Brian Monteith: Evidence-led policy doesn’t add up

Policy concerns often outweigh evidence in issues such as alcohol pricing, argues Brian Monteith. Picture: TSPL
Policy concerns often outweigh evidence in issues such as alcohol pricing, argues Brian Monteith. Picture: TSPL
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Those who seek to bully us into the lifestyle that they choose for us need to check the facts, writes Brian Monteith

Last week our news was alive with the rather trite but entertaining matter of the words twerking and selfie entering the hallowed pages of the Oxford English Dictionary. It was the last week of August, after all.

New words can tell us something about our modern ways, however, and new phrases are no different, so in that spirit I must recommend to readers a new book published by one of our oldest but least stuffy think tanks, the Institute of Economic Affairs, brought into this world in 1955. Its latest monograph by philosopher Jamie Whyte challenges the modern-day notion of evidence-based policy and debunks it to the point that if you ever hear a politician or commentator utter the phrase again, you should reach for your Browning or, in the absence of a firearms licence, run to the hills.

Whyte’s easily read book manages in less than 150 pages to take the four examples of the minimum pricing of alcohol, passive smoking, climate change and happiness (as a public sector goal) and show just how manipulative, empty of evidential scientific credibility and dangerous is the elevation of a has-to-be-trusted and who-are-you-to-doubt-it phrase.

Such attitudes can close down debate and marginalise those who feel they are not experts to the extent that people say nothing. Policy, no matter the quality of the evidence, then becomes self-fulfilling, adopted by politicians too lazy to ask hard questions and advocated by journalists under so much pressure to break a story before their competitors that a new headline is more important than a story’s truth.

Minimum pricing of alcohol is undoubtedly the new trending policy fashion.

Just like the compulsory wearing of seatbelts was the policy zeitgeist of the late seventies, its adherents today are blind to the fact that the “evidence” is wholly lacking in scientific credibility and that logic and personal experience, rather inconveniently, do not fit the policy prognosis.

Back then, our nanny state legislators ignored the fact that drivers (feeling safer) might drive more recklessly – hitting more cyclists and pedestrians, and going faster, causing more accidents in general and more dangerous accidents in particular – if they were forced to wear the restraining seatbelts.

The point is that statistics relating to the reductions in injuries or deaths of occupants of cars could be more easily gathered than the increased casualties in other accidents (especially including pedestrians) due to other variables such as the growth in car ownership confusing the cause. One UK study that contradicted government policy was later found to be suppressed, while other international studies challenged the drive to enforce car occupant safety at the expense of others.

Similarly, Whyte shows how – for those graduating from the school of Something Must Be Done – evidence-based policy is the Holy Grail that will justify any intervention, no matter how unlikely it is that it will achieve its bold outcomes. When it does not deliver as promised, new evidence is then proffered that further regulation is needed – thus we can expect that if minimum pricing of alcohol is allowed by our courts then the price per unit will, inevitably, be increased and, as we are already witnessing, more controls on passive smoking will be introduced (despite of or because of the fact that current bans have made no difference to falling smoking rate trends).

In the case of minimum pricing of alcohol, the much-vaunted evidence of a Sheffield University study is shown by Whyte to be one-sided, as it left out any consideration of the benefits of alcohol consumption, and how those who consume alcohol will “substitute” other forms or intoxicants, or how they might obtain it without paying the premium.

In other words, they ignored the available evidence that in an effort to spend less, some people might find ways to get drunk quicker (such as when fortified wines are injected directly into the bloodstream). Also, they will find cheaper alternatives – such as making their own brews or spirits or buying contraband – or switch to other intoxicants such as various drugs.

Worse still, Whyte recalls how the authors of the Sheffield study go on to announce in their submission of evidence to Nice (the National Institute for Clinical Excellence for England) that their study was quite consciously slanted in favour of a “public sector focus” and has thus left out evidence that does not help produce the policy that a public sector looking to save costs might want. This is compared hilariously to a university drinking society advocating subsidised beer prices because it has a “student party focus”.

There is not ample space here to discuss how Whyte demolishes the further examples of passive smoking, climate change and “happiness”, suffice to say he does it to good effect and points to the debasement of policy makers by what is known as “noble-cause corruption”.

This was an expression initially coined to explain the illegal practice where the police would fabricate evidence or fit up people they believed to be guilty. This is what some of our scientists and policymakers now do to justify the legal interventions that politicians are only too pleased to deliver.

The evidence on passive smoking was manipulated so that the outcomes justified the charge – that smoking must be banned as much and as often as possible. Any research that showed benefits from smoking was suppressed for being inconvenient. Subsequent reports of improved health outcomes were corrupted or distorted to justify such laws, as I have shown in this column before – without challenge.

For any legislator of noble repute, or sceptical members of the public, Whyte’s book is a must-read – it shows how to discern the claims of lobbyists, faux scientists and snake-oil campaigners that seek to bully us into the lifestyle that they choose for us. Like he says, they use astrology – not astronomy – and there’s a big difference. Let’s hope it’s not too late to change their ways.