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How can we best advance meaningful engagement with evidence, when acceptance of evidence is optional?


In this blog, Mary McKaskill contemplates the question: ‘How can we best advance meaningful engagement with evidence when acceptance of evidence is optional?’ 


Spoiler alert: I don’t have an answer to this question, but it’s something that’s been weighing heavy on my mind and I think should be examined within the evaluation field specifically.


Engaging with and accepting evidence – of any type - isn’t always easy, particularly when it doesn’t fully align with what we believe or feel to be true. It requires curiosity and humility: an intellectual flexibility that allows one’s assumptions to be challenged and one’s mind changed – and enthusiastically, not begrudgingly! This kind of relationship with evidence respects the scientific process, specialism and expertise, and requires claims to be verifiable by passing through various hoops of scrutiny. I’ve found it troubling to watch it become increasingly mainstream for accepting and meaningfully engaging with evidence to be ‘optional’.


In many circumstances, evidence has been repositioned to sit on par with opinion. Rational discussions are difficult to have as everyone feels entitled to hold and defend their opinions, even when they are baseless at worst, or intuition at best. Emotions run high and common ground is incredibly challenging to find when either side of the argument is able to expand without the ‘anchor evidence’ keeping the discussion grounded.


Worrying also is the use of individual experiences as counterarguments to larger collective bodies of evidence. Experiences are absolutely valid, and we shouldn’t expect everyone’s experience to follow a general trend, but our experiences are situated in a wider context that mustn’t be ignored. People can be quick to dismiss something affecting large parts of society as ‘not really a problem’ if they haven’t experienced it personally, like racism, sexual harassment, or the effects of climate change. And if people work ardently together to prevent something from getting out of hand, the perception of the threat is diminished, and those who prevented it may even be accused as having overreacted, causing unnecessary panic and harm. Moral judgement has accompanied the rejection of evidence in many cases – refusing to wear a mask is perceived as lack of care for others in your community; spreading conspiracies about election fraud is undermining democracy itself. Even so, these thoughts and actions are still justified through upholding ‘personal choice’ and ‘entitlement to one’s own opinion’, often informed by a very particular interpretation of ‘evidence’.


We are experiencing the impact of this poor engagement and lack of respect for evidence in many ways – the course of the pandemic and the insurrection in the United States have surfaced just how dangerous this can be. Even so, it is painfully clear that accepting evidence is viewed by many, including those with power and influence, as optional. As a person working to further the use of evidence in the charity sector, I fear that my job is going to get even more challenging if these habits continue to be embedded as they extend into the domains that we regard as morally good, and not without consequence.


I’m thinking about all the evaluation results that are defensively rejected because they don’t align with the story one wishes to tell. All the exceptional case studies taken out of context and put on a pedestal to ‘demonstrate impact’. The tinkering with validated measurement tools to make them more likely to show a change, and that being viewed as acceptable even though the data is unlikely to be either valid or reliable. Have the consequences of these attitudes and behaviour been fully considered? Consequences like whether we able to make honest decisions about quality improvement. Whether funding is directed to where it is most needed. Whether we risk peddling unhelpful and patronising narratives about the people and communities we are aiming to support. Whether we really know if the work we’re doing is genuinely beneficial or could be causing unintended harm. I worry that these consequences haven’t been faced – but I would love to be proven wrong.


It is recognised that there is room for improvement in how the sector engages with evidence (and indeed that this isn’t a challenge specific to youth organisations). That is one of the reasons why the Centre for Youth Impact exists. Part of that means recognising and calling out poor use of and engagement with evidence when we see it, and intellectually challenging ourselves to approach evidence with curiosity, humility, and the willingness to have deeply held assumptions shifted. This shouldn’t be optional. At a time when we can see people in power so effectively use false claims and disinformation to further their own agendas, we need to be particularly attentive to how we handle evidence.