The fetishization of numbers in policy

Note: this article is not about how politicians find numbers sexy. The word ‘fetish’ in this context  designates something that is used or done ritualistically rather than pragmatically.

In the world of UK public policy, everyone loves quantitative skills. Making policy ‘evidence-based’ is considered a matter of significant importance, and the National Health Service is held up as the shining example – primarily because of the prominence of randomized control trials and value-for-money. In the past decade this has led to the development of ‘What works’ centres, such as the College of Policing’s ‘What Works Centre for Crime Reduction”, and LSE’s “What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth”. Based on my research on these centres (from articles such as this), they tend to subscribe to the ‘evidence-based’ movements hierarchy of evidence, with Randomized Control trials at the top and anecdotal experience at the bottom (for those unfamiliar with this hierarchy, my main point is that data is on the top).

This increased emphasis on evidence is not inherently a bad thing. Indeed, in many ways it is a positive development. However, I have a number of concerns on the ways that these work centres interact with policy.

Concern #1: Begging the question – What works… for what?
The title ‘what works’ begs the question of what the interventions are
working for.  On the College of Policing’s What Works Crime Reduction page (link), we are presented with a list of interventions, with data on cost, effectiveness, where it works, and the like. But this cannot answer the question of what the Police should do in the first place.

Concern #2: The ‘what works’ frame
‘What works’ neglects the reality that problems can be described in multiple ways. For example, are we concerned with young hoodlums who have not been taught proper values, or are we concerned with oppressed minorities who are lashing out due to opportunity deprivation. There is often not a natural way to interpret data – our personal values play a significant role. The ‘what works’ language seems to cover up these ambiguities by assuming a common frame.

Concern #3: Politics and evidence
‘What works’ does not seem to engage with the reality that policy overlaps with politics. Evidence is regularly used as ammunition to support pre-existing positions, rather than forming a basis for re-evaluating positions. Not that I mean to be entirely down on politics, I just mean that evidence will not transform politics.

Concern #4: Stifling innovation
When practitioners focus on ‘what works’, their attention is necessarily backwards looking, because we necessarily cannot have evidence on new ideas and approaches. ‘What works’ therefore cannot help us prepare for future problems, and may potentially hinder policy that looks to deal with future problems because ‘its not evidence based’.

Concern #5: The gap between theory and practice
Models and quantification represent reality, but there is always a gap. Further, small errors compound quickly. This is why our ability to forecast the weather drops off very quickly. This does not mean that we should not use models (we must!), but we should do so while being mindful that they are not infallible.

I intend to write a more in-depth article on this topic, but here are my immediate thoughts. Let me know what you think.



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Law, Convention, and the Choice Landscape of Patients Requesting Assisted Sucide

Euthanasia is a touchy subject for many people, and understandably so.  There are strong intuitive reasons behind both the for and against position.  Those who want legal euthanasia can appeal to the idea that we should have a right over our own lives, that we should not be deprived of our autonomy.  Those against can appeal to the externalities that legalizing Euthanasia may generate, and also to the notion that Doctor’s should not have the responsibility (or possibly the right) to kill people.  Previously I came down on the pro-euthanasia/autonomy side.  Though I understand the concerns of the opposition that varies harms could follow from legalizing euthanasia, I felt that all this meant was that we needed to make sure to construct tight legislation.

A paper that I recently read in my program has persuaded me that the problem is more complicated then I originally thought.  This paper, Against the Right to Die by David Velleman, makes the argument that allowing Euthanasia changes the rational choice landscape within which agents operate.  He analogizes allowing Euthanasia to allowing dueling.  If dueling is allowed then people will duel to defend their honour.  However, they would really prefer not to be allowed to duel because then they have not failed to uphold their honour if they do not engage in duels.  In the same way, it may be the case that if euthanasia is legal then some people will rationally choose euthanasia because they feel that their life is a burden on society or their family or something along that lines, but they would really prefer euthanasia just be illegal so that they didn’t have option in the first place.

