Political Action, Error and Failure: The Epistemological Limits of Complexity



The trend in government and public policy towards evidence-based policy making has recently been the subject of criticism from authors such as Ian Sanderson who argue that the insights of complexity theory undermine the claims of evidence that these forms of policy design advocate. While taking on board the primary claim of this critique, this article examines the contribution of complexity theory in more detail to suggest that the epistemological obstacles that complexity science identifies also challenge the kind of pragmatic, deliberative model that Sanderson prefers. Instead, it examines the work of Michael Freeden on failure and Michel Foucault on error to demonstrate the ways in which approaches that are less wedded to epistemological certainty can enable policy makers to think more creatively about the complex terrain they must navigate and develop more innovative and less risk-averse forms of political action.