Randomized trials revisited

Following my defense of randomized trials this week, come this thoughtful reader comment:

This response seems to miss, or perhaps obscure, the point. In my understanding, Hausmann is suggesting that development organizations take a Toyota-style approach to innovation, in which front-line workers have authority to adapt, make suggestions, and eventually change the way the organization works. In this case, power to innovate lies in the front-lines, among implementers.

In contrast, Blattman seems to depart from the premise that high-level managers, or academics, are the ones authorized to have ideas, and these ideas are then transmitted to the fieldworkers who implement them. Thanks to rigorous testing, the best ideas can be disseminated. Power is centralized, and held by the proper authorities.

So the debate is not about methods or rigor, it is about authority to innovate and power to decide.

I agree, but in that case we both have it wrong.

To see this, imagine a Toyota that gives customers a car whether they like it or not. Front-line worker innovation might or might not develop cars that people want to own. The problem is there’s no vote or market test where the ultimate users decide.

I think this is called the Lada.

This is the fundamental problem of aid. A bunch of planners have the power to decide and are only accountable to donors, most of whom seem happy to remain ignorant of the details or the actual success of their interventions.

People have put ahead randomized trials as an improvement over the current mess (including donors who quite fairly don’t know any other way to make this better).

Now, trial-and-error innovation combined with randomized trails could be more powerful. That was my point. But make no mistake: both are still the tools of the inept planner.

Of course, none of these are reasons that social scientists like randomized trials. They are interested in using these field experiments to try to test ideas or estimate parameters, sometimes to produce general knowledge for the public good. Maybe an adaptive mechanism could do this even better.

To extend the metaphor, I think that means we academics who do field experiments are the intellectual wing of the Communist Party, who have captured Lada’s production for our own purposes, both selfish and noble. The term randomista sounds more appropriate than ever?