I find this argument to be quite interesting, and Velleman’s solution even more so.  At the end of the paper, Velleman says that he’s somewhat inclined to believe the best solution to Euthanasia is to have very weak regulations.  Essentially he suggests that it should be illegal, but if someone really wants it then we should just let it happen under the table, in a manner of speaking.  Velleman persuaded me that this is a very good solution – it lets the people who really want Euthanasia have access, but it prevents many of the harmful externalities that might otherwise come about.  The solution is not perfect, of course.  Weak regulation and unwritten rules are prone to unfairness and unequal enforcement.  Sometimes a doctor might be punished for actions many other doctors have done before, or a patient might end up being killed under ambiguous circumstances.  However, I am quite intrigued by the notion that sometimes unwritten rules can make better choice landscapes for rational agents.  The notion vastly complicates what it means to work in policy.

Let me know what you think,


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Poor Decisions – How Poverty and Marginalization Reduces our Potential for Autonomy

In some of my previous posts I’ve discussed the notion that adversity impairs autonomy.  I’ve recently come across some evidence that reinforces this notion.

There is an idea in psychology called ego depletion.  The basic concept is that willpower is a finite resource.  This maps on to my reflections of autonomy fairly well, though I may expand the idea because I tend to think any mental exertion or effort to impose order within our lives draws upon this a single pool.

A few days ago I saw a presentation by Cass Sunstein, the author of Nudge.  The main concept of the presentation (modeled after the book) is that government can efficiently influence people through careful default setting.  I won’t go further into this concept, but if you read the wiki it will explain further.  The important idea for my purposes is that in many ways it is good if our choice making is minimized.  To draw upon the idea of ego depletion, the more we can conserve willpower the better.  Sunstein threw out an interesting thought near the end of the presentation by noting that poor people need to make more choices then wealthy people do.  Wealth, in many significant ways, reduces the need for decision making.  A wealthy person just doesn’t need to budget as carefully.

This article, Why Can’t More Poor People Escape Poverty, basically talks about what I’ve covered so far.  People with less money burn through scarce mental resources faster.  Having read all this, though, I was still left with a question.  I’d previously claimed that marginalization reduced autonomy, but I wanted to see if I could find any experimental evidence to support the idea.  It didn’t take me too long to find this article: Stigma as Ego Depletion.  The experimental findings of this research project are essentially that people who are exposed to stigma subsequently preform more poorly on willpower tests.

There is an old Nietzsche quote ‘That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”  I do not suggest that we throw out every nuance of the quote, since there is some evidence that exposure to small traumas over time may make us more resilient.  In general, though, adversity has a propensity to undermine our autonomy.

Let me know what you think,


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The State as Ethical Agent

Another post!  I have started my master program, but I’ve been busy.  I plan to update once a week on Friday or Saturday.

I just had an interesting conversation with another person in my program.  We were talking about whether it was right to sacrifice an (essentially) unlimited number of people for someone that you love.  His very strong inclination was that he would make such a sacrifice, without really caring whether it was right or not.  I felt that the right thing to do would be to sacrifice a loved one for an immense number of other people.

What I would like to talk about in this post is not that issue exactly.  I’m rather inclined to think, when it comes to problems such as the one I describe above, that we will never reach a real solution.  We will continue to develop and invent moral systems to help us in making challenging choices, but (in line with my general theory of autonomy) the most we can do is be invested in the process.

The new ground that I want to cover today is the the government as an ethical actor.  In certain ways a government can be considered strongly analogous to a human actor.  Fortunately governments mostly have the same moral concerns as we do.  Governments do not have individualistic attachments however.  Though a government can have priorities and biases, it must have a significant amount of corruption to be attached to individual people.  Though government has only so much power to act ethically based on the limits of our ethical theories, it can apply these theories in an inhumanly impartial way (though in a democracy it remains strongly tethered to public opinion).

A government is still limited in that it must maintain its working parts to function – in a sense it is maintaining itself by maintaining its people.  Extreme utilitarian maximization (focus all money on healthcare and military, maybe) will exhaust a government/country in the same way it exhausts an individual, since a government is comprised of individuals.

This is a very, very rough idea.  I’ll work on it some more, and see if I get anywhere with it.

Let me know what you think,


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