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What Evidence Will You Accept?

By Dr. Eugene Maier

I clearly remember when I first asked that question and what, unexpectedly, was the outcome.

I was directing a multiyear statewide project supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation. The funding went through a state educational agency and, since the grant funds were part of the agency's budget, the director of the agency had to appear before a legislative committee and defend the inclusion of the grant as part of the agency's annual budget. This meant testifying that the grant program was consistent with agency goals and was, indeed, accomplishing what it was designed to do.

The directorship of the agency changed hands midway through the project. The old director had been involved since the conception of the project and had no doubts of its legitimacy. The new director, however, was skeptical. He had inherited the project and knew little of its context and the situations it addressed. From time to time, he would ask me for evidence of the project's effectiveness. In response, I would report some of the results gathered by the project's evaluators. No matter what I reported, he found a way to discount it. One day, in desperation, I asked him, "What evidence will you accept?" The question was unanswered. He changed the subject and never raised the issue again. Later, at a legislative committee hearing, I was surprised to hear him cite, as evidence of the project's effectiveness, the same results he had discounted earlier.

Since then, I have used the question on a number of occasions. I find it particularly helpful in situations, like the one I mentioned, when whatever evidence one offers is discounted. Discounting is easy to do, and trying to respond is futile. No matter what one offers, the response comes back, "Yes, but what about...?" Those skilled at "yes-butting" can keep it up forever. Asking "What evidence will you accept?" helps break the cycle. Oftentimes, as happened the first time I chanced upon the question, there is no response or the subject is changed.

When questioned about what one is doing, especially if it runs counter to the questioner's practices or beliefs, I suspect there is no evidence one can offer that will lead to acceptance of what's being questioned. People, I find, - myself included - don't make rational decisions about the validity of long-held positions. Instead they rationalize their position. Instead of starting with a clean slate and trying to collect all the data and information available about the issue at hand, and then draw whatever conclusions are warranted by the facts-as happens in a jury trial-people look for evidence to support their belief. Then they use that evidence, even if it requires a bit of distortion or invention, to provide an argument for their position. One way of maintaining their stance is to put anyone who challenges them on the defensive by asking them to justify their opposition, and then discredit any justification that's given.

Among educators, a common ploy by those who, for whatever reason, prefer the status quo, is to ask for the research or the test data that justifies what you are doing and, when research is cited or data is given, proceed to tell you what was wrong with the way the research was conducted, the tests administered, or how the situation at hand is different. Since their minds are already made up, there's no evidence they will accept that some other course is possible. Asking "What evidence will you accept?" helps make this clear. A stumbling reply reveals the situation, and one need not waste energy trying to hit upon a piece of evidence that will swing them to your side. On the other hand, if someone is really interested in what you are doing and wants to know what points to its success, asking the question focuses the discussion. One can either supply the requested evidence or, if it doesn't exist, say so. In either case, one avoids an interminable chain of "yes-buts".

It's also a question worth asking one's self. Before I challenge the effectiveness of someone else's educational practices, I had best ask myself what evidence I will accept. If there is none, I do well to keep quiet and ponder my own biases.