Recent arguments about Syria have provoked memories of the evidence in the so-called ‘dodgy dossier’ used to help support action against Iraq. Professor Rob Briner, Vice-Chair of the international Centre for Evidence-Based Management, describes how we can do better this time in marshalling evidence for – or against – war.
I start to feel uneasy when people make strong claims which they do not support in an evidence-based way. Some internal mental process is triggered that fills my head with questions such as: “How do you know that?”, “What do you mean by evidence?”, “Couldn’t that just happen by chance?” or “What do you really mean?”
Sometimes these claims are about ordinary everyday stuff. If they turn out not to be accurate it probably don’t matter too much. But others are much more important. If they turn out to be wrong the consequences could be disastrous. The on-going debate about military action in Syria is provides a great example of the role of evidence in decision-making, irrelevant of your person view on the situation.
Evidence-based practice in any field is about making decisions through the careful, explicit and critical use of different types of evidence. It’s not about perfection or the truth. It’s simply about trying to use more relevant and more reliable evidence to inform decisions. By doing so, decision-making processes and outcomes are likely to be improved.
But how might an evidence-based approach be relevant here? Which sources of evidence should be used? How can this be done in a more conscientious, explicit and judicious way? And how can evidence be communicated so that it allows us to better understand the basis of such decisions?
Four different sources of evidence are relevant to evidence-based practice. The first of these is evidence drawn from practitioner experience and expertise. In this case, the practitioners are politicians and their political and military advisors. Many will have witnessed recent and similar situations which provide experiential evidence about the wisdom, or otherwise, of taking action. But which particular experiences are being used? Are they relevant here? Are they valid?
The second source is contextual evidence from intelligence reports, UN investigations and the information publically available through various media. Here too we need to ask questions. What is it really capable of telling us? How confident should we be and why? The basic argument in favour or action is that the Syrian authorities are using chemical weapons and can be deterred through limited military action. Although contextual evidence has been released by both the UK Government and the US Government these statements are short on detail. It is claimed that more cannot be provided as it must remain classified though some are unconvinced and others have argued that the evidence needs to be considered much more carefully.
Existing research is the third source of evidence. Underlying the argument in favour taking military action is the idea that an attack will act as a deterrent. But what is the historical evidence for this idea? Can countries be deterred in this way? What does historical evidence tell us of the possible unintended consequences of such actions?
Fourth, is evidence drawn from the views and values of stakeholders. In this situation there are many stakeholders including those in in Syria and their neighbours, the wider international community, and anyone who will be affected by the decision. But what are their views and values? Can we gauge their strength? Are they valid or misplaced?
Evidence-based approaches in any context allow us to better understand and evaluate the reasoning and evidence behind different points of view and to become more active participants in debates and decisions.
Recent arguments about Syria have for many provoked memories of the evidence presented in the so-called ‘dodgy dossier’ used to help support action against Iraq. In that case it seemed that evidence was selected and presented in ways specifically intended to justify a course of action based on a decision that had already been taken. In other words, the decision motivated the use of evidence and not the other way around. This was a striking example of how not to make decisions based on a conscientious, explicit and critical evaluation of the best available evidence. Let’s hope that this time it’s different.
The views are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the Alliance for Useful Evidence.