Tuesday, 30 July 2013

a semi coherent ramble about epistemology and the need for evidence based politics

Just as a warning, this is going to be a rambling blog post (if you didn't get that from the subject). You might find a couple of pearls of wisdom in what I have to say, but then you might not. Just to be safe, feel free to file this under the "boring old bastard" section. This is just an expression of something that consumes me every day: epistemology, the branch of philosophy that investigates the origin, nature, methods, and limits of human knowledge. Hey, I can use big words, well isn't that neat?

What is desirable in society? A stable economy. Low crime. Tolerance. Healthy, happy, educated people. Adequate rewards for hard work. How do we achieve a "desirable" society? The job of a politician is to create laws which further the general interests of the public, whilst taxing and spending in a way which is conducive to this goal. Whether some or many actually do is a contentious issue; politicians receive a varying level of support, with many individuals believing that they themselves could do better. It is always interesting to see how utterly convinced people are by their own opinions, especially when the mainstream media informing us about what is going on is peppered with misleading information and just plain lies. But how do you know what to believe? What determines whether we are left wing, right wing, authoritarian, libertarian or anything in between?

It can sometimes be tempting to dismiss others straight up as "brainwashed" or "still on mummy's and daddy's opinions" but this rarely proves to be useful in discourse. By my late teens, I myself had heard so many racist statements preceded by "I'm not racist but" I had learned to stop listening at that little conjunction; but people's fears about immigration should be addressed, be they rational or not, otherwise further polarisation is inevitable; how can these people ever see that they are wrong? (Or right?)

It is perhaps logical to conclude that people's opinions are based on two things: gut feelings mixed with empirical evidence. Maybe you have a gut feeling that if you vote for a left-wing party, your hard earned taxes will be squandered on booze and fags by tracksuit wearing Jeremy Kyle show participants, but if you vote for a right-wing party, you'll be sticking a trough right in front of the noses of the greediest pigs in society. How rational these views are is not relevant to my discussion, as that is what some people actually think of poor people and rich people alike, which is my point. It is impossible to know every single fact about everything, we read overviews, and let assumptions based on what we personally define as common sense do the rest. But what is common sense? Of course people are not stupid; they use statistics to back up their viewpoints; on welfare state expenditure, on poverty, climate change, crime etc, but those too paint a limited picture. Of course there are lots of ways to fudge statistics and I don't want to patronise anyone by going into that, but if you're still not sure maybe have a little look on this wikipedia page on "validity". The fact that statistics are not 100% reliable all the time can serve as a convenient mechanism for people to back up whatever ideology they see fit; a recent study by the UK Peace Index shows that crime in the UK has fallen, the brigade who like to chirp about the good old days whilst bemoaning "broken Britain" with a big distaste of the "yoof of today" are quick to shout "There are three types of lies; lies, damned lies and statistics". Furthermore, a recent article states that only 9% of people believe statistics, (but most of us wouldn't believe that).

Even if statistics come from a trustworthy source (which they often do) it is important to understand what they actually mean, especially when it comes to considering policy. Consider this; recent statistics issued by DEFRA indicate that "Bovine tuberculosis (TB) led to the slaughter of more than 38,000 cows in Great Britain in 2012, a nearly 10% increase on 2011 figures." Farming Minister David Heath said it proved there was a need to cull badgers to prevent further spread of the disease but commits a logical fallacy in doing so. A quick google search for "badger cull evidence" reveals numerous sources that indicate that culling badgers will be largely ineffective in trying to combat bovine tuberculosis yet the cull is still going ahead. Ben Goldacre examines the evidence here and I think you can draw your own conclusion. Newspapers and politicians often try and hoodwink people with spurious links in statistical evidence, so it is more important than ever to view things with a critical eye.

A lack of knowledge makes it extremely difficult to be pragmatic. A lot of people are up in arms about the recent cut in corporation tax in this country, as it is "not fair" when people are enduring slashes to their welfare. This may be the case; but if it means that lower taxes will attract greater investment from abroad thus increasing the total amount of tax revenue we have to invest in our schools and hospitals and indeed back into the welfare budget then it cannot be a bad thing. If however, the higher rate of corporation tax would not cause capital flight, then I say tax the rich bastards through the teeth. I don't know what the optimal tax rate is, research diverges on this subject and it's hard for your average joe not studying econometrics to understand any reports on this. Why isn't more information in simple English that we can all understand more readily available? If it is the case that rich toffs must fore-go paying tax for the good of us all, then we'll need some more convincing reports than what we currently have. Similarly we must be wary of the unintentioned consequences that policies that are supposedly designed to help the less fortunate have.

But even if we have policy makers with their eyes on the right statistics all drawing logical conclusions from them, is that a guarantee of evidence based policy? This brings me to "Workfare"; a scheme obviously that is not supported by the left-wing because there is nothing equal about working for free in a company where the top staff are drawing six figure salaries. But more surprisingly maybe, it is not congruent with even "proper" right-wing political theory; if you really believe in cut-throat capitalism then workfare only serves to distort market mechanisms by providing a subsidy in the form of free labour. Not only is workfare an ideological nightmare no matter what your political perspective, a report by the DWP itself concluded that workfare was not useful. What can we conclude from the fact that politicians are often making policy decisions that appear to be on shaky ground?

We have a real crisis of knowledge when no one believes what they read anymore and the politicians steamroll on regardless of the evidence. What's the answer? Be sceptical. Keep reading. Keep debating. Don't dismiss anyone immediately. Listen to everyone and maybe that's the way to change the world.


I want to leave you with this article by Tim Worstall on why it doesn't matter who funds thinktanks. Has he made a coherent argument, or does he just have a bias against "idiot hippies" as he calls them? How does that little spate of name-calling affect his argument? I want you to think about that.