Research and evidence in the ’post-truth’ era

Published on 6 February 2017

As the UK TV broadcaster Channel 4 launches its fake news week, debates around ‘alternative facts’ and the ‘alternative facts’ themselves continue to be liked, shared and mentioned across social media and Trump adviser Myron Ebell talks of US voters’ rejection of the ‘expertariat’, where does that leave research and evidence? And where does it leave Institutes like IDS whose raison d’etre is to help define and address global challenges such as inequality, extreme poverty, climate change, disease and conflict that affect us all, albeit in different ways.

Attribution/copyright for image is By VOA News (voanews.com) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Image: By VOA News (voanews.com) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Time to pull up the ivory drawbridge?

In what some are calling a ‘post-truth’ era is it time for the experts – who in some quarters have been dismissed as irrelevant, disconnected, an unnecessary luxury – to retreat into their academic ivory towers and pull up their ivory drawbridges? Or is it time to do things differently? I think we need to face these debates and the increased scrutiny that we find ourselves under head on, and more effectively demonstrate the contribution that research, evidence and knowledge can make to create a fairer, safer and more sustainable world. But this in turn means working in partnership across borders, across disciplines, across sectors and across different groups of people, appreciating and working with the politics that always pervades knowledge.

The need for research and evidence – but done differently

Take the example of UK aid and development policy. It has come under increasing scrutiny from the media, parliament and the British public who are all, understandably, asking questions about the difference it can make, and the value for money it offers, at a time when pressures on the public purse are greater than ever.

By identifying what works, where, how and why, research and evidence can help ensure UK aid and development policy is as effective as possible and that taxpayers’ money is not wasted. But this needs research organisations and institutions to work in partnership with governments and parliaments, international NGOs and local civil society, citizens and communities to understand who can bring about, as well as who obstructs, transformative change. So we can be strategic about getting evidence to the right people in the right places at the right time.

At IDS we call this approach engaged excellence and it underpins all of our work including that undertaken as part of a five year accountable grant funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID). Through the programme, IDS worked with DFID and other global partners to identify practicable policy solutions and real-time responses to some of the challenges the world faces right now and could face in the future as a result of urbanisation, the advance of digital technologies and increased pressures on natural resources.

For example, IDS and partners’ research and knowledge helped turn around a failing government and humanitarian response to the 2013-15 Ebola epidemic that initially met with resistance by communities, helping inform the action that brought about an end to a disease that killed more than 11,000 but could have been far worse. This UK funded research also led to the development of a Hunger and Nutrition Commitment Index (HANCI) which has held governments in developed and developing countries accountable to their promises and policies to reduce hunger and improve nutrition, engaging with MPs and civil society organisations to bring about real policy change in Malawi, Zambia, Bangladesh, Nepal and Tanzania. Indeed the Partnership for Nutrition in Tanzania has collaborated with IDS researchers to author an article documenting how these changes were achieved in Tanzania in an issue of the IDS Bulletin that brings together examples of engaged excellence in practice.

Strengthening the case for aid and development

Research and evidence can also help tell powerful stories of why we need to tackle global challenges, and strengthen the rationale for the vital role that the UK has always had, and should continue to play in these efforts. This is all the more important in an interconnected world in which UK national interest is intimately entwined with tackling issues of economic change, conflict, disease and climate change that are no respecters of borders.

But we need to become better and more confident in telling these stories, moving outside of our filter bubbles and beyond a ‘war of facts and alternative facts’. We need better to understand the diverse audiences we are seeking to engage with – their issues and experiences – so we can find the right starting points and framing.

Navigating knowledge, power and policy

At the same time, kicking back against ‘post-truth’ fashions should not push us into the trap of implying that we were once in a world of ‘truth’. Facts and values have always been intertwined. And getting better at story-telling shouldn’t push us into telling singular stories, as if those appealing to the audiences we want to engage with are the only ones that matter. Narratives are always and everywhere multiple, and our task is also to ‘open up’ and bring alternatives into view – while rejecting those that clearly have no basis in fact at all.

And emphasising the value of research and evidence to policy shouldn’t imply a direct connect; power and interests, and the interactions of multiple actors, are always at stake. Operating in this new ‘post-truth’ age isn’t about resurrecting a singular world of universal facts, then, but about being savvy in navigating these politics of the policy process, and the vital roles of knowledge in them.