Culture of Evidence … Does it Exist? Could it Exist??

Perhaps you are like me … when the same phrase is used so extensively, I develop an allergic-type reaction to the phrase.  “Awesome” is such a phrase, though my fellow educators do not use that phrase nearly as much as our students.  However, we use ‘culture of evidence’, and I have surely developed a reaction to it.

Part of my reaction goes back to a prior phrase … “change the culture”, used quite a few years ago to describe the desire to alter other people’s beliefs as well as their behavior.  Education is based on a search for truth, which necessarily implies individual responsibility for such choices.  Since I don’t work for Buzz Feed nor Complete College America, my priority is on education in this classic sense.

The phrase “culture of evidence” continues to be used in education, directed at colleges in particular.  One part of this is a good thing, of course … encouraging the use of data to analyze problems.  However, that is not what the phrase means.  It’s not like people say “apply the scientific method to education”; I can get behind that, though we need to remember that a significant portion of our work will remain more artistic and intuitive than scientific.  [Take a look at for example.]

No, this ‘culture of evidence’ is not a support for the scientific method.  Instead, there are two primary components to the idea:

  • Accountability
  • Justification by data

Every job and profession comes with the needs for accountability; that’s fine, though this is the minor emphasis of ‘culture of evidence’.

The primary idea is the justification by data; take a look at the student affairs professional viewpoint (  ) and the Achieving The Dream perspective (  ).

All of this writing about “culture of evidence” suggests that the goal is to use statistical methodologies in support of institutional mission.  Gives it a scientific sound, but does it make any sense at all?

First of all, the classic definition of culture (as used in the phrase) speaks to shared patterns:

Culture: the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization  (Merriam-Webster online dictionary)

In an educational institution, how many members of the organization will be engaged with the ‘evidence’ as justification, and how are they involved?  The predominant role is one of data collection … providing organizational data points that somebody else will use to justify what the organization wants to justify.  How can we say ‘culture of evidence’ when the shared practice is recording data?  For most people, it’s just part of their job responsibilities … nothing more.

Secondly, what is this ‘evidence’?  There is an implication that there are measurements possible for all aspects of the institutional mission.  You’ve seen this — respected institutions are judged as ‘failures’ because the available measurements are negative.  I’m reminded of an old quote … the difference between the importance of measurements versus measuring the important.

There is also the problem of talking about ‘evidence’ without the use of statistical thinking or designs.  As statisticians, we know that ‘statistics’ is used to better understand problems and questions … but the outcome of statistics is frequently that we have more questions to consider.

No, I think this “culture of evidence” phrase describes both an impossible condition and a undesirable goal.  We can’t measure everything, and we can’t all be statisticians.  Nor should we want judgments about the quality of an institution to be reduced to summative measures of a limited set of variables covering a limited range of ‘outputs’ in education.

The ‘culture of evidence’ phrase, and it’s derivatives (‘evidentiary basis’, for example) are used to suggest a scientific practice without any commitment to the scientific method.  As normally practiced, ‘culture of evidence’ often conflicts with the scientific method (to support pre-determined answers or solutions) and has little to do with institutional culture.

Well, this is what happens when I have an allergic reaction to the written word … I have a need to write about it!

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