Between the recurring bouts of existential crisis brought on by a combination of the demands of RSA change management, the deteriorating form of West Bromwich Albion and night time flatulence (for which, apparently, the only cure is to give up every single type of food I enjoy eating), I have been thinking about the relationship between evidence and belief.
One prompt was an LRB review of Wilkinson and Pickett’s ‘The Spirit Level’ by David Runciman. David argues that Wilkinson and Pickett overstate the statistical evidence of the damaging effects of inequality on all levels of society. They do this, he argues, because they hope the statistics will relieve them of having to make what is ultimately an ideological claim; namely that inequality is a bad thing. If we are inclined to think this, says Runciman, there is enough evidence out there for us to make our case (and Wilkinson and Pickett assemble the best of it), but trying to prove it with facts alone is not only self defeating but misunderstands how political change works.
The question was also raised by a wonderful little paper recommended to me by my old IPPR colleague Joe Hallgarten. ‘On bullshit in cultural policy practice and research’, is by Dr Eleonora Belfiore from the Centre for Cultural Policy Studies, at the University of Warwick. Dr Belfiore mines Government documents and ministerial speeches on the impact of arts investment on social objectives such as educational attainment and social inclusion. Not only does she find arts ministers making claims which have no basis in evidence but she also reveals how the same ministers occasionally drop their guard and admit the pretence is required of them in order to convince the Treasury or Number Ten to maintain cultural funding. She concludes:
“At the heart of the notion of ‘performance paradox’, thus, is the baffling observation that measures such as the imposition of targets, performancemanagement, evidence-based policy-making, pressures to evaluate the extent to which arts project have the socio-economic impact that policy makers presume they do - or in other words a whole range of measures introduced with the aim to improve transparency and accountability in the public sector - might have resulted, in reality, in more bullshit being produced and injected in public discourses around policies for the cultural sector, and in opaque political messages amounting to little more than doublespeak”.
The point I take from these two essays is that trying to prove arguments in social policy can not only be self defeating, but may involve us in hiding our beliefs behind ‘facts’. I am taking this to heart as I desperately try to finish my annual lecture before I am due to deliver it on Thursday evening.
The speech explores the relationship between new thinking about human nature (derived from behavioural research and neuroscience) and the attempt to close what I have called the ‘social aspiration gap’, enabling people to living more engaged, self reliant and altruistic lives.
The temptation in all this is to overstate the evidence. This is a criticism fairly directed at my piece on brains and ideology in Prospect magazine. Indeed this month’s edition contains a forthright letter from one of the magazine’s own editorial team making this point (is this a first I wonder: an essay so unfortunate that it made the commissioning magazine’s editors turn on each other!).
A theme running through my annual lecture is that we overstate how much control we exercise over our own behaviour and prospects as individuals, and understate not only the importance of, but the capacity we have to influence, our social environment. But I will be sure to make clear that, while there is research to reinforce this belief, there will never be enough to prove it.