next, caveats were disregarded and figures rounded up. Then different sets of dodgy statistics were lumped together without regard to accepted scientific practice. “Up to” became “at least” and then “by the most conservative estimate: the actual figure is probably much higher”.

This lower profile abandonment of evidence when formulating policy is every bit as important as the furore which surrounded the sacking of David Nutt. In case you cannot recall, David Nutt was sacked in October last year by Alan Johnson for criticising the Government because of its plans to reinstate cannabis as a class B drug, a position not justified by the evidence.

While there are no reasons that any party should be more ideologically predisposed to evidence based policy making than any of the others, I admit I did not hold much faith in any improvement. The population of the Tory benches with Nadine “smear Tim Ireland” Dorries and the appointment of Philipa “cure the gays” Stroud to the back room of the Department of Work and Pensions left me nonplussed, to say the least. The lamentable loss of Evan Harris from parliament further dented any hope I had of a rational approach to evidence and policy from this government.

So I think it safe to say that I never had Chris Giles‘ faith that the formation of a Conservative-Liberal coalition government would announce the resurrection of something long dead. Today the temporary Lazarus of evidence based policy making has been put firmly back into his cave with the publication of the State of the Nation report.

The State of the Nation is a policy document which is fairly hot on correlation, but as Chris Giles points out, weak on causality. In pointing out that…

“Children in lone-parent and stepfamilies are twice as likely to be in the bottom 20 per cent of child outcomes as children in married families”

… the report is entirely correct. Yet evidence from the Institute for Fiscal Studies show that there is little or no evidence that marriage has any discernible effect on a child’s emotional of social development. Better educated and richer parents are more likely to be married and are also more likely to be better parents. This is a fact which is readily conceded in the report. The evidence would thus suggest that we do not meddle in family structures as both family structures and child development are dependent on another variable. So other than encouraging people to be better educated and wealthier this Government may not have much chance at tackling either of its aims.

You would imagine then, that the policy recommendation following on from the above evidence would bare some resemblance to it, right?

Wrong. Rather than accept that meddling in the private lives of others is usually counter-productive and at worst a massive waste of resources the, report falls back upon the old fallacy that correlation is causation in recommending various interventionist measures despite being inches from evidence suggesting this is a waste of time and resources.

Is it clichéd yet? Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.