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Knowledge for Use (K4U)

Deliberating Policy

Research stream 2: Deliberating policy.

Recent work raises important questions and reservations about the usefulness of formal methods in decisions about social policy [cf Munro et al 2014]. Following rules of inference has the advantage that one knows what to do and what to do is publicly policable. But inference also has drawbacks. Rules of inference dictate not only what the outputs of inferences should be but also what kinds of inputs can be used. But there is no restriction on the kinds of information and values that must be negotiated for a good policy decision nor on how they affect what should be done. And concentrating on ticking the boxes that fill in the input for decision rules can have positively harmful effects because it distracts attention from other crucial factors that don’t fit the boxes [cf Munro 2011]. When we deliberate we do not restrict ourselves to pre-set inference schemes, which restrict the kinds of information we draw on. Nevertheless, we aim for accuracy and objectivity.

The problem is that there are no well established, systematically grounded alternatives that lay equal claim to “objectivity”. K4U tackles this challenge, by developing a radically new model of policy deliberation. Timing is good for this; there are now many different kinds of work to draw on: new philosophical work on practical reasoning–on Dewey [Brown 2012], in the mode of Hannah Arendt [Behahabib 2008], with respect to public reasoning [Gaus 2011], and on the rationality of actions [Searle 2001, Velleman 2000]; and â–ªempirical and theoretical research on: the difficulty of making decisions [Beattie & Bartas 2001], the importance of the emotions [Damasio 2000], intuitive reasoning [Kahneman 2011], cognitive biases [Gilovitch et al 2002], expertise [Whyte & Crease 2010], and evaluating methods for using group information [Solomon 2001]. A central pillar in this model will be the idea of a credible narrative: one that puts all the available information together to make as coherent an account as possible.

The switch from decision conversion from decision-making to deliberation requires a related reformation: Reconceiving objectivity. When scientific knowledge enters the public domain there is a danger that the special conceptions of objectivity that guide the sciences take over, ignoring the practices and conceptions that make for objectivity in other domains of knowledge, from the political arena to local knowledge to common sense to subject-specific expertise. If policies are to achieve the beneficial outcomes they aim for, they must build on knowledge of different kinds from different sources, where objectivity is equally valued but differently constituted. Building on the perspective of Daston & Galison’s The History of Objectivity (2007): generally the content of the concept “objectivity” is fixed by what it is intended to exclude. So K4U will pursue studies of what it is we are afraid of when we call for more objectivity in the policy process, and how those worries can be ameliorated. In the last few years concerns similar to K4U’s about objectivity have spawned a number of empirical and theoretical studies in sociology, psychology, history, science studies, and in some of the target sciences themselves. In short, there is a good starting body of research to draw on, including those conducted by other members of the K4U research group: Montuschi’s 2003, The Objects of Social Science and Reiss’s long entry in the Stanford Encyclopaedia, ‘Scientific Objectivity’.

Contact K4U

Department of Philosophy 
Durham University 
50 Old Elvet, Durham 
DH1 3HN, UK 

Tel: 0191 3346049 
Fax: 0191 3346551 

admin.k4u@durham.ac.uk

Research Stream Lead: Eleonora Montuschi

Philosopher of social science, expert on objectivity and evidence. Read more.

Research Stream Lead: Jeremy Hardie

Research associate, CPNSS, LSE; former Chair of WH Smith, Loch Fyne Restaurants and the Centre for Economic Policy Research. Read more.