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Why We Continue to Make Dumb Decisions

The term “evidence-based” first came into prominence in the 1980’s in the field of medicine. What it meant was that medical decisions were based upon verified results of scientific studies rather than upon expert opinion or medical theory. What it resulted in was a marked advance in detection and treatment of diseases and a revolution in medical teaching as well as methods of physicians accessing data to inform their decisions. Organizations, such as the Cochrane Collaboration were formed that used scientific methods for evaluating evidence and published the findings on medical diagnostic and treatment methods for both the physicians and the public to examine. We have all profited from the evidence-based movement in medicine, because it has saved lives and improved the quality of medical care.

Our political system constantly debates the merits of adopting different policies in criminal justice, healthcare, tax structure, education funding and reform, employment and social support, environmental protection and energy. Our public debates are primarily made from political stances based either on progressivism vs. conservatism or populism directed at one constituency or another. Both sides in these debates often cite evidence, but it is nearly always anecdotal or questionable. The opinion of a single “expert” is treated as fact and disagreement is treated as denial of truth. 

We have so-called “think-tanks” but most are identified as liberal or conservative and appear to collect their evidence and write their position papers to support a point of view, rather than to conduct an unbiased assessment. This is not to say that unbiased evidence does not exist. There are plenty of academic studies and even a large number of government studies and U.N,, WHO, World Bank, or studies by other nations, that are based on science and are available to decision-makers. Unfortunately, it isn’t just our politicians who ignore this evidence, it also includes our appointed heads of government agencies. Perhaps even worse, our liberally and conservatively aligned media also ignore real evidence in favor of covering dramatic and exaggerated opinions that feed into the biases of their consumers, so the public has a difficult time finding the truth or even the real evidence for or against a policy.

I remember the days when Americans were afraid of “technocrats”— heartless functionaries who were expert on the scientific evidence on social issues and tried to apply it without understanding the human issues involved. I don't think that we ever became a technocracy and we are miles away from being one now. As citizens we distrust evidence, because we are used to it being unrepresentative and selected to support one opinion or another. We are more entertained and more excited by strong opinions than balanced assessment of issues. We fall into the trap of evaluating suggestions in terms of whether they are consistent with a particular political outlook, rather than whether they are supported by the preponderance of evidence. Raising questions about the wisdom or efficacy of policies that are applauded by opinion leaders in the political camp to which one belongs, is treated as being a traitor. The processes we use to come to decisions encourage groupthink.

As our political system moves toward greater balance between the two major political parties and among progressive, liberal, moderate, conservative and populist points of view we have an opportunity to think about the policies we want to adopt from the basis of the evidence available on their efficacy and dangers. Our politicians aren’t going to help us, because they are going to try to push us toward ideological conformity, rather than an unbiased viewpoint. This is something we need to resist. Our greatest ally is education (and the war to preserve truth vs. ideological bias continues to be fought and placed in danger within our universities, but for now, it still prevails). Critical thinking skills in our citizens are critical. 

Evidence on the outcome of different forms of healthcare, for instance, is available from the natural social experiments that have been conducted throughout the world and even in microcosms within our own country, such as government vs. private health programs in the U.S., or with the costs and outcomes of for-profit vs. not-for-profit healthcare providers’ across our country. Balanced assessment of these results, informed by the unique characteristics of the circumstances in which they have occurred (none are random, controlled, double-blind experiments), is possible and is even available in academic studies. This is only one issue, climate change, energy costs, welfare systems, criminal justice approaches, etc. are other issues with a great deal of data available. Our opinion leaders in the media and in politics need to affirm their commitment to honest assessment of evidence on social issues instead of joining the partisan fray that ignores evidence in favor of biased polemic. As educated citizens, we need to insist on this. We need to stop joining the voices that promote biased assessment and partisan discussion. We need to search for evidence ourselves and insist that our elected and appointed officials follow it. 

Our “information age” has become an age of strident, biased opinion—on both sides of almost every issue—and not one of being more informed about the evidence that science and the social sciences have found about how to improve our lives. We are letting this happen and we have to reverse this process. We are not living up to the promise of our own intellect.

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