Wednesday, February 21, 2018


Photo by Stephen Mayes on Unsplash

There is a great movement at the moment towards evidence-based practice, in all walks of life.  Ironically, it has arisen as a political reaction.  In the UK, there has been an evidence-based response to two events in particular.  Firstly, the election of Donald Trump as president of the US.  And secondly, the election of exit from the European Union as the UK's chosen path.

Donald Trump has not been afraid to make statements of fact which are open to being disproved.  A famous example was his implication about the size of the crowd at his inauguration.  Many media miles were travelled performing fact checks on this and other claims.  It has become a bit of a game to wait for a claim, check it for evidence, report the evidence, and debunk the claim.  Donald Trump humself doesn't seem to mind too much.  Once the statement has been made, he is on to something else, getting interested in a new thing.  His is not a mind that wants to dissect the past with a fine toothcomb.  I can't imagine him as an archeologist.

Politicians arguing the case for or against the UK's exit from the EU, too, have put claims out there which have later been the object of controversy and challenge.  Here, the most famous message was 'We send the EU £350 million a week.  Let's fund our NHS instead.'  Again, it has been a favourite game to check this for evidence, and challenge the claim.  Again, the producers of such slogans are often on to new projects, and find themselves somewhat hampered by the political archeologists who insist on digging up evidential controversy.

However, I suggest that those on the side of evidence are missing a trick.  They are using typical laboratory techniques for assessing statements which are made out there in the field, outside the laboratory, where events can often overtake our controlled thinking.  There is a danger that they will be found, still in their white coats, debunking myths, when life on Earth has ended.  If so, they will have failed to convince.

The evidence-gatherers have been part of a generation of passive citizens who have taken part in funded experiments.  Their nurturing has been done in a safe school environment, where the system is as follows:

1. You get funded for research
2. You do research in accordance with the rules
3. You publish your results
4. You are evaluated by your peers
5. You are given your reward

There is little to do in this environment but perpetuate the same evidence-based systems.  There is no army to apply factual claims.  There is not even any funding unless you are seen to be useful by someone, whether is be a business wanting to further its aims, or a student wanting to further their career.

The fact-producing arena, in short, has no talons.  It waits at the bird table, and feeds on whatever seeds are thrown at it.

This is not the world of the statesman.  (It's a gendered word.  I'd rather say statesperson.  But statesman is the familiar word.)  The statesman does not live in the laboratory.  A good statesman will be familiar with the produce of scientific research, certainly, and will take it into account.  But, primarily, the role of the statesman is to lead.

Statemen thrive on myth.  Don't get me wrong, I don't mean myth in the sense of lies.  I mean myth in terms of engaging stories which tell a truth.  And the truth here is different from laboratory truth.  The truth of myth is a story which holds all the world together with what I call a 'felicity' - in other words, a good producer of myth happily joins together all the complexity of the world in an inspiring moment of simplicity.  This inspiring moment of simplicity is what is experienced as truth, but it is not so well understood by current journalists.

Religious leaders are statesmen of a sort (although much of the honing of speeches is done by others after the event).  They are held up as examples of how life can be simplified into something inspiring.  This kind of truth frees us up to act in simple ways without being hampered by the complexity of everything.

The system for statesmen is different:

1. You experience a challenging life
2. You build up enormous reserves of inner strength
3. You share what you have learned
4. You gain a body of support
5. You are simplified into an ideal, an example to follow

Statesmen are more resilient.  They have an ability to reinvent themselves in response to complexity.  They are like sculptures sculpting themselves with their environment, seeking out new relationships with their surroundings.

So we have two versions of truth. 

  • One collects data, in a well-behaved manner, according to established rules, and then publishes results.
  • The other collects experience, often going against pre-established rules of conduct, and then shares learnings, gaining a body of support.

We can see this battle, for instance, in arguments between science and religion.  Representatives of science have methods, and only state things in accordance with those methods, however complex.  Many religious statespeople have learned to simplify life - that is their special truth - into wise sayings that are felicitous and transformative.

Adherents of religions who have learned to gain solace from the truth in its simplicity... they do not need the complexities of science to practise their religion.  Equally, adherents of science who have built careers from applying method... they do not need the simplicity of religion to help their lives to cohere.

There are two different functions happening here.  The truth that clarifies with simplification, and the truth that clarifies with method.

Look at the election battle between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.  Donald represented the truth that clarifies with simplification; and Hillary the truth that clarifies with method.

Perhaps a number of voters, in their evaluation, sought a presented truth that simplified the world into something they could handle.  Perhaps, in Hillary, a number of people saw someone who was a practised applier of method, comfortable and cold in her dealings.  Perhaps a number of people saw, in Donald, someone who eschewed method, but spoke with simplicity, based on experience.

I am not taking sides.  I am just looking at what might be happening in terms of the history of ideas.

Evidence and faith can be complementary.  Statesmen do come along who are able to blend method and simplicity.

But often, political leaders come across as either unbearably methodical (with the public starting to use robot analogies); or unbearably simplistic (with the public starting to use madness analogies).

Perhaps change starts from within.  Perhaps we can start by learning two things:

1. Life is not all method.  However scientific you think you are being, lend a thought to our human need to simplify, to find a truth, a myth, a story, that felicitously holds the world together in a view we can assent to.
2. Life is not all simplicity.  Just when you think you have the simple truth in your hand, something will happen to wake you up out of your complacency, and you will have to modify your view in order to survive.

Political events can polarise the public into representatives of scientific truth, and representatives of simple truth.  Leaders can seem firmly in one camp or the other.  We might benefit from learning that neither evidence, nor faith, need encompass everything.  Perhaps the science-y people could accept that many humans feel comforted by simple truths; and the faith-y people could accept that many humans feel comforted by facts. Perhaps a well-rounded politician appreciates the influence of both.