A term we hear with increasing frequency is the claim that we need “evidence-based policy” on this or that public issue. With the possible new importance of the B.C. Green party — we’ll know more after the final election count on May 24 — you’ll be hearing the phrase a lot more, as the Greens love the term like yogis love mantras.
“Evidence-based policy” started out as a medical term. Doctors wanted evidence on the effectiveness of a treatment before using it. It is the empirical method in action. Constant research examines how patients fare after various procedures, surgeries or drug treatments so doctors can know which treatments are best.
Evidence-based policies are also often cited in how doctors treat drug addicts and in how governments draft drug policies, deal with climate change, make transportation infrastructure decisions, and during political debates over things like taxing or banning sugary drinks or similar attempts at changing public behaviour.
This is where the use of evidence-based policy becomes suspect. And you’d not be wrong in noting that the issues where “evidence-based” opinions are most often cited tend to be the pet projects of the left. Evidence-based policies make sense when there is a clear objective, as in medicine. They don’t work as well with complex political decisions where there are competing views about what those objectives should be.
“Evidence is rarely unambiguous,” noted Philip Cross, the former chief economic analyst at Statistics Canada, in a Financial Post column in August. “Evidence can rule out bad ideas, but usually is unclear about affirming the correct answer.”
“Insisting on evidence-based policy-making transfers power to those able to assemble and analyze data, effectively excluding the public from decision-making,” he warned, adding: “Evidence does not answer moral and metaphysical policy questions.”
Those on the left pushing “evidence-based” policies can be arrogant because they essentially claim that their political objectives are the only ones that are worthy, with the not-subtle implication that those who prefer different outcomes are not only wrong but stupid. As a result, a lot of this evidence-based opinion is undemocratic, verging on fascist when it stifles debate.
Take drug addiction. While I understand that doctors working with addicts view the issue from the singular objective of keeping their patient alive, the evidence-based policies flowing from that objective — free needle exchanges, “safe” injection sites, giving out heroin and legal marijuana — give little consideration to the objectives of normal citizens.
We’ve been following “evidence-based” drug policy in Vancouver for more than two decades and what do we have? The highest levels of homelessness and overdose deaths ever, not to mention thousands of wasted lives thanks to liberal drug policies that claim “prohibition doesn’t work.” That’s nonsense. It took decades for alcohol consumption to return to pre-Prohibition levels after booze was legalized. Many didn’t like the policy, but it cut alcohol consumption in half and cirrhosis death rates by about two-thirds, according to U.S. data.
Climate change is another issue where evidence-based policy is abused. While there is little debate that CO2 is a greenhouse gas and that climate change is real, we have the right as citizens to debate what to do about it. Yet climate activists are now trying to claim that there can be no debate over their solutions.
The Green party, led by mathematician Andrew Weaver, says all its policies are evidence-based, which is a concern. As the Greens become more mainstream and run headlong into the concrete wall of public opinion, they will learn that precious, erudite opinions that seem whiz-bang within the echo chamber of a minor political party aren’t an easy sell in the real world. Progressives need to be reminded that we live in a democracy, not a technocracy where scientists dictate policy.
• If you write a column two or three times a week for long enough, it’s probably inevitable you’ll make a mistake. I had a clanger on Monday when I noted in a piece on the rural-urban political divide in B.C. that the Green party received zero votes in four northern ridings, taking the information from an Elections B.C. website. In fact, the Greens didn’t run candidates in those ridings. As one reader quite fairly pointed out: “Doh!” My apologies, especially to the Greens.
Gordon Clark is a columnist and editorial pages editor for The Province. Letters to the editor can be sent to email@example.com.
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