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Deceptive expositions on the virtues of randomized evaluations

Academics often try to educate the public at large, by explaining important stuff in an accessible way. This can be socially valuable. But that is not so clear if they oversimplify, or even get it wrong, in their expository zeal. Then bad ideas can get perpetuated, and have excessive influence.

For example, all of the following “expository” claims one hears about randomized control trials (RCTs) are deceptive, if not wrong:

  1. “Any difference between the treatment group and the comparison group can be confidently attributed to the treatment.”
  2. “Because it is unbiased an RCT will necessarily get you closer to the true impact than a biased observational study.”
  3. “For reliably inferring impact the best way to assign treatment status based on the things you can observe is randomly.”

My paper, “Should the randomistas (continue to) rule” gives other examples, and tries to explain, in reasonably transparent terms, why all this matters to sound development policy making.

And here is my review of the Banerjee and Duflo book, “Poor Economics.”

Please tell me if you think I have oversimplified anything!


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