Opinion

Scotland can’t afford to abandon centuries-worth of knowledge

by | 4 Apr 2024

Everyone knows you don't make policy out of feelings, or based on what the last person told you. That's why we didn't do it - until very recently. Time to reverse.

It is a growing concern of mine that the hyper-individualism of the identity politics age is causing a steep decline in the ‘public intellect’. We’re making policy in a way that we have the knowledge to know is wrong. Ten or 20 years ago this wouldn’t happen and now it does. It needs to stop.

This begins with a survey of 18 people who self-report that putting calorie information on menus would be bad for their mental health because it would trigger them to eat more. There are three things I want you to concentrate on throughout; tiny sample size, extremity of the circumstances of the group and reliance on self-reporting.

I want to explain why this is so fundamentally wrong and to outline the process that we as a species have developed to deal with this kind of objection. I do this not because you don’t know it, but because I hope ‘saying it out loud’ might play a small part in ending this.

Let’s deal with some basics. Humans developed means of identifying when something is wrong, we have developed a means of addressing problems, we have developed means of dealing with exceptions and we have developed methodologies for resolving disputes. Bypassing these processes is a bad idea.

First, identify a problem. Identifying a problem involves gathering qualitative, subjective information and quantitative, objective information. You ask people why they feel something is wrong and then you check it against large datasets to see the extent and prevalence of the problem, or you identify the problem through data and ask people for their experience of it.

Before we try to solve the problem we must remind ourselves of the most important rule – you never, ever make public policy for individuals. When you make policy you make it for society. That is the only possible approach. What you do will affect everyone.

Resources are not infinite, laws restrict behaviours, regulation prevent free action and so on. Someone won’t be happy, and you need to accept that someone will lose out. The goal is to maximise the wins and minimise the losses – the maximum benefit for the maximum number of people with the minimum negative impact on the others possible.

That is why you must always use society-wide datasets. If you make policy only based on the interests of a subset of society without measuring it against society as a whole, you will screw up. And that take us back to knowledge – solutions aren’t feelings, knowledge isn’t random. We have thousands of years of intellectual development to identify things as being ‘true’ and ‘false’.

We should then apply that knowledge to the problem we’ve identified – but knowledge is big and doesn’t always fit specific instances neatly, so you need to use some creativity to adapt general knowledge into specific policy. But you’re not done, because the knowledge set you’ve been relying on gives you tools to measure impacts.

Society is complex and diverse and policy is generally narrow and blunt – they will never fully resolve, so we’re on the hunt for ‘the next best thing to ideal’

Remember, we’re working with large, aggregated, verifiable datasets here (or should be) and we can plug them into knowledge structures – which enables us to estimate and model outcomes. Remember the goal – fix the problem to produce the maximum gain for the most people while reducing the negative impact for the others.

But there will be losers. Humans are genuinely diverse, physically, biologically and culturally, which means you can’t tailor-fit policy to individuals. The point is that we have a whole other set of methodologies for dealing with those whom a change doesn’t work for. This is all the business of trade-offs.

Societies are complex so you’re always trading outcomes off against each other. ‘No tax’ would be lovely, unless you want roads. Having the world’s best roads would be cracking – but not if they require a 100 per cent tax rate. Your aim is therefore to produce the best possible roads inside an affordable spending envelope. Trade-offs.

When we come across an exceptions to a rule that otherwise works we do exactly the same again – we look at an evidence-based estimate of the level of harm. If we can live with that (for example, assessing someone as so rich that increasing their tax rate is not real harm), fine. If we can’t, we find ways to exempt or mitigate – take negatively-affected groups out of the reach of the legislation or take steps to minimise harm or make up for it in some other way.

So how do we do this trading-off? How do we know we’re getting it right? There too we have developed methodologies. The one we use we call ‘pluralistic democracy’ in which we elect people to represent our views and task them to negotiate the best outcome possible.

Is any of this perfect? No. It’s just miles better than all the other ways we’ve come up with to do this. Society is complex and diverse and policy is generally narrow and blunt. They will never fully resolve, so we’re on the hunt for ‘the next best thing to ideal’. This is the best system we’ve developed.

Broadly, your aim is to take data, identify problems, postulate solutions to those problems, codify the solutions and then, best you can, assess the impact of those solutions, both positive and negative

What you should never do is work on the basis of the three things I highlight at the top – small datasets, self-reporting and extremes. We must never start making policy from the extremes, or we’d ban all knives based on the most extreme use scenario. But we must never make policy without considering the extremes (we do restrict knife sales, for good reason).

Know the worst version, but don’t base your policy only on the worse version. Which is why you never use small datasets. They may tell you what you want to hear, but not what you need to hear. It is the impact beyond your objective you’re looking for, not just your objective. Plus small datasets are unreliable in terms of fact – I know half a dozen people who believe in chemtrails. Assembling them and asking them for their feelings about it would be a bad way to make policy.

Which is also why you should never, ever make policy based on subjective reporting. It just doesn’t matter how firmly someone believes that the world is flat, you don’t base aviation policy on it. Sometimes people are just wrong, often they lack information and sometimes they deliberately manipulate answers towards a particular outcome.

Sorry for dragging you through what ought not to need said in 21st century Scotland, but here we are. Make policy for society, never individuals. Seek views, but use aggregated, verifiable data to check the validity of the views. A negative outcome for one person is never, ever ipso facto a reason not to legislate, but it may be a reason for exemptions and mitigations, since all of this involves continuous trade-offs.

Just always remember that, broadly, your aim is to take data, identify problems, postulate solutions to those problems, codify the solutions and then, best you can, assess the impact of those solutions, both positive and negative. If your solution can produce the maximum improvement with the minimum negative side effects, you’re there.

The data tells us we have a massive public health crisis related to obesity. Since the politicians are too feart to take on the industrial food industry through regulation, the next best thing is providing consumer advice. On every level this is information a consumer should have a right to. It has been modelled, measured and introduced elsewhere. The model is sound.

There is a group of people with extreme mental health issues for whom this policy may be harmful (based on self-reporting). That relates to their mental health issue, not the policy, since there are many other things that might trigger them (sweets in shops, adverts on TV). We can’t ban it all to accommodate their problems.

But we can show strong compassion and provide them with effective mental health support to try and help them deal with these problems, and we can take a society-level approach to changing our culture to lessen the pressures which created these problems.

That is a level of policy debate Scotland should aspire to, because it isn’t one we’re achieving. We’re binning thousands of years of intellectual development on the basis of hyper-individualism and as a result people seem to think it is make sense to make policy for 5,454,000 people on the basis of the self-reported views of 18 people with extreme mental health issues.

This is the farcical outcome of the anti-scientific Sturgeon belief that ‘lived experience’ trumps all, because it Instagrams better. Well I have a friend who recently died from obesity. He doesn’t get to do a focus group; it is the data that tells his story.

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