Asking an artificial intelligence to write an essay on social policy

I wanted to see what ChatGPT would make of a social policy essay, so I asked a starter question:

What is a welfare state, and is Britain one?

A welfare state is a government that provides a range of social services and benefits to its citizens, including healthcare, education, social security, and other forms of assistance, in order to ensure that they have a basic standard of living and access to basic necessities. The idea behind a welfare state is to create a safety net for individuals who may not be able to provide for themselves due to age, disability, unemployment, or other factors.

Britain is generally considered to be a welfare state, as it has a long history of providing a range of social services and benefits to its citizens. The British welfare state was created after World War II, with the introduction of the National Health Service (NHS) in 1948 and the creation of the welfare state in 1949. Since then, Britain has continued to expand its welfare state, with the introduction of additional social services and benefits over time.

However, the level of support provided by the British welfare state has been subject to some controversy in recent years, with some arguing that it is too generous and discourages people from seeking work, while others argue that it is not generous enough and leaves vulnerable people without adequate support.

There are some mistakes in this.

  1.  Provision in many welfare states isn’t  made by the government.
  2. Just about every country in the world provides some health care and some education.  More than 150 countries now have some kind of national scheme for cash support.
  3. The welfare state needs more than a ‘safety net’.  Safety net provision, or ‘residual’ welfare, was the model for the Poor Laws centuries before the welfare state was thought of.  That also reflects on the comment that Britain has a ‘long history’ of this – it does, but the welfare state was founded after the second world war.
  4. The NHS Act was in 1946, and the welfare state was introduced formally on 7th July 1948.

Steve Mckay, from the University of Lincoln, got ChatGPT to refine the answer.

A welfare state is a political and economic system that prioritizes the provision of social welfare programs and services to its citizens. These programs and services aim to ensure that all individuals have access to basic necessities, such as healthcare, education, housing, and income support, regardless of their socioeconomic status. The welfare state is often seen as a means of promoting social equality, reducing poverty, and promoting economic stability.

Britain has a long history of welfare state provision, beginning with the introduction of the National Insurance Act in 1911. However, it was not until the post-World War II period that the British welfare state took its modern form. During this period, the Labour government introduced a range of social welfare programs, including the National Health Service (NHS), social housing, and a comprehensive system of social security benefits.

Since then, the British welfare state has undergone significant changes, reflecting broader economic and political shifts. The 1980s saw the rise of neoliberalism and a growing emphasis on market-oriented policies, which resulted in the privatization of some public services and the scaling back of certain welfare programs. In the 1990s and 2000s, the Labour government introduced a range of initiatives aimed at reducing poverty and social exclusion, such as the introduction of tax credits and the Sure Start program for early years education.

However, the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent period of austerity saw significant cuts to social welfare spending, resulting in reduced access to certain programs and services. This has been particularly felt by those who are most in need, such as disabled people and low-income families. Critics argue that this erosion of the welfare state has undermined social equality and resulted in growing levels of poverty and inequality.

Despite these challenges, Britain remains a welfare state, albeit one that is undergoing significant transformation. The provision of social welfare programs and services remains a central feature of British society, and there continues to be significant public support for the welfare state. However, the effectiveness of these programs and services in addressing issues such as poverty and inequality remains a matter of debate. Some argue that the welfare state is inadequate and requires significant reform, while others believe that it is a vital mechanism for promoting social justice and economic stability.

I’m not sure quite how he did it, but this version is a lot better than the one I asked for.  The welfare state is now described as a system; it’s tied to a range of principles, including citizenship, equality and being there for everyone; and it’s subject to key tests, including poverty, social justice and economic stability.

Despite that improvement, this still doesn’t add up to an undergraduate essay.  An essay in social science is primarily an exercise in processing information.   The first step is to select material, bringing together information.  At the most basic level, a piece which brings together information from several sources requires more skill (and more work) than one which takes all its information from one source.

The next step is to get the selected material in order.  Referencing is again crucial, because a student  who goes through the material by covering everything said in one book, followed by everything said in another, is showing less skill than someone who can take material from disparate sources and put it in order.

Third comes evaluation.  Again at the most basic level, commenting on the material which has been selected and ordered  is a way of showing one understands it.  But evaluation that is not based on evidence and argument  is nothing more than an opinion, and markers cannot legitimately mark a piece up or down just because they happen to like or dislike what has been said.   The test, yet again, is a test of skill in handling the material.

The AI falls short of this at every point, for two reasons.  The first is that it doesn’t sift and sort information in its own right: it gets words in order, but there is no material here to sort, and none to evaluate.  The second is that it has not provided any referenced material.   Referencing is a crucial part of the exercise, at every stage.  It reveals how much material has gone in to the selection; it distinguishes material that has been sifted and sorted by the student from ordering that is carted whole from a single source; and it distinguishes the student’s critical commentary and understanding from what came from the sources.  Without that evidence of understanding, there is nothing to mark.


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