Towards an evidence-informed population: are we there and why do we care?

Professor Chris Brown, Durham University, discusses the need for people to be evidence-informed if we want a thriving democratic society

26th October 2021

Author: Professor Chris Brown, Professor in Education and Deputy Executive Dean (Research) for the Faculty of Social Sciences and Health, Durham University.

A number of perspectives suggest that if we want a thriving democratic society, we need people, generally, to be evidence-informed. Take, for example, the idea of Optimal Rational Positions (ORPs): those acts, states or situations that society deems beneficial (Brown, 2018).

There is a whole raft of ORPs out there: for instance, the need to reduce carbon emissions to minimise the impacts of climate change is an ORP, or getting more of us to eat five items of fruit and vegetables a day. Other examples of ORPs include the suggestion that we should limit our alcohol consumption to 14 units per week[i] and that we should exercise for 30 minutes at least three times a week.

In terms of how they might be recognised or defined, Optimal Rational Positions typically emerge as a result of four key factors:

  1. a robust and credible evidence base in relation to current or potential new behaviours;
  2. a well-reasoned argument (or theory of change) which provides this evidence with meaning;
  3. a social, moral or value-based imperative setting out the need for change based on this meaning (or conversely, the consequences of not changing);
  4. and buy-in to this imperative from a range of credible stakeholders.

These four factors can be illustrated using the example of human-led climate change. For instance, according to the Consensus Project,[ii] 97% of published papers with a position on global warming agree that global warming is happening (factor 1). The authors of these papers also agree that climate change is caused by human action: specifically, the burning of fossil fuels, which adds additional greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, serving to trap more of the sun’s heat and so warm the air, land and water (factor 2). Global warming is shifting weather patterns and causing droughts and extreme weather events. It will also lead to a rise in the level of the oceans. Climate change has the potential to cause enormous damage to the global economy, the environment and our way of life for centuries to come. To minimise its impacts we should keep the global average temperature increase to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and ideally limit it to 1.5°C (Evans, 2017) (factor 3); The COP 26 conference in Glasgow represented global acknowledgement of the issue and a commitment by governments to reduce carbon emissions so as to limit warming to these levels (factor 4)[iii]. These factor steps together clearly provide a compelling argument for us to engage positively with the need to reduce carbon emissions.

And yet, as you can see, without both a robust evidence base AND buy-in to that evidence, there is a danger that individuals and governments fail to engage in the kinds of actions that societies need to flourish. And this is somewhat of an issue given the rise in post truth politics and fake news. In this world of the not quite true, verifiable facts are both debated and subjected to interpretation and we have seen a splintering of consensus and the emergence of echo chambers: spaces where those of similar views come together and where outsiders are dismissed as ‘trolls’, ensuring entrenched perspectives are safe from challenge (D’Ancona, 2017). So how far are we from a world in which people are evidence-informed? And if there is a gap, then how might we close it. Well that’s what we decided to find out…

Building on Emerald’s recent Closing the Impact Gap report which explored academic and student attitudes to whether academic research outputs are fit for the future, we have launched a new research project investigating how close we are to an evidence-informed society. Beginning with a survey answered by over 1,000 people across the UK from all regions, backgrounds, and careers, we’re asking; how much of a priority is it for people to keep informed? What sources of information do people use to make informed decisions?  What do people look for when considering which outlets to read/watch/listen to? What core topics are given the most importance by the most people? By exploring these questions and more we aim to better understand how people seek to keep themselves informed and how academics and publishers can collaborate to ensure the research conducted in universities informs decisions made outside the ivory tower. Keep your eyes peeled over the next few months as we write up and publish the results of the first stage of the project, and identify further opportunities to move towards an evidence-informed population.

Why not join the conversation by contacting us via one of these ways



Brown, C. (2018) How social science can help us make better choices: Optimal rationality in action, (London, Emerald).

D’Ancona, M. (2017) Post truth: the new war on truth and how to fight back (London, Ebury Press).


Research project team

Professor Chris Brown, Professor in Education and Deputy Executive Dean (Research) for the Faculty of Social Sciences and Health, Durham University.

Professor Jana Groß Ophoff, Professor in Educational Sciences, University College of Teacher Vorarlberg, Austria

Kim Chadwick, Books Commissioning Lead, Social Sciences, Emerald Publishing

Sharon Parkinson, Publishing Development Manager, Emerald Publishing