So far as social policy is concerned, I doubt that evidence alone will ever swing policy one way or the other, though the claim is that it should, perhaps that it does.
Belief in ‘evidence-based’ policy making has similarities with belief in myth. Myths, by definition, are not expressions of literal truths. Rather, they provide us with stories of origin, tales of titanic battles, of victor over vanquished, that are used to express and justify the values and beliefs now held, along with the practices said to flow from them. In that sense, myths are foundational; they provide the basis for justifying current decisions.
Our relationship with myth, then, is a combination of both a backward and a forward look. Its backward glance is tinged with a sort of nostalgia, a yearning for that mythical time when matters were clear. When there was black and there was white. Where one had to win. There was no grey.
And so, in the attempt to affect this messy, uncertain, unpredictable world of human comings and goings, a sort of nostalgia takes hold. In our case, a nostalgia for the sort of certainties and predictable patterns that the natural sciences can reveal. Sure the natural sciences proceed in part by way of an avid enthusiasm for doubt, for testing and often overturning existing assumptions. Nevertheless, they are quite hot on identifying how cause ‘x’ prompt effect ‘y’. Whereas in our messy human world, over millennia, individuals and societies remain undecided on matters as fundamental as child rearing. Is it, for example, better for future ‘outcomes’ to ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ or to affect a more liberal, permissive stance in child-rearing practice? It has not been, nor is it, nor will it be the evidence that decides the matter. The type of question posed here is connected by superhighway to fundamental questions about the nature of childhood, the purpose of life and so forth. There will be no final settlement of the question.
The evidential chain becomes somewhat over-stretched when we look for beneficial connections over the long term between, say, play, sport, arts, knitting, forms of education, and the sort of outcomes that governments seek: school ready, exam ready, employment ready, lean and fit rather than obese, the manufacture of strivers rather than shirkers, and so forth.
Of course, evidence is offered. But what is one to believe? Looking at the vexed area of education policy is instructive.
Education policy is a much-contested area. Here at least, though, the evidential base upon which decisions are said to be made is surely secure. What with the UK’s own statistics, and then the PISA (OECD Pupil International Student Assessment) international comparative tables, there are plenty of numbers bouncing around. Problem is, the tables themselves don’t appear to yield an answer as to what might be best. Compare, for example, South Korea with Finland. In South Korea, as reported in the Economist :
‘enthusiasm for education has also been likened to a “fever”. Students spend long hours in hagwon, private cram schools, trying to outdo their peers in crucial exams and tests that have lasting consequences for their subsequent careers’
The Finnish approach is different. Pasi Sahlberg, a former math and physics teacher who is now Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture, identifies an aspect of their approach to education:
‘We prepare children to learn how to learn, not how to take a test.’
‘There are no rankings, no comparisons or competition between students, schools or regions.’
‘Children spend far more time playing outside, even in the depths of winter. Homework is minimal.
Compulsory schooling does not begin until age 7. “We have no hurry,” said Louhivuori [teacher and school Principal]. “Children learn better when they are ready. Why stress them out?”’
Both systems score high on the PISA scoring system, and PISA’s lower ranking for UK schools form part of the ‘evidence’ adduced in support of the current Government’s (and, the previous one as well) perpetual criticism of the UK education system.
Now, whether one favours the tough, disciplined South Korean approach, or tend towards the soft-focus, liberal leaning Finns is not going to be decided on the evidence. It’s going to be decided, either explicitly or implicitly, on the basis of what one thinks about the big questions – for example, ‘What should be the quality of childhood?’ ‘What is education for?’ – and then the evidence will be found that better accords with one’s answer to those rather large questions.
Rather than a paucity of evidence, we seem to be awash with it. But seem incapable of approaching it honestly, that honesty requiring us to accept that, in the messy complexity that is human life, evidence as such cannot tell us what to do, what is best. Evidence is filtered, weighed and assessed through the prism of beliefs and values. That is why this Government takes to the South Korean education system, and you probably don’t.
But hold on there a minute
We may be awash with evidence, but is to be relied upon? Sticking with PISA for a moment, one may end up wondering whether there is any evidence at all to support any position, as the TES Connect report on PISA suggests:
‘Experts say global league tables beloved by politicians are ‘useless’
‘The world’s most influential education league tables are “useless”, produce “meaningless” rankings and are compiled using techniques that are “utterly wrong”, according to damning new academic criticism.
‘Politicians around the globe are increasingly using Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) results to formulate and justify their school reforms, often focusing on the headline country rankings. But researchers are now raising serious concerns about their reliability.’
On the basis of this critique, our policy canoe appears to be bereft of some direction-determining evidential paddles.
With some parallels to the cold war arms race, evidential escalation is a feature of our times. Not only do we have and want more evidence, we also want new and better evidence. And evolutionary science and neurology appear to be the new evidences of choice. No matter that there are both philosophical and evidential difficulties within each of these disciplines that make reliance on the current state of knowledge wobbly at least. This is not to discount them, but it is to suggest that caution is required about the evidence deployed, especially when so much of it relies on interpretation and speculation based on what at times seems to be the techno-geekery of fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scans . The wish to be convinced does not make something convincing.
