Can you seperate the facts from beliefs when making policy?

There's a broad consensus that the NLP's loss in Queensland and rumours of a leadership challenge can be sheeted back to poor policy choices by both governments. Below, a timely piece from Paul Cairney (@Cairneypaul) on whether personal beliefs can in fact be separated from facts when making policy. Paul Cairney is Professor of Politics and Public Policy at the University of Stirling.

This piece originally featured on Paul's personal Blog.


A key argument in policy studies is that it is impossible to separate facts and values when making policy. We often treat our beliefs as facts, or describe certain facts as objective, but perhaps only to simplify our lives or support a political strategy (a ‘self-evident’ fact is very handy for an argument). People make empirical claims infused with their values and often fail to realise just how their values or assumptions underpin their claims.

This is not an easy argument to explain. One strategy is to use extreme examples to make the point. For example, Herbert Simon points to Hitler’s Mein Kampf as the ultimate example of value-based claims masquerading as facts. We can also draw on some embarrassing historic academic research which states that the evidence exists to show that men are more intelligent than women and some races are demonstrably superior to others. In such cases, we would point out, for example, that the design of the research helped produce such conclusions: our values underpin our assumptions about how to measure intelligence or other measures of superiority.

‘Wait a minute, though’ (you might say). “What about simple examples in which you can state facts with relative certainty – such as the statement ‘there are 449 words in this post’”. ‘Fair enough’, I’d say (you will have to speak with a philosopher to get a better debate about the meaning of your 449 words claim). But this statement doesn’t take you far in policy terms. Instead, you’d want to say that there are too many or too few words, before you decided what to do about it.

In that sense, we have the most practical explanation of the unclear fact/ value distinction: the use of facts in policy is to underpin evaluations based on values. For example, we might point to the routine uses of data to argue that a public service is in ‘crisis’ or that there is a public health related epidemic. We might argue that people only talk about ‘policy problems’ they think we have a duty to solve them.

Or, facts and values often seem the hardest to separate when we evaluate the success and failure of policy solutions, since the measures used for evaluation are as political as any other part of the policy process. The gathering and presentation of facts is inherently a political exercise, and our use of facts to encourage a policy response is inseparable from our beliefs about how they world should work.

To think further about the relevance of this discussion, see this post on policy evaluation, and this to-be-book on the use of evidence in policymaking.

Posted by Gemma Carey