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Evidence Schmevidence: Why Leaders Reject Science-Based Decisions and What to do About it

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Thomas Miller
October 1, 2018

Whether you believe the claims or not, newspapers and the internet are filled with regret about the putative disregard of facts by the President of the United States. Nevertheless, defenders and opponents of the President’s style agree that truth should be the foundation of good decisions; it’s just a matter of finding the truth amid claims of opposing sides.

Even under today’s fog of so-called fake news, Americans—and Western societies in general—remain immersed in the ethos of rationality. Those of us in public management or serving as advisors to managers are not different. We have the drive written into our chromosomes to seek evidence-based decisions. It’s even true at home where we’d like our partners to be rational. It’s true in sport, where rules define the unambiguous evidence required, for example, to call an out. In schools, test scores convert to grades.

Facts are facts, but decisions about facts require emotion. I’ve posted a number of cautionary tales (here, here and here) about challenges facing leaders trying to make evidence-based decisions.

In “The Science of Anti-Science,” authors identify three categories of cognitive threats that undermine rational decisions. In “Polarizing Climate Policy,” two brain scientists showed that “tribalism [of political party affiliation] leads to political fights over differences between the parties that …do not exist…” and in “The Invisible Gorilla” psychologists prove that we should be less assured about our wrong-headed confidence in human knowledge.

Perhaps it’s time to stop believing that we humans survived the ice age, mastodons and murderous hordes of evolutionary wannabes because we are so darn smart. Maybe our genes lifted us to the top of evolution’s mountain because we had other attributes needed to succeed – good gut instinct, remarkable willingness to take risks, flagrant conviviality, shamelessly short attention span [that kept our senses keen to potential competitors] and adequate fast-twitch muscle fiber.

Maybe we’re overthinking thinking. The psychologists and economists who study our behavior and ideas rarely conclude that humans are very good at cogitating. Yes, compared to other animals, humans seem to be able to think more deeply. But it may not come naturally and deep thoughts may not be the secret of our species’ success.

We consultants know this. That is why data now are all about the story they tell not just the numbers on a page. Numbers about overcrowding at the county jail won’t compel jail reform like the story of an ill inmate who died for lack of adequate ventilation.

I’ve written that statistics usually do not speak for themselves, but when they do they speak in whispers or in tongues. What gets law makers to change laws, less are graphs, tables or complex arguments and more are photos, group pressure and personal testimony. Decision makers typically are not compelled by complex thinking at least in part because they believe (correctly) their constituents (we) are attracted by simple solutions.

So what should a consultant do to deal with decisionmakers who regularly give nod to the importance of facts they quickly ignore? Short of launching their own advocacy group, here are some clues for consultants to move leaders toward evidence-based decisions. The ideas are offered by a few deep thinkers.

  1. Link an exercise for thought and discussion to every research report so that data don’t fade away too quickly leaving only leaders’ inclinations and prejudices that likely preceded the study. .
  2. Create a highly diverse team charged with discussing new evidence, first in private, where the heat of public glare will not encourage doctrinaire stances about findings. This team may not be the final decision makers but an advisory panel to them.
  3. To avoid group pressure, include a set of “study questions” for decision-makers that they are encouraged to answer alone before discussion with others begins.
  4. To avoid viewing research through a “party” lens, have leaders write down a list of key values they hope to sustain from things they will learn in the upcoming report.
  5. Try a “pre-mortem” exercise, wherein leaders create stories about possible solutions that both work and that could go very wrong.
  6. Discuss possible decisions, purposely taking on the perspective of those who support what each participant opposes and require that time be devoted specifically to contemplating the meaning of the data so that knee jerk responses are diminished.

Even though evidence-based decisions go against human nature, some variation on these clues to improve those decisions probably can be fashioned in your location. Give it a try and report back.


Author: Thomas Miller is president of National Research Center, Inc. [www.n-r-c.coma professional survey research and evaluation firm serving the needs of local government, schools and health care organizations.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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