So many things support so many things
‘a leading role in scores of crucial abilities, from thought and language to memory and attention… Music lessons in early childhood lead to changes in the brain that could improve its performance far into adulthood…’
That settles it, then. Compulsory music lessons for all children to assist with the maturing of the brain cortex which surely must raise the chance of beneficial outcomes in later life.
But perhaps not. Or rather, perhaps also: Research quoted in a paper entitled ‘Risky Play and Children’s Safety: Balancing Priorities for Optimal Child Development suggested that in:
‘A U.S. longitudinal study provides compelling evidence of the importance of free play on healthy development. Sixty-eight disadvantaged children were randomly assigned to participate in one of three preschool curricula at ages 3 to 4 years. Two of the classes included at least 21% free play and child-initiated activity component. The third class focused on direct instruction of academic skills and allowed for only 2% of free play activities. When tested at age 15, children in the latter class were significantly more likely than the other classes to experience misconduct, and less likely to participate in active sports or contribute to their family or community. Furthermore, at age 23, problems worsened with significantly higher levels of work suspensions and arrests. These findings underline that free play is fundamental to healthy child development, and that restriction of free play in the preschool years might potentially have lifelong repercussions.’
Does the research really provide ‘compelling evidence’, of a straight line causal – I think this is what is implied – relationship between an absence of ‘free-play and child-initiated activity’ and the negative ‘outcomes’ the researchers identify? At a common sense level, this seems a bit far-fetched given the multiple factors that affect any life over a span of some 19 – 20 years. And that’s without wondering what might, in this study, be deemed ‘disadvantaged’, or what is so good about participation in ‘active sports’ that it is an assessment criterion.
Putting aside for the present the question of how secure the evidence is, either in terms of music lessons or free-play, even if accepted, the problem of what to do in the light of the ‘evidence’ remains. And this takes us to the language of priorities and the basis upon which resources are allocated. It’s called politics. We might say that politics variously cancels out, neutralises or frames evidence.
In an area replete with speculation, let me float a surmise of my own. Perhaps its not the actual activity – music, play, sport, painting, and so on – that sets the brain’s neo-cortex a-humming, but the stance or attitude of the person – not the organism – towards their undertakings. So what counts is the degree of application, the amount of attention, the sense of immersion, the seriousness with which a person attends to their activities that sets the neo–cortex purring with pleasure; and it is this that prompts the brain to deliver to itself of a dose of maturation.
I have no reason to believe this is or is not the case. But I like what this form of reasoning does: it forces us to talk about the activity or undertaking in and for itself. We don’t need to go down the cul-de-sac of justifying music lessons or play or sport because of potential benefit to our neo-cortex. The reasons we like music, value play and/or sport and much else are internal to the sort of activities they are, and how they engage us as persons.
This type of reasoning also refocuses us on what is so often obscured or lost. And that is our seeming inability to speak about the value of the here-and-now. That we, and our children, cannot be reduced to projects aimed at some future outcome. The now matters. It matters for the simple reason that each moment constitutes a whole life lived. It’s a moral point. See what the neo-cortex thinks about that. (But of course the neo-cortex does not think.)
But does all this uncertainty about evidence matter?
In terms of immediate practical politics the uncertainties suggested above need not alarm us. This is because both the state (national and local), and those that seek to influence it, accept the framework within which decisions are said to be made (note, ‘said to be made’). Broadly, a general stated acceptance of the view that both in principle and in practice it is possible to identify, measure and generally quantify ‘what works’ and then apply it more widely to good effect.
What is going on here shares the features of a ritual or a dance, where the moves are known in advance, and what counts is the grace and astuteness with which the pre-set moves are made. The evidence adduced in favour of this or that policy or proposal is not the primary determinate of social policy, it is values and ideologies that are the ultimate determinates. That, and slivers of common sense that, mercifully, can be found to permeate the decision-making process.
We are perhaps yet to achieve the sophistication of thought, still less the honesty, found by Mary Douglas among both the Dinka and the !Kung tribes. Both appear to accept the need for ritual in their lives, yet admit to a happy scepticism about its instrumental capabilities.
In her ‘Purity and Danger’ she reports that the Dinka perform an annual ceremony to cure malaria. The ceremony’s timing coincides with the month it is expected that the disease will abate. It was observed that at the end of the ceremony the officiant urged everyone to attend clinic regularly.
‘Once when a band of !Kung Bushman had performed their rain rituals, a small cloud appeared on the horizon, grew and darkened. Then rain fell. But the anthropologists who asked if the Bushman reckoned the rite had produced the rain, were laughed out of court.’ 
Thus we perform the evidential rituals, but see also the need to make decisions on other grounds. Grounds that we hold valid even where the evidence doesn’t meet the case, or simply runs out.
 Paper by Mariana Brussoni,, Lise L. Olsen , Ian Pike and David A. Sleet
 The reference to the Dinka and the quote about the !Kung are drawn from ‘Purity and Danger’, By Mary Douglas, published by Penguin.