Evidence-Based Decisions

From the Dean

A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.

Originally Published:
26th February 2010

Tagged: decision-making guidance society wisdom

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Did Dr Spock change his mind?  This is not the fictional Spock of Star Trek but the most famous Paediatrician of the twentieth century: Dr Benjamin Spock of “Baby and Child Care” fame.

Dr Spock has been blamed for the 60’s sexual revolution.  These were the children brought up on the permissive child raising advice that he gave to the baby boomers’ parents.  But did he change his mind?

In one sense you would hope that he did.  He studied medicine in the 1920’s at Yale (when, incidentally, he won an Olympic Gold medal for rowing).  He was still giving advice in the 1990’s.  If he did not change his mind during that period of huge advances in medical knowledge, he would have displayed incompetence, verging on culpable negligence.  What we want from our medical practitioners is evidence-based decisions.  As new evidence arrives, changes of opinion, advice and decision are mandatory.

Yet not all evidence is conclusive or unambiguous, nor are all professions backed up by such scientific research as medicine.  Even the science of medicine, such as Dr Spock’s education in psychoanalysis, is not as objective and evidence-based as the community would commonly believe.  There is a great art in good medical practice.

So what is meant when social scientists, and especially politicians, speak of evidence-based decisions?  It sounds right and sensible, as indeed it is.  It is one of those phrases that seems impossible to object to.  What would it mean to make decisions contrary to evidence?  Who, other than one’s opponents, would ever want to do such a foolish thing?  But what does ‘evidence-based decisions’ mean?

The phrase has many uses.  One chief use is to procrastinate on difficult decisions, while sounding reasonable and decisive.  “We are still waiting for the evidence to come in.”  Or, more particularly, “We are waiting for the conclusive evidence to arrive”.  Or “We are commissioning another report or study” - and so avoid make a decision.

In many of life’s decisions the evidence is unavailable to us.  There are often too many variables and complexities for us to evaluate.  There is a certain hubris in imagining that we will be able to know, of a certainty, the best path forward.

Sometimes we cannot know the results of our decision till after the event, and even then, the evidence will be uncertain and inconclusive.  At what point in social experiments do we conclude that we have ‘the results’?  In the first flush of experimental enthusiasm many trials prove a success that is hard to sustain in the long run.  In some areas, like education, it can be the enthusiasm of the experiment that succeeds rather than the new approach that is being tested.  Sometimes the precise point of the experiment shows success but only later does the collateral damage demonstrate that the change was for the worse not the better.  The introduction of asbestos into our buildings was an evidence-based insulation decision that proved to have dreadful health consequences.  In cases like these, later evidence should change our previous decisions.  We should not be afraid of change or of evidence-based decision-making.  But we cannot be sure that our changes will necessarily be any more beneficial than our previous decisions, for we are not in control of the world or the future.

In fact some of our decisions so change the future that we are no longer able to reverse the damage and start again.  We cannot replant the ancient rainforests nor return to a society where pornography was censored.  It will be difficult for a generation of teachers, who were educated without grammar, to fulfil Ms Gillard’s new curriculum, which requires the explicit teaching of grammar in every year from K to 12.  How can we ever unravel the mess we have made of marriage and family life in the last fifty years?

Some issues are beyond measurement.  The Utilitarians’ desire to ‘maximise the happiness of society’ was always dogged by the impossibility of measuring the intangible quality called ‘happiness’.  So deeply committed are some people to the happiness of their personal freedom that no amount of evidence would ever persuade them to return to a happier social structure if it limited their own liberty in any way.  Their freedom to smoke pot, get drunk, gamble recklessly, eat gluttonously, acquire insatiably, watch porn, commit adultery, and generally sleaze around must not be questioned in the calculation of maximising human happiness.

Here is the problem when politicians and other social engineers talk of ‘evidence based decisions’.  It is critical that we understand the context, viewpoint and bias in which we gather and evaluate evidence.  ‘Utilitarianism’, ‘harm minimisation’ and ‘outcome’ philosophies are grander in rhetoric than in close analysis or the delivery of a better world.  They have the hubris of taking our God given human responsibility for the world, without remembering our dependence upon our Creator, the sinfulness of humanity, or God’s present judgement upon this world.  We do not make decisions rationally because we are sinfully disposed.  We are not able to rule the world for we live outside of the paradise of creation, in the hostility of a world under God’s judgement.

God’s word teaches us to use the minds He has given to us in creation to look for evidence upon which to base our decisions.  It teaches us to expect new evidence that will change our mind, repent of our actions, and seek better ways forward.  It also teaches us to respect the wisdom handed down to us by those who experienced life before us.  But we must do this with the fear of the Lord in our hearts, for only then will our decisions be based in the wisdom of humility.  We must trust in the Lord and not lean on our own understanding.  His ways of righteousness are to be our guide.  And we must look to Jesus, for only in him do we see the man to whom the creation is in submission.