Evidence's new battle with sentiment

Contemporary public debate is cluttered with examples of populist, emotional or illogical arguments informing policy and action, often at the expense of sound scientific evidence.

Contemporary public debate is cluttered with examples of populist, emotional or illogical arguments informing policy and action, often at the expense of sound scientific evidence.

Academics spend years proving, improving or disproving approaches, systematically developing and defending evidence to support their innovation, only to have their work brushed aside in favour of more politically palatable solutions, often unsupported by research.

But where is the community in this?  Why aren’t people demanding evidence-informed policy?

This week’s discussion regarding phonics in early school literacy instruction is an example whereby empirical evidence is contested due to emotional and populist sentiment.

Phonics is a teaching method that focuses on the sounds within words – creating clear links between these sounds and the letters that represent them.

This approach is proven to be more effective for all children, and phonics-based testing will identify children who require additional instruction sooner.

Evidence from the UK demonstrated that a phonics check improved reading in the early years, so why are we rallying against a five-minute screen that could protect children from educational failure?

Ignorance of knowledge is damaging to our health and prosperity so it is surprising that the broader community is not more vocal in demanding decisions be based on scientific evidence.

Some propose that ‘truth’ isn’t as simple as it once was due to the constant evolution of knowledge. Today’s best practice is tomorrow’s outdated misconception.  But surely a post-truth society is not what we want, so what can be done?

For starters, politicians need to act beyond the election cycle and trust that voters can see the big picture.

The extremities of Australian politics, although vocal, do not represent the sentiment of the silent majority, and politicians need to trust this.

Media organisations need to support new knowledge and act in the interest of integrity.

In addition, academics must develop the skills to communicate their research to the wider community in a manner that promotes understanding and engagement, so information is accessible, palatable and will engineer support for innovation.

This week, La Trobe University is hosting an event in the Central Deborah Gold Mine that further explores these ideas around the researcher’s role in knowledge translation, creating real life impact from research output.

It will draw upon the knowledge of politicians, academics and decision makers to understand how we can make the transition from knowledge to practice more efficient and effective.

Yet, the most powerful resource we have in the fight against post-truths is each other.

Community demand for evidence-informed policies will be far more persuasive than a small bunch of academics.

Communities need to be skilled in knowing how to access new knowledge, discern credible sources and appreciate their role in determining the application of the new truths.

In the current climate of fake news and alternate facts, it’s time to demand the truth.

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