Just the Facts, Maam

In a recent public planning workshop, one participant questioned the use of one scientific study over another.  A different person questioned the validity of the alternative study. Sides were picked and positions hardened. Both speakers made logical arguments.  The opposing studies both had acknowledged limitations.

The subject was water but it could have been nearly anything.  Administrators and decision makers routinely encounter similar situations.  The higher the stakes, the more likely disagreements among experts will surface.

Several days after the session, one of the participants asked the agency to outline how it will resolve such disputes.  This person believed publicized criteria would limit unnecessary consideration of poor science.  Rules would help researchers.  Technical arguments in the commons could be reduced.

This request speaks to our inner analyst.  We seek empirical truth and evidenced based answers. Rules for good science exist.  Journals and authoritative institutions routinely determine what should be published, funded, or otherwise promoted.  Why wouldn’t an agency publish such a list?  How do we define best available science?

The agency is discussing the request.  Junk science at best is distracting and at worse destructive.  Yet, some questions of technical and scientific validity are not simple.  A finding of best available science includes context and subjective considerations.  More importantly, most large decisions made by agencies aren’t really technical decisions, but multiple value choices, informed by scientific and technical information.

Facts or Values?

Administrators need to discern what decision is needed.  Fact-finding relies on a specific approach.  Joe Friday, fictional detective of Dragnet fame and ultimate seeker of truth, epitomized this.  He started each investigation with the simple statement, “Just the facts Ma’am.”

A fact-based technical investigation assumes:

  • There is a single CORRECT answer
  • FACTS can be discerned
  • Professional STANDARDS guide investigation
  • Results can be consistently REPLICATED
  • Assumptions can be BOUNDED (variables are relatively limited or accounted for)

Facts have limitations.  Researcher bias has been documented and facts can be overlooked when results differ from established theory.  Traditional, technical approaches can constrain consideration of ground truth or native science. (These are the experiences and stories of those observing and living with the system under investigation).  Even so, the fact based approach remains essential to good government.

Values decisions follow a different form:

  • Stakeholders view these decisions as political
  • Conflict is likely
  • Resolution may require an interest-based approach
  • Decisions relate to the good of society

Values decisions are hard.  Scientific training doesn’t make someone more qualified to decide what’s good for society.  Science and technical analysis can demonstrate ways to achieve a good but it cannot resolve a values conflict.

When agencies are confused about the difference between technical and values choices, stakeholders often begin to second-guess the agency technically.

What to Do

Making a values choice while using good facts requires merging three factors typically managed separately: the values, the proposed solutions, and the technical analysis.  We manage these in silos because stakeholders typically present values issues (their interests) as solutions to problems.  Stakeholders, surprisingly often, have not fully explored their interests.  Technical teams intentionally strive to dispassionately study solutions.  For example:

Parents worried about speeding cars at a school propose a stop sign.  Neighbors and the fire department are opposed.  Facts are      analyzed.   Experts present information on pedestrian accidents, idling car air pollution, and delayed fire response times in an emergency.  All the facts are true.  Many facts are questioned.  A decision is made.  Someone is unhappy.

In this example, the agency needs to merge the silos. The stakeholder solutions, interests and values, and the technical analysis need to be managed together.  Connecting the dots will ensure the right problem will be solved.  Do the parents need a stop sign or do they need safe children?  The change in the question changes the facts we seek.

Collaboration among the parties and disciplines ensures facts will be relevant and more readily accepted.  Better facts then support better decisions.

I will cover HOW to do this in a future entry.  Meanwhile, good public policy depends on valid science.  Administrators, stakeholders, and scientists need to work together to discern what decisions to make and what facts are needed. This may be an iterative process.  Connecting the dots leads to optimum solutions.

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8 thoughts on “Just the Facts, Maam

  1. I am not sure what “better facts” means. I am wondering, if we have a collection of facts on the table before us (assuming that they are indeed facts; tested and retested, supported by evidence, etc.), could we set about the task of sorting them into categories of good, better, best…maybe even as bad facts? What criteria would we use? Something to puzzle over today.

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  2. I am not sure what “better facts” means. Assuming that we have a collection of facts (and that they are indeed facts; supported by data, testing, retesting, etc.) at our disposable, I’m wondering what criteria we would use to designate some of our facts as good, better, or maybe even, best…could there be “bad facts?” Something to puzzle over today.

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  3. @Margaret. You are right that making the right policy decision is not a matter of making everyone happy. An important point of this article is that by using an interest-based approach we can ensure we are at least asking the correct questions and solving the right problems. In terms of the public dialog, people do not always agree with outcomes. Even so, it is incumbent on public decision makers to treat people fairly and give multiple points of view a fair hearing. I think some of what you may be reacting to, and what has confused the conversation, is that in some cases opinions are treated as facts. They are not the same. There are a lot of reasons this happens, and perhaps that could be the subject of a post I do in the future.

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  4. @Margaret. You are right that making the right policy decision is not a matter of making everyone happy. An important point of the discussion is that by using an interest-based approach we can ensure we are asking the correct questions and solving the right problems to begin with. In terms of the public dialog, people do not always agree with outcomes but it is incumbent on public decision makers to treat people fairly and give multiple points of view a fair hearing. I think some of what you may be reacting to, and what has confused the conversation, is that in some cases opinions are treated as facts. I am sure many of us can give examples of why this is a problem. There are a lot of reasons this happens, and perhaps that could be the subject of a post I do in the future.

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  5. Making sound decisions about public policy does not mean attempting to make everyone happy. What is valued when technical decisions are made is a recognition that good science and not junk science is used to arrive at these solutions. The level of anti-intellectualism in our country is disturbing. One one hand, most people seem to want their children to go to college, but on the other hand, too many want to challenge the learning and efforts to develop critical thinking. It appears they want their children to have “the ticket” for employment or some sense of esteem, but they too often dismiss or belittle the science. Sorry state of affairs.

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  6. I have seen these difficulties play out in a current citizen discussion project on “human impacts on climate”. This article would help many participants shift their facts and values.

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  7. Boy, oh boy, have I seen these issues play out in an ongoing citizen discussion project on “human impacts on climate”!

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