Jargonbuster questions 'evidence-based'

The World Today Published 5 October 2012 Updated 7 December 2018 1 minute READ

Ian Blair, the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, wrote in The Times about the new College of Policing, which will be, he said, ‘based around the emerging doctrine of evidence-based police management’. Based ‘around’ is bad enough, but it is ‘evidence-based’ that really jars. It seems to imply that previous practice was based on prejudice.

This compound adjective seems to have caught on in medicine in the 1990s and spread like a hospital superbug. It was picked up by New Labour and disseminated across Whitehall after 1997, as a way of codifying Tony Blair’s catchphrase: ‘What matters is what works.’ It takes a true Blairite, however, to expose the meaninglessness of the phrase.

In his new book, Education, Education, Education, Andrew Adonis, who was an education adviser in No 10 and then Schools Minister, tells how he argued with sceptical officials in the Department for Education. ‘We all professed to support “evidence-based policy” but disagreed about the evidence.’ Adonis was sure academy schools would work as he had set up the first few, but the Department wanted to wait for exam results.

Seven years after the first academies opened, an independent assessment showed them to be more successful than the schools they replaced. ‘Which all goes to show that, when it comes to contested reform, consensus on “the evidence” often follows years after the chance to act decisively upon it,’ Adonis writes.

Which goes to show that ‘evidence’ is not always ‘proof’. It all depends on how evidence is interpreted and judgment exercised. Next time you see the phrase ‘evidence-based’, delete it mentally and see if there is any meaning left in the sentence.