It's possible to divide policy positions into two broad categories:

  1. X is good/bad - for example:

    • Smoking is bad
    • Home-ownership is good
    • Bovine tuberculosis is bad
  2. X will encourage/discourage Y - for example:

    • Higher taxes on cigarettes will discourage smoking
    • Low interest rates will encourage home-ownership
    • Systematic culling of badgers will reduce bovine tuberculosis

I'm interested here in the second of these. Policies along the lines of "X will encourage Y" can in many cases be empirically tested; for example, by randomly selecting geographical areas in which to implement badger culls, and rigorously studying their effectiveness.

The impression I get is that politicians are resistant to such methodical studies, and implement them only as a response to opposition to policies they wish to implement, subsequently ignoring the results if they aren't "right".

Are there any states, regions, etc. where those in power are or have been bound (either by statute or manifesto commitment) to subject policy to empirical study? And if so, are there instances where a policy found to be ineffective has been abandoned?

  • 2
    Among other things, because many of those have unanticipated side effects. Promoting home ownership through artificially lowered rates and lessened creditworthiness scrutiny for political reasons may have, in the hindsight, been a wee bit problematic.
    – user4012
    Dec 7, 2012 at 6:01
  • In addition, if you know the desired result, arranging for a study to support it is frequently not THAT challenging. At least given the likely budget allocated for the study
    – user4012
    Dec 7, 2012 at 6:03
  • @DVK but it's possible to create genuinely independent bodies to scrutinise government, isn't it? In the UK, at least, there are are bodies with that reputation (the Electoral Commission springs to mind), and if an "Office of Scientific Responsibility" along the same lines existed, it could design studies in such a way that at least intentional bias was minimised ...
    – user97
    Dec 7, 2012 at 6:18
  • 1
    there's the rub. You can design a study to produce pretty much ANY desired result. And don't kid yourself that they will be independent and not influenced (CRS in USA springs in mind)
    – user4012
    Dec 7, 2012 at 12:31
  • The claim that home ownership is good may be disputed.
    – gerrit
    Feb 12, 2013 at 20:28

1 Answer 1


Yes, there are many agencies of government that are supposed to use empirical studies.

For example:

  1. Some USA states are supposed to set certain speed limits based on "Engineering and Traffic Surveys" which measure, among other things, the "Prevailing speeds" along a given stretch of road.

  2. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is supposed to use a variety of studies (principally clinical trials) to formulate its regulations.

  3. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is supposed to use Environmental Impact Reports to make its decisions.

There are, no doubt, many more examples throughout the World, but I can't find (so far) any requirement that can't be trumped by legislatures.

Legislatures can always change the laws to ignore, exempt or abolish empirical requirements but, at least in the USA, they only seem to do so occasionally. I've not heard of a constitution-level document, or practice, that requires empirical studies.

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