Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Double-Standard Ethics of RCT

. Thursday, December 9, 2010

On the one hand I definitely understand this:

“I don’t think homeless people in our time, or in any time, should be treated like lab rats,” Ms. Palma said.

On the other hand, this is also true:

“It’s a very effective way to find out what works and what doesn’t,” said Esther Duflo, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has advanced the testing of social programs in the third world. “Everybody, every country, has a limited budget and wants to find out what programs are effective.” ...

“This is about putting emotions aside,” [Seth Diamond] said. “When you’re making decisions about millions of dollars and thousands of people’s lives, you have to do this on data, and that is what this is about.”

Esther Duflo recently won the John Bates Clark award for her use of RCTs in the developing world.

A complication arises when applying discount weights to the calculus. While we do not want to hurt people by excluding them from a potentially-helpful treatment, resources are scarce. If the treatment is not in fact helpful, we can divert those resources to better uses. Thus, while some people risk being harmed in the present by excluding them from the treatment, many more people might be helped in the future if we learn that there is a better use for the funds. In other words, there is some probability that the program is useful, and an inverse probability that it is not. We are essentially weighing the cost to the homeless from being removed from the program if it is useful against the hypothetical gain to future people of having access to those funds if it is not useful.

I'd also note that nobody complains when this happens in Africa or India. If it's controversial when it happens in NYC, shouldn't it be controversial when it happens in Monrovia?

On balance, put me on the side of RCTs. Not without some reservations, but on balance.


yoli said...

nice site/blog

The Double-Standard Ethics of RCT
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