The Polar Express(ion) of Evidence

As previously ranted and raved:
“Evidence has massive political significance. The type of Evidence that is politically compelling is often unrepresentative. Our challenge, as a specialism, is to find better ways to articulate representative insights. That’s the most challenging and infuriating part. It’s why we need more than just bean counters.”

Evidence, is a form of communication and is ultimately about persuasion: whether that’s persuading someone of progress, performance, to change their mind or just to persuade them to engage more, to keep reading. According to Aristotle (name drop), there are 3 key methods of persuasion:

  • Character (ethos): essentially the credibility of the source, whether it has good sense, good will, and good moral character
  • Emotion (pathos): building a common bond through emotion or shared identity (either of the character or of the topics)
  • Logic / reasons (logos): demonstrating clear and logical arguments

What we see currently is that the most politically compelling evidence has become polarised. At one end is the perceived credibility of high level quant stats: of graphs, dashboards and infographics. Fighting for attention out of the qual corner, it’s the emotive story: the case study with photos, names and experiences. Rarely are these two connected in a meaningful way, they are merely associated, and loosely. And that means that we have a few problems:

  • The broad spectrum high level stats remain reductive in terms of explanatory value
  • The narrow, but deep, insights from individual level case studies float disconnected from the statistics that they are supposed to better articulate

The connection and therefore the narrative between the two, are missing, because the stages in between are missing. It’s like having a cheese cake with just the hard, biscuity base and the sharp but sweet fruit topping. No combining, connecting agent inbetween. Nothing to take you from one extreme to the other in a smooth, relevant way. So to go back to Aristotle’s model, the most compelling types of evidence should appeal to cognitive credibility and emotional resonance all within a logical narrative that holds the information all together. And narrative is the critical word there.

So, critiquing’s easy and self-fulfilling. What about solutions? Well, here’s an abstract one: theories of change. If done well (and I’ll go into what I think that may look like in another post) theories of change can provide that narrative structure. Ultimately that’s how I see them. They are a complex narrative, punctuated by inputs, actions, desired change and foreseen contradictions and inhibitions (otherwise known as assumptions). They tell you what you’re aiming for, how you’re going to try and get there, and the potential challenges that will need to be faced, explored and hopefully overcome to do so. Get your theory of change right, and the rest should follow. And by the rest, that could be anything from logframes to communications plans, programme development to learning plans. And of course, whether your theory of change is ‘right’ or not is a matter of perspective and timing, so adapting them is critical. But you can only update them if you’re actively seeking insight throughout them. But I’m sure I’ll need to do much more persuasion on all that, to follow, with some help from the ancient Greeks perhaps.

The Polar Express(ion) of Evidence

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