Why the humanities are crucial in evidence-based decision-making

The rise of technical metrics for accountability has managers straitjacketed to best practices and could overlook the human factor in decision-making, argues Alfredo Cumerma

十二月 10, 2018

In this era of evidence-based decision-making (EBDM), the humanities are becoming increasingly important as a means of informing professional practice.

Long touted as the sine qua non by university administrators, who call for academic departments to justify their value in terms of workplace skills, the so-called evidence behind EBDM is beginning to unravel.

Researchers are now recognising EBDM’s weaknesses and arguing for a more holistic approach to decisions that takes into account human subjectivity.

In medicine, the field in which EBDM was first developed, experts have found that this method excludes narrative forms of knowledge in favour of the randomised, controlled clinical trial. Any study that does not adhere to the quantitative rules of such experiments is sidelined as “inferior”.

However, Trisha Greenhalgh, dean for research impact at Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, finds that “deeper study is also needed into the less algorithmic components of clinical method such as intuition and heuristic reasoning” – skills that are concretely acquired in a humanistic education.

Among the pitfalls she identifies in medicine are the research agendas driven by new technology or drugs that offer only slight improvements in patient outcomes. “Evidence-based medicine,” she says, is “a science of marginal gains.” It creates a system for merely legitimising the market presence of various firms.

This questioning of the evidence in EBDM extends to the field of management, too. Kevin Morrell and Mark Learmonth of Durham University Business School assert that analysing the unique situation of each workplace (what they call the “here”) is “the essence of managing people, and very often it is not answered by looking ‘there’ – whether that is in another workplace, or in an aggregated and simplified body of evidence”.

But are humans even capable of abiding by the evidence?

If we were to consider the daily ins and outs of public policy, we would certainly respond in the negative.

According to Joshua Newman of the School of Social and Policy Studies at Flinders University in Australia, EBDM is rarely observed in government. Instead, it plays a role in the formulation of advice, where evidence is used to support or deny various policy options available to the government.

However, often constrained by external factors like the party, budget limits or continuity of policy, the decisions themselves veer towards personal affect.

“Governments continue to enact policies that are counter to the best available and most widely accepted evidence,” he affirms.

Another study by Nabil Amara, Mathieu Ouimet and Réjean Landry of Laval University discovered that among 833 Canadian public servants, evidence-based methods were more frequently used to justify actions already taken than to inform future decisions.

Evidence, then, may be losing steam. As universities deliberate on what to do with their “troublesome” humanities departments, they may want to consult what evidence has to say about itself: that the human factor in decision-making often overrides our presumed rationality.

Learning to understand this human condition is therefore crucial for producing the next generation of leaders. Individuals who are not only “work-smart” but “people-smart”, and who are not only skilled but educated.

The discernment required to effectively use the information acquired for EBDM is a skill learned in disciplines such as English, history or modern languages. The collation of fragmentary evidence should lead to decisions supported by research, yes; but these should not be decisions that marginalise other kinds of evidence that are clearly demonstrating an impact.

And while we need more humanist professionals from academic departments, it is true that they have also been loathe to let go of their own hierarchies of evidence. Why can’t we meet in the middle?

There is a facet of democracy embedded in the right to choose when or when not to follow EBDM. In the management of our universities, this means reflecting about the kind of society we want to create.

Gert Biesta of the University of Exeter believes that the focus on an exclusively technocratic, intervention-based knowledge economy actually undermines the effectiveness of teachers. When teachers are subject to a set of “best practices” blindly administered in their specific environments, what occurs is a loss of the kind of education “that is sensitive to and relevant for their own contextualized settings”.

EBDM is therefore suspect in education as well. Biesta contends that unifying research solely around principles of efficiency and effectivity assumes that the evidence-based goal is always the most desirable.

In many cases, it is not. A patient may refuse a proven treatment, like a manager may refuse a pay rise. EBDM sidesteps some of the problems that might be uncovered through a more cultural approach.

“By looking through a different theoretical lens,” Biesta remarks, “we may also be able to understand problems where we did not understand them before.”

To withstand the onslaught of evidence-based dogma, the humanities must modernise themselves and produce more critically equipped professionals. This, in turn, requires that they loosen the reins around their own canonical doctrines.

Alfredo Cumerma is a Gilman research fellow at Johns Hopkins University, where he teaches Spanish language and conducts research on Latin American culture and US foreign policy.


Print headline: Interrogate the evidence

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Reader's comments (2)

It's not a case of either/or... both are needed. Looking at public policy is a red herring, politicians are more interested in self and ideology than any kind of reasoned debate whether or not it comes with evidence - they've made up what passes for their minds, don't confuse them with the facts.
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