Well, the work of data scientists, evaluators, researchers – the people who engage in generating the information and evidence for program design and policymaking – is fundamentally about revealing truth. Often the truths are specific, not universal: This program was supposed to improve nutritional status a lot but it only improved it a little – or maybe not at all. Or, this change in policy will leave millions of people without basic health care.
Specific, yes, but intrinsically important, because they are part of an aspiration that we be truthful in public affairs – that true, verifiable, reproducible information is shining a light to frighten off the purveyors of falsehoods and ignorance.
Now, associating our work with the value of truth does not mean that we need to be reductionist or rigid about one unique truth or one way to understand the world. But it does mean that we are, each in our own way, trying to contribute to a full comprehension, and an appreciation for distinguishing facts from opinion, even when they are inconvenient.
But this work is not only about truth. It’s also about justice.
Analytic types have often left the fight for justice to others, to people who say they take a “rights-based approach” or who self-identify as human rights activists. But I believe that we need to state, affirmatively, clearly, and repeatedly, that what we’re doing is part and parcel of a millennia-long fight for justice – the struggle for just allocation of resources in a society, or distributive justice.
Let’s consider the elements of distributive justice. One important part is the question of what constitutes “just allocation”? As a society, decision-makers are routinely asked to make tradeoffs between conditions that are not intrinsically comparable: the wellbeing of a baby versus an elderly person, the welfare of those of us living today versus our descendants two generations hence. Societies have to make these choices around which there are no objective guides or guardrails, and individuals and groups draw on profound beliefs, whether from religion, historical precedent, philosophical tenets, or other sources. In the abstract, these are not issues on which the evidence community has any special claim, although we can and, in my view should, engage in our personal capacity.
What many in this room, and empirical analysts around the world, do contribute every day are the essential ingredients that make a quest for distributive justice real. They – we – offer the necessary information that permits those who are pursuing social choices to know what they are actually doing and how to do it better.
Values abstracted from implementation are insufficient to achieve distributive justice – and that’s where the evidence comes in. Fairness can be achieved only if full and unbiased information is available about current conditions, and about the costs and benefits of one way of acting – one policy option – versus another. Yes, we could guess or assume. But when measurement is possible, guesses and assumptions are lazy and irresponsible; not for the people most dedicated to a just outcome.
I am making a simple point: Empirical analysis is not a substitute for the value judgments that inform a theory of justice in any society. But empirical analysis is an essential complement to those value judgments, helping to turn the “what we believe” into the “what we do.”
As a final part of this big-picture discussion of the moral core of your work, I want to talk about the contributions that evidence-informed policymaking can make in service of the value of human progress. On any given day, human beings have choices to make about whether we maintain the status quo, doing things as we have always done them, or we work to advance, perfect, optimize, and seek a better form of ourselves as individuals and our societies as collectives.
Virtually all religions encourage or mandate ever-purer and more loving thoughts and behavior, whether for benefit in this life or the next one. The size of the self-help industry alone speaks to the impulse toward continuous improvement; businesses are judged on the basis of year-on-year growth; and nation-states are constantly trying to grow their economies, improve the health and wellbeing of their citizens, and sometimes expand their global power through military means. I think it’s safe to say that, in general, human beings seek to create better lives and better societies.