The limits of evidence

Peace & Security08 Sep 2013Arnaldo Pellini

Last week I watched the debate that took place in the British parliament on the involvement of British troops in airstrikes against Syria.

I am no military expert. But as an economist at the Research and Policy in Development programme at the Overseas Development Intitute, with a strong personal and professional interest in understanding and learning how evidence and knowledge affects policy, I found the debate in the British parliament fascinating from the point of view of the influence that evidence can have on policy decisions.

The idea of using evidence to inform policy processes is not new, but it (re)acquired particular relevance in the UK when Tony Blair was elected Prime Minister in 1997. It referred and refers to a more modern policy-making process which is less ideologically-driven and involves a more rational decision-making process informed by a wide breadth of evidence including, but not limited to, scientific research.

The atrocities happening in Syria are… atrocities. So, what to do? Intervene or not? Participate in airstrikes or not? In the end, the government lost the vote and the decision has been for British troops not to become involved in airstrikes against Syria. Prime Minister David Cameron admitted defeat.

During the debate the word evidence was mentioned several times: ‘We have enough evidence,’ said Prime Minister David Cameron. ‘We need more evidence. We need the UN inspectors who are now in Syria to finish their work and submit their report,’ said opposition leader Ed Miliband. ‘We have evidence of a chemical attack from several sources,’ responded David Cameron. ‘We need more time and more evidence. We cannot rush in. This [policy] decision should be based on irrefutable evidence,’ said Ed Milliband.

Evidence, evidence. Conclusive evidence. Does something like conclusive evidence even exist? Can there be conclusive evidence in a civil war which has been going on for two years, following years of repression? Atrocities and killings have been carried out by both sides. The international community is divided on what to do and in whom to support: no sooner is a UN Security Council resolution formed than it is vetoed. These decisions based on historical alliances and, importantly, on economic interests.

At some point in the debate David Cameron made what I think is a revealing point. He argued that no matter how much evidence there is, at some point the decision to attack or not has to come down to judgment. And I think he is right. We can never reach a point in a messy and politically charged context such as the one unfolding in Syria where there is conclusive evidence. Moreover, all evidence can be doubted. Who produced it? What is their agenda? Do they have one?

Evidence per se is useful and necessary, but at some point evidence has to turn into an opinion and a judgment that define what to do next. That translation from evidence to judgment is complex in itself since it is always filtered by individual values, norms, humanitarian principles, political agendas and interests.

The debate and the vote that took place in the British parliament is a clear example of the limits of evidence in informing policy and decision-making processes. It shows in real terms how far evidence can go in influencing decisions and where it has to turn into something else (e.g. judgment) in order to translate into action (or non-action in this case).

ODI’s Research and Policy in Development programme has identified some lessons around the role played by evidence in policy making: policy processes are complex and rarely linear or logical, but research-based evidence can contribute to policies that have a dramatic impact on lives. The lesson I often use in my trainings and presentations about evidence-based policy-making is that the role of evidence in the policy-making process is actually quite limited and that we should not overemphasise the role that it plays, particularly as we look at it from the point of view of being researchers. The debate in the British parliament over Syria is a concrete example of that.

As researchers, however, we should not see the limits of evidence as something negative. A decision has been taken, one way or the other, in order to push things in a certain direction. In relation to Syria, insufficient rather than conclusive evidence has informed the debate, in addition to political consideration linked to the fact that the majority of public opinion in the UK is not in favor of an intervention. The memory of the debate that preceded the intervention in 2003 in Iraq played also a role.

In the coming week the US Senate and the US Congress will hold similar debates looking at much of the same evidence. The vote in the British Parliament will certainly influence those debates, as noted by Amy Davidson in the New Yorker (The Cameron Trap: Obama’s Lesson from the British Vote). It will be interesting to see what the policy decision will be.