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  • The Epistemology of Evidence-Based Policy

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Anne Schwenkenbecher (Murdoch U, AUS)

Remco Heesen (London School of Economics and Political Science, UK)

Chad Hewitt (Lincoln U, NZ)

The Epistemology of Evidence-Based Policy: How Philosophy Can Facilitate the Science-Policy Interface

February - June 2023

How well do masks protect in the pandemic? How do the side effects of vaccination compare with the consequences of the disease? What is the impact of school closures on students’ mental health? During the Covid 19 pandemic, it has become clear how heavily political decisions rely on information from science. And it has become evident that research findings can inform policy decisions, but cannot replace them.

The pandemic has thus provided a vivid example of the problems posed by evidence-based policy (EBP) approaches. The basic idea of these approaches, which more and more governments are adopting, is that decisions should be based on evidence that can be or has been externally verified and validated. Measures and programs should also be reliably evaluated, preferably with the participation of interested citizens. This is intended to improve the quality of decisions and measures, while at the same time ensuring greater transparency and consistency in decision-making.

Yet adopting EBP creates epistemic responsibilities. First, it must be clear how information is obtained and how it is evaluated; when it is necessary to obtain additional information, and what information may not be considered at all. What, for example, counts as evidence? Who is responsible for providing evidence? Where should the burden of proof lie? Which experts can be trusted, especially when they disagree? How do the values and interests of individuals and organizations affect what evidence is gathered, how it is interpreted, and what policy decisions are made (partially) on that basis? How far do our epistemic obligations extend?

In addition, it must be clarified how decisions under uncertainty are made, because science, too, can usually provide only limited and provisional knowledge, for example, in the case of an emerging infectious disease. The questions scientists deal with are also very different from the questions politicians have to answer. Scientific results thus must be prepared in such a way that they can be understood by those responsible in politics, while politicians must at least to a certain extent engage with the scientific way of working and thinking to come to responsible decisions. Thus, communication problems often arise at the interface between science and politics.

How do we decide on the basis of statistical data? How should a study with a result that is statistically not significant be evaluated? How many test subjects are sufficient for a study to be convincing? How does the duty to seek further evidence relate to the duty to act quickly to save lives? In addition, how is scientific evidence evaluated in relation to other factors, such as communicability and acceptability of decisions for the public? Can the attempt to rely on scientific evidence do justice to the necessary complexity of political negotiation processes? Or could it ultimately lead to an escape from responsibility on the part of decision-makers?

Many of these challenges are ethical and epistemological in nature. Therefore, in this research group we bring together philosophers with policy makers and experts from the fields of science, politics, regulation and legislation. Together, we will explore successes and failures to acquire, consider or incorporate evidence into public policy, using real-world cases where conflicting values exists in environmental biosecurity and public health.


Workshop 1

(Mis-)Interpretation of Scientific Evidence

30 - 31 March 2023


Thursday, 30 March

09:00 – 9:15 Welcome and Introduction by the Research Group
09:15 – 10:00 Alkistis Elliott-Graves (Bielefeld, GER): Philosophy to the Rescue! The Case of Model Complexity in Fisheries Science
10:00 – 10:45 Dunja Šešelja (Eindhoven, NLD): Towards Epistemically Responsible Fact-Checking of Scientific Claims
10:45 – 11:15 Coffee Break
11:15 – 12:00 Thomas Therriault (Nanaimo, CAN): The (Mis-)Use of Scientific Data/Evidence with Respect to Aquatic Invasive Species
12:00 – 12:45 Sarah Bailey (Burlington, CAN): How do Different Stakeholders Interpret the Same Data (from Ballast Water Sampling) to Lobby for Opposing Regulations
12:45 – 14:00 Lunch Break
14:00 – 14:45 Corey Dethier (Hannover, GER): Who Wants a Transparent Map? Honesty and (Mis-)Interpretation in Scientific Communication
14:45 – 15:30 Stefano Canali (Milano, ITA): Digital Health Beyond Evidence-Based Medicine? Wearables and Data Quality
15:30 – 16:00 Coffee Break
16:00 – 16:45 Cailin O'Connor (Irvine, USA): The Best Talk You'll See Today: Media Bias and the Public Understanding of Science (via Zoom)
16:45 – 17:00 Summary and Closing
17:00 – 17:45 Drinks at ZiF
18:00 Dinner

Friday, 31 March

9:00 – 10:30 Talks by the Research Group Fellows
10:30 – 11:00 Coffee Break
11:00 – 12:45 Workshop – Breakout Rooms in 4 Working Groups

Working Group 1: Corner
Working Group 2: Round Table
Working Group 3: Bits 'n' Bytes
Working Group 4: Plenarsaal (online)

12:45 - 14:00 Lunch Break
14:00 – 15:30 Feedback from the Working Groups
15:30 – 16:00 Coffee Break
16:00 – 17:30 Feedback on Ideas in the Next Phase
18:00 Dinner

Biases and Incentives in the Acquisition and Consideration of Evidence

11 - 12 May 2023

The workshop will focus primarily on so-called 'biases in the acquisition and consideration of evidence', although presentations will also discuss the epistemological problems of evidence-based policy-making in relation to the pandemic and to biosecurity management. These problems include:

  • one-sided acceptance of evidence/research findings
  • lack of consideration of marginalised groups
  • the lack of transparency about value judgements that go into policy making
  • the possible misinterpretation of scientific methods
  • the handling of knowingly leaky evidence/uncertainty

Other questions are whether there is 'permissible bias', how the systematic intimidation of scientists affects evidence acquisition and consideration and the problems associated with the politics of evidence utilization.



