Knowledge for Use: Making the Most of Social Science for Better Policies

Monday, February 20, 2017: 9:00 AM-10:30 AM
Room 310 (Hynes Convention Center)
Nancy Cartwright, Durham University and University of California, San Diego, Durham, United Kingdom
How is social science knowledge to be used in policy design and deliberation – how should it be used so that policy outcomes are more effective and more reliably predictable, competing moral and cultural values addressed? Knowledge for Use (K4U) is a new ambitious philosophical study that is looking for answers that will be intelligible and practicable for those who need to estimate and balance the myriad of factors that go into policymaking.

Current best practice, advocated by the widespread ‘evidenced-based policy and practice’ (EBPP) movement and implemented in numerous ‘What Works’ Centers around the world (esp. in the US and UK) polices knowledge production: What research results are well enough established to serve as evidence? There is little attention to the question, ‘What might they might be evidence for.’ Yet even this question is focussed on the knowledge production side: ‘We have produced a good product; what can we do with it?’ Knowledge users have a very different question: ‘Will the policy we are considering work here, and for whom? And is it, all told, morally, politically, culturally, economically acceptable?’ There is no formula for assessing the variety of evidence it takes to answer either of these questions nor for how to put it together to arrive at a well supported judgement.

‘Will this policy work here’ is what philosophers call a singular causal claim, by contrast with general causal principles (like ‘Gravity works everywhere’). Few policies figure in general principles, or even in ones that hold for the most part. Context matters essentially; each case must be evaluated anew. As a help to policy deliberators grappling with their local context, K4U is constructing a catalogue of types of evidence for singular causal claims: To evaluate whether this policy will work here, look for these types of evidence. This talk will present the catalogue as developed so far and show how it is grounded in relatively uncontroversial assumptions about singular causation.