The Politics of Evidence
A blog post by Professor Catriona Matheson, DRNS Co-Convenor
We started this series to explore evidence and how it is formed, perceived and used. The need for this was borne out of an emerging anti academic evidence rhetoric on social media, in Scotland in particular.
Evidence can be used, but is also abused or dismissed when it doesn’t suit the belief system of an individual, or an organisation or political ideology. Unfortunately, we come up against this more and more. One person I encountered was presented with evidence on an academic paper on the benefits of ORT in reducing mortality (a large scale epidemiological study in a peer reviewed article) immediately dismissed it without reading saying stats can be manipulated. Basically, it didn’t fit his belief system, or his experience. Pause for thought…can stats be manipulated? Quantitative research data can be processed in a number of ways. People can use the wrong statistical test and the presentation of statistical findings can be skewed or misinterpreted. However, we have a peer review system for publication that should weed out all of the above. Bad science does occasionally slip through the peer review net and there has been some famous slip ups with terrible consequences, notably the Wakefield paper on the MMR being one which fuelled the anti-vac movement that we are currently experiencing and is responsible for unnecessary death. However, the level of scrutiny in the review process has increased as a result and it has certainly led to even tighter reporting requirements of both the design and analytical phases of research.
Qualitative research has had more difficulty in proving it can meet the necessity of rigour in approach, sampling, data collection and analysis to produce quality evidence. Qualitative researchers (who want to get published) go to great lengths to ensure they give consideration to minimise bias, to make sure it is not just the person that has the most to say, or shouts the loudest. Good qualitative researchers seek out and give voice to those who have the relevant experience but might not otherwise offer their view or experience. Sampling is deliberate and considered, seeking a range of people and views until saturation is reached.
Evidence can be simply ignored by organisations or politicians when it does not fit with their perspective or ideology, but, policy and practice that is not based on evidence wastes tax payers money and, more importantly, can cause harm.
I often muse over the hoops researchers have to go to get funding for and to even actually conduct research that is fair, ethical, and representative. In contrast, in the policy world, representation means something quite different. It is just about participation which is often either through convenience or based on who shouts the loudest. In other words, the very opposite of the rigour applied in academic research to obtain good quality evidence. Lobbyists have always been part of the political scene but when they are able to influence practice decisions, it gets into dangerous territory for policy makers and risks serious repercussions. Policy or practice decisions not built on a solid foundation of evidence may well – in time – come crashing down.