Giving Compass’ Take:
• Lisbeth B. Schorr explores the possibilities and limits of randomized controlled trials for moving social progress.
• Why aren’t randomized controlled trials standard practice? What role does scientific literacy play in the public’s understanding of policymaking?
Andrew Leigh is a distinguished economist, member of the Australian Parliament, and—as evident in his latest book, Randomistas: How radical researchers are changing our world—a grand storyteller. He begins with the gripping tale of how ship surgeon James Lind, in 1747, discovered that citrus fruit could prevent thousands of seafaring men from dying of scurvy. Leigh engages the reader with his lively descriptions of an impressive series of triumphs accomplished by a single research methodology: randomized controlled trials (RCTs).
In what one British reviewer has called “a jolly history of the experimental in economics and social science,” Leigh lauds the contribution that randomized trials have made to the understanding of social programs, “one coin toss at a time.” He seeks to rescue the “randomistas”—the nickname given to radical researchers—who use data experimentation to overturn conventional wisdom from the opprobrium directed at their research by people like economist Sir Angus Deaton, who has criticized the randomistas’ monotheism as myopic and a product of magical thinking.
But it is not only the objectivity of randomized experiments that attracts supporters. Randomistas also believe that the nation’s lack of social progress can be attributed to the failure to understand social problems through the RCT method. In a Brookings Institution panel launching Leigh’s book just prior to its publication, the widely recognized randomista Jon Baron of the Arnold Foundation contended that everything from stagnant educational achievement to unchanging poverty rates are the consequence of interventions not relying on RCTs.
The notion that RCTs are the only route to better outcomes is overly simplistic. A more realistic view of the world holds that there are many more reasons that these social indicators remain flat. But one major contributor is that the only evidence that is trusted by key decision makers comes from RCTs, which are unsuited to assessing the complex interventions most likely to work.
Read the full article about randomized controlled trials by Lisbeth B. Schorr at Stanford Social Innovation Review.
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