Without evidence, surgeons wouldn’t scrub their hands today, nor sterilize surgical instruments or sanitize operating rooms. Evil spirits and foul odor were the “known” causes of infection and illness.

But in the late 1800s, medical scientists Louis Pasteur and Richard Koch publicized decades of research unveiling their discovery of 21 disease-causing microorganisms, and dispelling these myths. Applying Pasteur’s advances, Edward Lister’s years of surgical studies culminated in sterile operating rooms, gloved surgeons and reduced patient infection. Now such knowledge and practices are unquestioned.

Widely recognized scientific studies grounded in universally accepted criteria and methodology provide evidence about the world. Reality doesn’t depend on whether you disbelieve or disagree.

Moreover, we use evidence in personal decisions every day — choices about medical procedures, food, car purchases, insurance companies, colleges.

Evidence should be the foundation upon which national issues — social, economic, educational, environmental — are decided.

But subjective judgments also drive our decisions. Unlike evidence, they are outside the realm of what is verifiable. They are really “value” claims — opinions, preferences, feelings. They have no place in decision-making about issues of national concern. Doing so is dangerous.

Unfortunately, in today’s debates about policy, the line between evidence and subjective judgments is being crossed too easily, effortlessly used as comparable units supporting critical decisions. This even happens in matters of life and death.

Maine and much of the country face an opioid epidemic. In our state, deaths have soared, many of which involve young people with their lives ahead of them. So it matters that the prevention strategies we use are based on evidence. Researchers have found that Drug Abuse Resistance Education programs, which many high schools have used to try to head off students’ substance use, simply don’t work. Even worse, they can backfire, with more students choosing to drink and smoke after going through DARE. Thus, carrying them out is not just a waste of time and money but also actively harmful. Yet some people want to continue the programs because they remember them from their high school years and just feel like they should work.

To take another example: For over four decades, breastfeeding has been internationally recognized as the best nutrition for babies and a source of food that confers immunity. Yes, some mothers opt out, some can’t breastfeed or produce healthy breast milk and some infants do not have a mother upon whose milk they can rely.

But recently the U.S. sought to remove language from the decades-old U.N.-affiliated World Health Assembly resolution calling on governments to “protect, promote and support breastfeeding.” This policy change ignored research, favoring instead formula manufacturers’ interests over infant health.

Whether involving harmful drugs or the best food for infants, best practices should first and foremost use verified, fact-based evidence. This does not dismiss or diminish individual opinions — it just rightly excludes them.

Where does evidence come from? Who does the rigorous, fact-based scientific studies upon which we need to rely? Some of it comes from Maine’s universities and research institutes. Recognizing the important role that rigorous evidence must play in decision-making, university-based and other researchers have the tools to help provide it, and they do.

The Maine chapter of the Scholars Strategy Network — a nonprofit national network of researchers working to improve policy and strengthen democracy — uses the knowledge and skills of its members to ensure that evidence informs some of the state’s key debates: how to best ensure a quality education for children, how to make Mainers healthier, how to keep fisheries alive and thriving, how to encourage small businesses to remain in the state, how to reduce child poverty.

Researchers in the Scholars Strategy Network share their expertise, studies and scientific investigations with the public and decision-makers in short policy briefs on its website, in testimony to policymakers and media interviews or on its podcast, No Jargon.

Policy debates in our community, our state and our nation are far too important to come down to “I think, I feel, I like, I want.” Beliefs that aren’t based on evidence don’t provide appropriate rationales for making policies that affect our larger community. Government decision-makers from Augusta to Washington, D.C., make decisions with huge financial and human ramifications; it is essential that rigorous evidence is available to, and used by, them to solve our toughest problems.

Luisa S. Deprez is professor emerita of sociology at the University of Southern Maine; Amy Fried is a professor of political science at the University of Maine, and Avi Green is executive director of the Scholars Strategy Network. Fried expresses only her own views herein; she does not speak on behalf of the University of Maine System.

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