Chris Blattman

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Evolving thoughts on the Montana experiments controversy

In response to the Montana experiment controversy, last week I asked, why wouldn’t it be okay for researchers to mess with elections?

I’ve had a few different responses. One is “This guy thinks the Montana business did was fine.” That’s not quite right.

The other is “I think you’re wrong. I wasn’t sure why at first, but you made me think about it harder and now I know what makes me uncomfortable.” That is perfect. That’s why I blog. I’d also say the same thing for myself: having thought and talked about it, I have a better sense what I think is right and what I think is wrong.

The post is now up, on The Monkey Cage.

I thought I’d dwell a little here on my thinking.

Most people have an unpleasant gut reaction to the Montana experiment. Me too. But I’ve learned not to trust my gut all the time.

It helped to think through different scenarios. What if the researchers didn’t use an official looking mailer, and made the research aspect more prominent? What if the researchers were simply studying a campaign by a national organization? What if they’d simply written an op-ed and sent it to 100,000 Montanans? What it they’d done the experiment but only to 10,000?

I won’t try to answer these. Only to recommend the exercise of thinking them through and try to understand why your gut feeling suddenly changes (or not). I found it helpful.

As usual, ethical dilemmas are hard, there are no quick answers, and we’re not very well trained to deal with them. The honest answer to “what’s ok” is still “I’m not sure.” Anyone who argues differently is being foolish. I thought the more libertarian view needed more airtime, especially in response to some of the knee-jerk demands for more regulation.

I sincerely look forward to more emails and hallway conversations telling me I’m wrong. I can’t link you to the mealtime, jogging, hallway, and even bathroom conversations I’ve had about this all week, but here are links to the online information and opinions I found helpful:

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