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Making Policy - Science or Arts (negotiations)? Can we measure policy?

You must have been in the situation that you read something you disagree with from a person whom you appreciate or admire. Should we trust that person or our logic? It happened to me while reading an interview with Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google. He is a great person in many respects, since his early days in Novell. His achievement in Google are amazing. "But" he said, or at least as it was reported by the Washington Post:

With Google's vast power for capturing and remembering data, Schmidt painted a picture in which technology could help quantify and verify the assertions made in policy documents. "Government is highly measurable, most of it," he said. "We can actually see how many people got this shot or read this report or so forth. A government -- a transparent government -- should be able to [measure] that."


I am very skeptical about measurement, quantification and modeling in policy. Policy is not about numbers. It is about values and interests. Google’s slogan is “Don’t be Evil”. Evil cannot be measured, although there were some attempts in the Middle Age by the famous “scientist” Loyola. Good can be preached and promoted, but again, not measured. Facts and data are important, but they ultimately support a particular policy narrative.

As we saw recently with the global financial crisis, the idea of a “scientific” running of policy is risky. Models have limits; they must be linked to human nature. When designing policy I prefer to start from who we are, with all of our weaknesses and strengths, and develop rules for our society that reflect this. Science (like technology) is a good servant but bad master. Basing policy on science is a risky idea.

I wish we could hear more from Schmidt on this topic . There is a slight risk that his statement was tilted by the journalist (based on the context). The link to the article is here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/10/22/AR2...

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