On the use and abuse of “evidence based policy”, lessons from teaching philosophy in coronatijd

By Darian Meacham

As the Netherlands goes into another light lockdown, UM staff and students are again dealing with a changing landscape of public health policy regulations and recommendations, with these come tough philosophical questions.

In September when we returned to face-to-face activities, many, myself included, felt the emotional, mental and physical relief of leaving the zoomosphere. For vulnerable persons, or those with caring responsibilities for vulnerable people, this relief was probably accompanied by trepidation and some degree of uncertainty. But this new situation, now already an old situation, hasn’t meant that the philosophical questions triggered at the beginning of the pandemic have lost their salience. As the landscape of rules and regulations continuously shifts, with new dimensions added – e.g. vaccine mandates – policy makers continue to avail themselves of a useful tool in the concept of “scientific evidence” or “following the science”, which lends an air of authority that transcends the usual requirements and constraints of democratic politics. When the link between policy and scientific evidence is portrayed as having this kind of bond, to disagree with policy can be portrayed as irrational or worse unscientific – a policy that is aligned with scientific authority comes to take on an unassailable legitimacy!

This is convenient narrative for policy makers: argue that political decision follow directly from some transcendent or near-transcendent authority, god, science…but it is flawed on a number of levels. At best it’s a sort of category mistake, responses to pressing policy questions never turn on evidence alone, but always include a consideration of the values that are germane to the social and political context, the policy-makers themselves, and (hopefully) the affected persons and communities. In other words, all public policy questions are also questions about what matters to us, including how much scientific evidence matters to us in our decision-making. So, standing happily before a packed lecture hall in late October, I had to tell students that the reason we were allowed to meet like this, isn’t because the evidence tells us it’s “safe”, it’s because policy makers have decided that whatever risk is incurred from in person teaching is worth it. The risks of remaining online, to the quality of education, mental health, the university on a political level, etc. are deemed greater than the risks of virus transmission. Or we might prefer to say, that the benefits of meeting like this have been judged to be great enough to merit the risk. Either way, a value trade-off has occurred, and our role when trying to think philosophically about politics is to understand the ways that these kinds of trade-offs are made, evaluated and justified.

Doing otherwise, through a political slight of hand, presenting policy as though it follows directly and unproblematically from scientific evidence has proven to be politically very dangerous. By treating people who are thinking these trade-offs differently, as being anti-science, or anti-evidence, policy makers have risked further polarising the political spectrum and eroding trust in governing institutions. They have also limited their own capacity to deal with the evidence in a responsible fashion, admitting that there are still many uncertainties, and the translation from scientific findings to policy needs to be explained and justified in a democratic society, precisely because we value and take scientific evidence seriously. Doing otherwise has actually hampered our ability to address false scientific claims.

In this new phase of “light lockdown”, big lectures are back on-line, but tutorials will remain in person. The mask mandate will apply to moving around in hallways, but not sitting in classrooms. Education is exempted from the famous 1.5. meter rule that will now shape other social interactions for the next few weeks. Nonetheless we’re informed at UM that we’ll be safe because we adhere to it. Is this to suggest that the exemption creates an unsafe situation? Unless viruses behave differently on university campuses, this seems a strange contradiction. Science and policy again risk being confounded. Why not say that, since many institutions cannot carry out in-person education activities while also respecting the 1.5 meter rule, we’ve weighed what matters and tried to find the best balance of minimising virus transmission while continuing with the in-person activities so important to teaching and research. [i] This would be an approach consistent with what we teach our students about the relation between science and policy. It would also keep the discussion inclusive, not alienating those who may weigh the trade-offs differently, while acknowledging that a policy is necessary for the university (or any institution) to function. As my colleague Janosch Prinz writes: “taking science seriously should come from a deeper commitment to being clear about justifying decisions and actions. That commitment should require that if and when other sources than science are decisive motivations for our actions we name them. Only if we are clear about these motivations can they be tested through public discourse.” [ii]

This may also help us discuss policy positions that seem to run counter to prevailing scientific evidence. There will be no mask mandate in classrooms or meetings, despite a body of evidence showing that mask wearing is a highly effective way to cut transmission and hence encouraged by most experts and public health bodies. How to explain this other than by saying, the evidence in favour has been taken into consideration, but for whatever reason over-ruled. This would allow a more honest and indeed scientific conversation about policy. It would also allow us to more clearly see the other value considerations, trade-offs, and questions that are at work. For example, should immunologically vulnerable people have to reveal private information and then rely on the good will of others when it comes to mask wearing in small spaces? These are tough but honest questions that attest to the difficulty of evidenced informed policy-making.

[i] The communication actually read: “1.5 metres is a safe distance to keep from one another (education is exempted from the mandatory 1.5 metre-distance rule).”

[ii] Private communication

About the author

Darian Meacham is Associate Professor of Philosophy at FASoS. He teaches political philosophy at University College Maastricht, as well in the Master’s Arts and Culture and Philosophy of Science in the Research Master’s European Studies. He’s previously taught in the BA Arts and Culture (Reading Philosophy) and was the coordinator of Culture and Identity in a Globalising Europe (BA ES) for three years.