My entry from March 2 played, very seriously, with the kind of deep play policy makers in the world of schooling engaged in when they released invalid scores purported to tell how well individual teachers taught. On March 9th, James B. Stewart of the New York Times, asked “Would Americans be better off if General Motors and Chrysler had simply gone bankrupt, without benefit of taxpayer assistance?” and he raised the question of the kind of evidence one could use to answer such a question. What picked my curiosity is the following comments:
Unlike a science experiment, in which variables can be changed and the experiment repeated, we can’t turn back the clock, let the auto companies go bankrupt and compare the results with what we have today, which is an American auto industry that is, by nearly all measures, healthier than it’s been in many years. G.M. and Chrysler, not to mention Ford, which didn’t get taxpayer money but benefited indirectly, are profitable, hiring more workers, competing more effectively, gaining market share and building better cars and trucks.
He then proceeded to make comparisons with other companies that were, or not, helped by the government when they face bankruptcy. Essentially, he was using history rather than “evidence-based” empirical research to argue in favor of a political decision.
Now, of course, history, like anthropology, is precisely not an experimental science and yet it may more useful to “politic” makers, that is politicians, as actors, rather than “policy” makers as advisors to the actor. The very small group (Obama, Geithner, ??) who decided to bail out General Motors could not rely on “evidence.” They had to rely, in the best sense of all these words, their ideology, their common sense, and the conversations they must have had.
In other words, they placed a major bet. It looks like they won. But this was about the deepest of deep plays. The only deeper I can imagine is Roosevelt or Wilson getting America into World Wars.
Back in New York, it is probably the case that Bloomberg made a similar bet when he had the test scores released. He could not wait for the “evidence” that this release would lead to better teaching. By the time this evidence was in, then the political problem would probably have been moot. We can disagree with his decisions. We can note the irony that people who have prided themselves on being “data-driven” made a major decision in the absence of data. But we see the decision for what it is, a political decision, not a policy decision. And as one approaches political decisions, history, and anthropology, may be more useful than “experimental” social sciences.
How can we convince policy/politic makers that evidence-based research is not the way to a better democracy?