When she inserts the words “evidence-based” before a promise—or an accusation—you can be sure you’re listening to a liberal politician. Police officers and scientists simply present the evidence. Conservatives probably will add the term to their arsenal soon. After all, their first loyalty today is to capitalism: humankind's least sentimental and most opportunistic social invention.
It would be ideal, however, if politicians across the spectrum actually thought more scientifically as well.
In this month’s New York Review of Books, Allen Orr hurls science at prejudice and wishful thinking—the staples of destructive politics:
“This conclusion is remarkable in a couple of ways. For one thing, there’s not much of an argument here. Instead, Nagel’s conclusion rests largely on the strength of his intuition. His intuition recoils from the claimed plausibility of neo-Darwinism, and that, it seems, is that. (Richard Dawkins has called this sort of move the argument from personal incredulity.) But plenty of scientific truths are counter-intuitive (does anyone find it intuitive that we’re hurtling around the sun at 67,000 miles per hour?) and a scientific education is, to a considerable extent, an exercise in taming the authority of one’s intuition.”
Taming the authority of one’s intuition, submitting to trial and error and the evidence, could change liberalism as well as conservative thinking.
Liberals, being every bit as human as conservatives, adopt prejudices that fit their immediate circumstances. For most of the last century, they were in power nationally and wrote the laws. Consequently, they think it's common sense to take action at the national level, if it’s a big problem. It’s intuitive.
A centralist impulse has dominated their thinking on healthcare, climate change, even innovation and urban transit. It’s simply assumed that it can best be addressed, in a timely way, at the top. That’s arguable; at the very least, it should be more thoroughly scrutinized by a scientific education.
The climate change movement, for instance, took scientific evidence and told the political word to surrender political science to their numbers. Over 20 years has been largely wasted as the governments of the world—big and small, rich and destitute, tyrannies and weak democracies, together—negotiated targets.
At home we talked about targets too. If your targets weren’t as elaborate as mine, you were faking it. If you were a leader, your targets were tougher than your neighbor’s. We designed national "cap and trade" systems that were spiced with references to Europe and economics, and they were protected from broad scrutiny by being incomprehensible to the general public.
Science says everything is connected. Evidence and experience, however, suggest that thunderclaps from national capitals don’t necessarily change behaviors—or cure problems. Despite what authoritarians thought, strong central governments and "evidence-based" central planning aren’t invariably more effective or more efficient in managing change than decentralized federations and higher prices.
Bring on more "evidence-based" politics. But don’t expect you’ll sleep any easier.