Knowledge must trump ideology and populism

Translation of opinion piece published on DN Debatt, 31 May 2015

Politics must become evidence-based. Political decisions must be made on the basis of evidence, rather than on populism or ideologically motivated opinions. To step up the pressure on politicians and make sure that is actually implemented we now start the Network for Evidence-Based Policy, which is independent of the political parties, writes 18 academics and activists.

Important decisions must be made on good grounds. This obvious principle is enshrined, for example, in the Swedish Health Care Act, which states that healthcare professionals should do their work “in accordance with science and proven experience”. For, failure to do so may lead to mistakes, which in turn could lead to suffering and death.

However, even though the mistakes of a single doctor or nurse could have very harmful consequences indeed, they pale in comparison to the effects of political mistakes, which may affect hundreds of thousands of patients. It is therefore of utmost importance that political decisions related to health care are made on good grounds.

The same of course applies to all other policies. All political decisions must be evidence-based, with the term that has become standard internationally. Unfortunately, this is hardly the case today. For instance, several studies have shown that economically profitable infrastructure projects are not more likely to be implemented than less profitable ones. Another example is the part of foreign aid which is channelled through international organizations. According to the Swedish National Audit Office’s latest review, the Foreign Ministry’s handling of this aid (twelve billion SEK), “is not open and transparent” making it impossible to assess whether “the aid is channelled through organizations which are efficient and achieve good results. ”

Likewise, the widespread housing shortage and Sweden’s precipitous fall in international school rankings presumably are at least partly due to policy in these areas not having been evidence-based. Failure to apply evidence to policy thus has very concrete effects: children fail to learn to read, young people don’t find accommodation, tax money is used inefficiently, etc. It is therefore extremely important that we work systematically to make policy more evidence-based. Certainly, there are already such attempts – for example, through different government agencies and expert councils – but they are clearly insufficient.

One can speculate about the causes of this. One cause may be that politicians let populism trump expert judgement. Another may be patronizing treatment of these agencies and expert councils. For instance, many thought that Bosse Ringholm’s decision to close down the Expert Group for the Study of the Government’s Finances was due to the group’s reports being too critical of the government’s policies. Likewise, Anders Borg threatened to cut the Fiscal Policy Council’s grant when they criticized his policies in 2010.

Another underlying cause presumably is that we see the world through partisan lenses, as psychological research has shown. This means that despite the fact that most of us probably support the idea that policy should be evidence-based in principle, we often refuse to recognize when the evidence contradicts our favourite policies.

Regardless of the causes of why politics isn’t evidence-based, two things are needed in order for this to change. First, knowledge we already have must be put to use. Politicians can’t disregard knowledge which researchers or government agencies have obtained for populist or ideological reasons. Before a party makes a public announcement of a new policy proposal, they should have ensured that it is superior to other solutions in terms of effectiveness and cost-efficiency. If they fail to do so, they should scrutinized by critical journalists.

Second, we need more systematic studies of what policies that actually work. There are many different ways to gather knowledge, but all of them aren’t equally good. The groups which work on evidence-based policy, such as the British What Works Network and the American Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy, tend to stress the power of randomized control studies, which have become standard in the so-called evidence-based medicine.

In randomized control studies you randomly divide a group of people or geographical areas into sub-groups which become the subject of different policies. Randomization ensures that the groups are otherwise essentially identical. Subsequently you compare the effects between the groups. This method increases the chances that any differences between the groups are due to the tested policies, and not to any other factor.

In particular the UK and the US governments have started to use randomized control studies more and more to ensure that policy decisions are well-informed. For example, the British Behavioural Insights Team (“Nudge Unit”) has used this method to increase the number of organ donations and reduce tax evasion. There is every reason to use more randomized control studies in Swedish policy-making, too, although it should be noted that it is not always possible to carry out such studies. When that is the case you have to use other types of evidence, such as observational studies.

What methods should we use to make policy-making evidence-based? There are several possibilities. One solution is legal: enact laws that require political decisions to be made on the basis of good evidence, just like the Health Care Act requires medical decisions to be made in accordance with science and proven experience. You could also imagine softer forms of influence, such as an independent ranking of the degrees to which different policies are evidence-based, like the British Education Endowment Foundation has created in the field of education. We keep several possible solutions open.

Our network is ideologically independent, not the least because we believe that this increases our chances to gain support for our demands for evidence-based policy. Our network doesn’t have any view on political goals – what the trade-offs between, e.g. freedom and equality, and growth and sustainability, should be – but focus on what the evidence says on what means or methods to use in order to reach the goals in an effective and reasonable way.

This does not mean that these goal or value questions are unimportant. On the contrary, they are very important. However, there are many groups engaged in advocacy work on these issues, while comparatively few work systematically on the question of how we could make policy more evidence-based and effective. Therefore, we believe that a group entirely dedicated to this neglected but important issue is needed.

Politics must become evidence-based – that is something voters and politicians from left to right should be able to subscribe to.

Adam Altmejd, PhD student in Economics, Stockholm School of  Economics

Marie Björnstjerna, consultant at the Behavioral Lab, founder of The Swedish Nudging Network

Elias Dietrichson, teaching student, Stockholm University

Eskil Forsell, PhD student in Economics, Stockholm School of Economics

Karim Jebari, postdoc in the Philosophy, Institute for Futures Studies

Magnus Johansson, behavioral engineer and psychologist

Simon Klein, BA in Cognitive Science, University of Gothenburg

Ida Lemoine, consultant at the Behavioral Lab, founder of The Swedish Network

Linda Lindström, consultant at the Behavioral Lab, founder of The Swedish Network

Björn Lundgren, PhD student in Philosophy, Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm

Måns Magnusson, PhD student in Statistics, University of Linköping

Tobias Malm, BA in Philosophy, Stockholm University

Dan Munter, licentiate in Philosophy, Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm

Gustav Nilsonne, PhD, researcher in cognitive neuroscience, Karolinska Institute, Stockholm University

Jenny Maria Nilsson, journalist

Stefan Schubert, postdoc in the Philosophy, London School of Economics

Marcus Widengren, research engineer, Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm

Robert Östling, researchers in economics, Stockholm University

Facts: The Network (on the side)

The Network for Evidence-Based Policy is a newly established network of researchers and activists working to make policy decisions more evidence-based.


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