The hermeneutics of wonkery

Luke Savage

I spend a lot of my time reading through policy papers from various think tanks and have reached one overriding conclusion: more than anything else, it’s how things are measured and represented that ultimately determines how we think about them.

Across the political spectrum, papers that analyze issues like poverty and climate change in exquisite detail contain virtually all of their substance in their initial premises – not in their subsequent analyses.

For example, if you’re studying poverty it matters more what you understand “poverty” to be in the first place than it does what the empirical details are. How do you measure and represent it? Against what ultimate standards do you set your data against? How you answer these questions will define the contours of your conclusions more than anything else.

Yet in today’s world, most mainstream policy thinking understands itself to be essentially technical. This is the…

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