We need more experts participating in political debates: Continuing the legacy of Professor Carol Weiss

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Iris Stucki, the winner of the 2017 Carol Weiss Prize for outstanding early career research, discusses her winning article, ‘The use of evidence in public debates in the media: the case of Swiss direct-democratic campaigns in the health policy sector’. The article is published in Evidence & Policy and is free to access for 3 months.

Arguments referring to evidence are rare in Swiss direct-democratic campaigns. I took 5030 media items and analysed how many of them made a reference to evidence. At less than 7% the result is sobering, and experts, the actors that make most use of evidence in their arguments, are also scarce.

 

Why is this result of deep concern?

The success of democracy depends on an informed public. To be able to make good decisions, voters need to receive information about evidence, in particular evaluation studies, showing whether a policy works or not. Of particular importance for Swiss voters in deciding about a policy is the campaign coverage by the mass media. Here, debates between actors with different interests take place and arguments from both proponents and opponents are conveyed. And here, political arguments could be substantiated by evidence.

“The success of democracy depends on an informed public.”

 

Political use of evidence

Political use of evidence takes place when evidence is used to legitimise a predetermined position. Political use of evidence has had negative connotations for a long time, because, research has often been intended for use in improving and adapting political measures, rather than being used in political arguments. However, the positive view of the political use of evidence recognises that evidence is open to interpretation. Against this background, the use of evaluation studies and other research to support political arguments is nothing to condemn. On the contrary, presenting different evidence-based perspectives enriches political debate. As early as 1979, Carol Weiss stated that research, to the extent that it supports the position of one group, “gives the advocates of that position confidence, reduces their uncertainties, and provides them an edge in the continuing debate”.

My analysis of the use of evidence in direct-democratic campaigns shows that evidence is almost exclusively used in a political way. The good news is that the Swiss media display proponents and opponents in their political use of evidence in a balanced way, that is, pro and con arguments are conveyed in a similar proportion. The bad news is that not all of the actors are given equal coverage. Journalists and politicians dominate the discourse, while experts, the actors most likely to ground their arguments in evidence, appear most rarely. One way to improve this situation would be for the media to integrate experts to a greater extent in their reporting. The simple solution, a fruitful collaboration between journalists and experts seems to be complicated in reality.

 

Knowledge-based journalism

In an ideal world of knowledge-based journalism, journalists serve as explainers of science and facilitators of evidence-based discussions while experts recognise that they have a role to play in educating the public in policy debates. However, such collaboration seems to be tough for experts especially, as they have to be convinced that they want to participate, to take position and to eventually let go of their knowledge. This is best illustrated by a statement in a discussion forum on the question why there are so few experts in political debates. One discussant said that experts have to abandon a part of their identity as scientists when intervening in the world of politics, and have to show idealist ambitions to engage in political debates.

“Ultimately, both journalists and experts are in pursuit of the same goal: an enlightened public to avoid the emergence of a post-truth democracy.”

But perhaps this is the path to take. Ultimately, both journalists and experts are in pursuit of the same goal: an enlightened public to avoid the emergence of a post-truth democracy. Thus, I close with a call for more experts to participate in political communication. I draw, again, on Carol Weiss, who recognized 20 years ago, that experts have the capacity and the responsibility to actively present evidence in the public arena and explain its scope and relevance to citizens. I am convinced that when experts who are involved in the production of evidence collaborate with journalists and publicly share analysis that is relevant in the political world, they both contribute to making democracy more evidence-prone, and citizens more enlightened.

 

Iris Stucki is deputy head of the Federal Office for the Equality of People with Disabilities in Switzerland. She received her PhD in Public Administration in 2016 for her dissertation on the use of evidence in direct democracy. Her research interests cover evidence-based policy making and voting behaviour.

Her article ‘The use of evidence in public debates in the media: the case of Swiss direct-democratic campaigns in the health policy sector’, published in Evidence & Policy is free to access for 3 months.

 

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