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Falling on deaf ears: The government’s disregard for empirical evidence

What’s the point in research if nobody is listening?

Below is a 3-day time-line of events in the UK that demonstrate hypocrisy, ignorance and a disregard of empirical evidence within the UK Government.

07/03/2011: The Government demonstrates its commitment to translational research. Since the previous government there has been a push for partnerships between universities and the NHS, in order to ensure that research can inform health care and policy.

08/03/2011: A paper is published in Economic Affairs entitled “Tobacco Display Bans: A Global Failure”.

09/03/2011: The Government announces that it will be banning tobacco displays.

There are two possibilities here: a) the government does not know about the research, or b) it does not care. However, both possibilities lead to the same conclusion; that the government does not base policy decisions on empirical evidence. This might not come as a surprise; a recent article demonstrates that proposed NHS reforms are not evidence-led either. The Government also ignored evidence of the success of hospital targets in England, causing a 60% rise in hospital test delays in the space of a year.

So what does this mean to us, researchers and academics in health economics? Does it mean that we have no hope of influencing policy? Do we need to find new channels of dissemination?

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Jean-Baptiste Combes
13 years ago

Interesting post. The author of this post shows the least concern about politics and democracy. Research is a piece of information this is not the truth (if it may exist). Science is good in its domain which is the one where researchers used some robust method to get away with subjectivity. Whatever hard we try science will never be able to be objective.

There are some other type of information which may be subjective, based on faith, based on political convictions and values. None of them should have more power than the other. If one was to have more power it would lead to a situation where it has most of the power (as religion had in the past).

I consider the goal of influencing the policy makers as one which is undemocratic. If research aimed at getting involved in a democratic debate with the people then it has to make an effort to stop lecturing people on what they should do or not do. [In health economics it is common to make recommendations to policy makers]. Scientist should be able to consider the view of others with as much respect as they have for “evidence” from their scientific field.
I am happy to highlight a post I wrote on the specific subject of wages


Chris Sampson
Chris Sampson
Reply to  Jean-Baptiste Combes
13 years ago


Thanks for the comment; your view is certainly one I have considered. As you will undoubtedly realise from reading this blog, I myself have political views and my own ideology. Politics matters; I know this. However, I think your classification of science as subjective is somewhat limited. If good scientific research is not accepted as objective then we descend into a pretty useless state of Socratic paradox.

I was never arguing that cigarette displays do not reduce the incidence of smoking, I was arguing that we do not know that they will. I don’t think science and democracy are as incompatible as you think. Politics is not a religion. Nevertheless, if something as ideologically light-weight as banning cigarette displays cannot be led my empirical evidence then we have not come far since the dark ages.

If you wish to be lead by the whim of politicians then this is fine, but I (and I think a democratic majority) would much rather be lead by science.

Jean-Baptiste Combes
Reply to  Chris Sampson
13 years ago

Dear Chris,

I think the point I disagree most with you is your last sentence. Being led by science means that we (as a democratic community) have a faith in science or at least say that information coming from science has more value than other type of information (artistic, social movements, faith…) and as a consequence we may loose (and in some areas we have lost) the first principle of science. A result, an idea, a concept is scientific if it is possible to criticise it. Thus if a political decision is taken against a scientific result then it should not be taxed of being hypocrite and arrogant on the ground that it did not listen to scientific evidence (in the case you are using, it may be that the decision is populist and arrogant and hypocrite, I do not know). A political decision should have the possibility to take decisions against scientific evidence without being taxed of being arrogant or hypocrite.

If science had shown that races exist then I will still have opposed (I hope I would have) segregation. There are values which are more important than scientific results, justice, liberty, equality, fraternity.

I think there is a second point here on which we should discuss. You are saying that politicians did not take into account scientific results regarding tobacco displays. This is a problem. however the question should not be how scientist should channel their results to make our work more efficient but how a democratic process should exist in order to take into account all the information we have (science being one) and make sure that there is a political debate. I truly believe in democracy as the power of people. Democracy works if there is a debate, there would be one if no groups of people has more people than others, the scientist community should not, in respect to this, have more power than other groups (religious groups being another).

Influencing policy makers or politics should not be the role of scientist. I think that scientific results should be taken into account. However, as a community group of scientist we should not try to influence policy makers on the grounds of “we have the evidence listen to us”. I do not mind however that groups of scientist sharing the same values enter the political debate and say “we are researchers, we have those values, we think the society/government/whatever should do this”. This is really different. On one side values are not stated, it is assumed that we hold the truth, in the other values are stated and as a consequence the group positions can at least be criticised on values principles.

Too often scientists claim to hold the truth because the tools they are using are objective, however they (as humans) are not objective no matter how hard they try (and they should try to be objective no matter how hard it is) because they are influenced by the society themselves, also by the tools they are using (econometrics methods have insidious values when used, they tend to measure everything by the mean) and are not in a glass outside the world when doing their research.


Chris Sampson
Chris Sampson
Reply to  Jean-Baptiste Combes
13 years ago

Fine, then we’ll just have to agree to differ.

By your reckoning I have faith in science, but I don’t believe that to be the correct use of the word faith. I’m not interested in getting into a philosophical debate about the value of science vs the value of belief; the fact that I assign greater weight to the former is of no interest to anyone.

Let’s just say that we agree on the need for debate in politics; something which is lacking. As things stand there is very little consideration of scientific findings, with policy led almost solely by ideology. I think we can agree that this is an imbalance that needs addressing.

Jean-Baptiste Combes
Reply to  Chris Sampson
13 years ago

Yes sure we can always agree to disagree,

I am sorry to say that I also think that the fact that you assign greater weight to science is not of no interest to anyone. [I did not talk about beliefs but values.]

Some policies put in place by government are ideology based. The fact that there is one ideology (market based economy is better in most circumstances) which is predominant in politics and economics should make economist aware of the impact they have in terms of ideology. The fact that economists do not recognise that they have values led to this (at least partly helped it).

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