Many policy analysts – and citizens interested in public issues – believe that rigorous thought should be uncontaminated by values, which are merely subjective. Policy analysis, however, is about what is worth doing and therefore inherently values based.
This accessible book reveals the damage that this contradiction inflicts on policy analysis and society. It also demonstrates the real-world failings of various influential alternatives to the ‘value-free’ ideal. By showing that values are amenable to critical analysis, this book provides a solid foundation for a comprehensive approach that reimagines the scope and role of policy analysis in contemporary society.
This chapter considers the implications for the policy world of four key qualities of our networks of beliefs: those networks are not transparent; belief is a matter of degree; the categories of true and false can be applied to values and interests; and our networks of beliefs are foundationless. Imagine a perfectly efficient library. The library catalog department notes each new item as it arrives, entering the relevant information into its computer system. At any given moment, one can thus identify every single book in the library. Our beliefs, obviously, are not at all like that. We don’t consciously register each belief as it enters our head. We have picked up beliefs over the course of our lives, often embracing them without being fully conscious of doing so. This is particularly true of beliefs that do not take the form of explicit propositions: our store of labels and concepts, through which we organize our lived reality, the codes through which we interpret the behavior of others and so on. And so we are never fully aware of our personal network of beliefs.
A decision context is a space in which one or more people must arrive at a decision on some matter. To bring to life the non-binary approach, we need healthy decision contexts. We also need a healthy background culture: spaces of reflection that do not necessarily lead to actual policy decisions, but help inform (and form) citizens and decision makers. But what might ‘healthy’ mean here? We can approach this question by considering its opposite, an unhealthy context. In Plato’s Gorgias, Socrates offers an arresting image: ‘if a pastry baker and a doctor had to compete in front of children, or in front of men just as foolish as children, to determine which of the two, the doctor or the pastry baker, had expert knowledge of good food and bad, the doctor would die of starvation’ (¶464d). Just what is wrong with that decision context?
It is not so easy to escape the effects of the binary view. Even approaches that depart sharply from elements of the view can, paradoxically, rely on some of its most problematic underlying assumptions and implications. Some believe that the binary view has been sunk by decades of criticism. This is, in general, untrue. But even in intellectual circles where the binary view seems to have vanished, the flotsam that has survived its wreckage proves durable. We will examine a few of these survivals here. Before examining examples of flotsam within policy theory itself, I wish to take up an example of a broader cultural influence that has a powerful impact on education policy in particular. The example will help tease out an important distinction between a consistent rejection of the binary view and a widespread outlook that superficially resembles such rejection.
Beliefs and practices are obviously intertwined. Much of what we do, we do because of beliefs we hold. Most obviously, we do many things because we believe that they are worth doing. But the reverse is also true: our practices also shape our beliefs. This can happen, for example, because we embrace beliefs that justify our actions. Aristotle observed that ‘those who have done a service to others feel friendship and love for those they have served’ (Ethics, ¶1167b). Note the causal direction: from doing a service, to warm feelings. Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson use a striking metaphor to describe how conviction grows in the wake of our choices. A person facing a momentous yet uncertain decision is perched on the apex of a pyramid. Having chosen one way or the other, rationalization kicks in, and the person slides down one side of the pyramid or the other, becoming ever more distant from the person they would have been had they chosen otherwise. ‘By the time the person is at the bottom of the pyramid’, Tavris and Aronson comment, ‘ambivalence will have morphed into certainty, and he or she will be miles away from anyone who took a different route’ (2007, 33). Actions can shape beliefs in more indirect ways as well. The act of entering a particular social milieu, such as a new organization, will over time affect our network of beliefs.
While the consistent pursuit of a non-binary approach will lead to tensions, the belief that the approach is thoroughly utopian and imprudent may arise from an exaggerated view of the conflicts that it will generate. The forms of care exercised by the non-binary analyst can be said to characterize any thoughtful analyst. In many contexts, this will be very highly appreciated. Often, the analyst is associated with a decision maker who is not absolutely wedded to a particular way of doing things, a particular understanding of their goals. In other cases, the analyst is not so fortunate.
In considering this work’s various suggestions of how policy analysis might change under the influence of a non-binary approach, a reader might legitimately fear that the approach would enhance the already great power of experts and unelected officials. The claim, for example, that the public servant need not accept the elected official’s normative views as givens can spark nervousness. We must thus address the problem of experts and expertise. In this discussion, I will define expertise broadly, as usable knowledge that requires time and effort to acquire. I do not assume that it need be ‘objective’, however that is understood, nor ‘scientific’. We will examine various critiques and concerns about experts, and ask to what extent a non-binary approach addresses those concerns.
Prior to examining the durability of the binary view (Chapter 3) and its attractive qualities for many policy actors (Chapter 4), Part I surveyed some of its effects within the policy world. We considered both specific effects, such as end-of-the-line thinking and foundational pessimism (Chapter 1), and a broader impact, the quest for exogenous values (Chapter 2). But the policy world, of course, is simply an aspect of the world. I wish to end Part I by musing on the various relations that the world of policy might have with our civilization as a whole. I say ‘musing’ because what follows is clearly speculative. I wish to reflect on the sort of civilization that ‘fits’ with the binary view, while recognizing that, as has been argued throughout this work, the binary view is half-believed and coexists in this world with other beliefs, which also have their effects.
While coaching my son’s soccer team some years ago, I was trying to show a player how to shoot ‘with the laces’ of the soccer shoe. After a few minutes, his frustration erupted: ‘I know how to do it,’ he exclaimed, ‘I just don’t know how to do it.’ What was he saying exactly? He had seen the action demonstrated many times. He could see, in his mind, exactly what he should be doing. Which is to say, he had the theory down pat. Practice, the ability to translate his clear visual image into a coordinated set of movements, was another matter entirely. As for skillful practice: in our short season together, it was beyond my ability to teach that and beyond his to learn it. For a soccer player, skillful practice does not mean hitting the ball correctly from time to time, but doing so reliably, under a wide variety of conditions and, eventually, without thinking about it, having the skill become second nature.
The training of social scientists, including future policy analysts, is always a training in technique and culture. Training into a culture involves the transmission – intentional or unintentional, explicit or tacit – of ways of seeing the world and ways of behaving. For social scientists trained in a certain way, a key element of this cultural acquisition is to recognize a no-go zone: ‘theories are positive – about how the world really is – and not normative – about how we want the world to be’ (Remler and Van Ryzin, 2015); ‘Research questions should not ask about what ought to be, but rather seek to understand what is’ (Barakso et al, 2014). One methods textbook advises: ‘In scientific writing, avoid words or phrases such as “should,” “must,” “ought to,” “good,” and “bad,” which imply moral imperatives and value judgments.’ If one fails to heed this advice, one will fall into ‘a messianic approach that is more appropriate for an evangelist than a scholar’ (Gebremedhin and Tweeten, 1994, 19).