Thursday, 11 May

09:00 – 9:15 Welcome and Introduction by the Research Group
09:15 – 10:00 Sanford Goldberg (Northwestern University, AUS): Bias in Evidence Curation
10:00 – 10:45 Simon Graf (University of Leeds, UK): How to Cope with Permissible Bias?
10:45 – 11:15 Coffee Break
11:15 – 12:00 Manuela Fernandez Pinto & Anna Leuschner (Bergische Universität Wuppertal, GER): Epistemic Effects of the Systematic Intimidation of Scientists
12:00 – 12:45 Morgan Thompson (Bielefeld University, GER): Justifying Participatory Research: Distinguishing Epistemic, Political, and Moral Reasons
12:45 – 14:00 Lunch Break
14:00 – 14:45 Justin Parkhurst (London School of Economics and Political Science, UK): Technical and Issue Bias in Evidence Use: A Cognitive-Political Framework
14:45 – 15:30 Rosemary Audu (Nigerian Institute of Medical Research, NG): Bias in Biomedical Research: Experience and Recommendations (online)
15:30 – 16:00 Coffee Break
16:00 – 16:45 Emanuele Ratti (University of Bristol, UK): A Capability-Based Approach to Ethics-Based Auditing in AI
16:45 – 17:30 Jesse Uneke (African Institute for Health Policy & Health Systems, NG): Bridging the "Know-Do Gap" in Evidence-to-Policymaking Progress: Perspectives of Policymakers from the ECOWAS African Region (online)
17:30 – 17:45 Summary and Closing
18:00 Dinner


Friday, 12 May

9:00 – 09:45 Rik Peels & Charlotte Rulkens (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, NL): Bias in Replication: Reflections on a Rembrandt Attribution Case Study
9:45 – 10:30 Henn Ojaveer (International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, ICES): Evidence Basis for ICES Advice on Incidental Bycatch of Protected, Endangered and Threatened Species
10:30 – 11:00 Coffee Break
11:00 – 12:45 Talks by the Research Group Fellows
12:45 - 14:00 Lunch Break
14:00 – 14:45 Sigrid Graumann (German Ethics Council): Ethical Policy Advice in a Situation of Uncertainty and a Lack of Evidence
14:45 – 15:30 Feedback on Ideas in the Next Phase
15:30 – 16:00 Coffee Break
16:00 – 17:30 Workshop – Breakout Rooms in 3 Working Groups
18:30 Dinner

Epistemic Standards of Due Care

28 - 29 June 2023

The workshop will deal with the question of what it means to hold beliefs responsibly and what standards of epistemic due care are appropriate in the context of public policy. While this question is increasingly attracting attention in philosophical circles, this is still an emerging field of research in epistemology and much more so in philosophy of public policy. The workshop will therefore address the following questions:

  • What are the epistemic obligations of different agents involved in evidence-based policy?
  • Which different roles and responsibilities for knowledge producers (researchers), knowledge users (policy makers) and knowledge brokers (intermediary organizations) can be identified?
  • What are policy makers epistemic obligations to be 'in the know', to avoid potentially harmful ignorance and to have enough information for responsible action?
  • How do scientists and policy makers act responsibly in a socio-political environment where certain groups of people have been discredited or taken less seriously in their capacity as 'knowers' and certain types of evidence feature less prominently in policy-making?
  • Policy-making is a group-based process: How does knowledge have to be distributed in a group for the group to be able to act/adopt decisions based on that knowledge? How can groups know or fail to know certain things/adopt certain beliefs?
  • How does the epistemic environment impact policy-makers and when is such impact problematic?


Forum on the Future of Evidence-Based Policy

14 - 16 December 2023

Find all information on the event website here.

Preliminary Programme (PDF)


Anne Schwenkenbecher

Department of Philosophy 
Murdoch University, Australia

Remco Heesen

Department of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method
London School of Economics and Political Science

Chad Hewitt

Biosecurity Research Centre 
Lincoln University, New Zealand

Dr. Alejandro Bortolus
Instituto Patagónico para el Estudio de los Ecosistemas Continentales (IPEEC-CONICET), Argentina

Dr. Emelda Chukwu
The Center for Infectious Diseases Research
The Nigerian Institute of Medical Research, Nigeria

Prof. Veli Mitova
African Centre for Epistemology and Philosophy of Science
University of Johannesburg, South Africa

Dr. Hannah Rubin
Philosophy Department
University of Missouri, USA

Dr. Mike Schneider
Philosophy Department
University of Missouri, USA

Dr. Evangelina Schwindt
Instituto de Biologia de Organismos Marinos (IBIOMAR-CONICET), Argentina

Helena Slanickova
Faculty of Philosophy
University of Groningen, The Netherlands

Dr. Temitope Sogbanmu
Department of Zoology
University of Lagos, Nigeria

Dr. Katie Woolaston
School of Law
Queensland University of Technology, Australia


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