Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Unethical Experiments

Tyler Cowen put up a post on his blog saying that Malcolm Gladwell asked him to put this question to his readers: “What’s the best example of an experiment or trial that could be scientifically useful and informative but which can’t be done for legal, ethical or logistical reasons?”

The responses I found interesting fell into two categories: child rearing and education. Here is one on child rearing:

Parenting Styles. Compare strict v. permissive. Do a group with physical punishment and yelling etc. to find out just how bad and harmful these practices are. And also do a hippie-dippy group where the kids can do whatever they want. Seems like so much of our knowledge on this is hopelessly confounded.

Others specifically called out breast feeding, having your infant sleep in your bed or not, and parental separation. Because everything we think we know about this stuff is indeed confounded by the problem that people who raise their kids in different ways are different from each other in a million other ways. The same might be true for people who get divorced, although nobody really knows that, either.

One of the education experiments people asked for involved taking 10,000 children and randomly assigning them to different kinds of school systems, or to home schooling, and seeing what happens. Another was to randomly send half a group of 18-year-olds to college and prevent the other half from doing so, then checking on how they were doing ten years later.

It seems that doubt over whether formal education does any good is rampant in America these days. 


Shadow said...

There' doubt about social sciences, for sure. Tell me, if understanding or predicting human behavior is extremely difficult and maybe impossible because human actions are surrounded by confounders, that are surrounded by confounders, etc, then what does it mean to be an expert in one of these fields?

Anonymous said...

It seems that doubt over whether formal education does any good is rampant in America these days.

Mostly by people with advanced degrees in academia

David said...


Indeed; and, referring back to the studies proposed on Cowen's blog in light of what you say, would any of the suggested experiments mean anything? To me, the real problem is the very notion of a one-size-that-can-fit-most model of anything involving human behavior. In this area, I still think Scott Alexander's insight is best: Nothing makes sense except in terms of inter-individual variation.

David said...


It would be nice if the people outside academia who value a formal education spoke up about it every now and then. At present, I get the impression that what parents value most is babysitting and what students value is credentialing. Most educators don't get into the profession because they dream of providing these things.