RCTs, skeptics, and evidence-based policy

Senn’s post led me to investigate some links to Ben Goldacre (author of “Bad Science” and “Bad Pharma”) and the “Behavioral Insights Team” in the UK.  The BIT was “set up in July 2010 with a remit to find innovative ways of encouraging, enabling and supporting people to make better choices for themselves. A BIT blog is here”. A promoter of evidence-based public policy, Goldacre is not quite the scientific skeptic one might have imagined. What do readers think?  (The following is a link from Goldacre’s Jan. 6 blog.)

Test, Learn, Adapt: Developing Public Policy with Randomised Controlled Trials

‘Test, Learn, Adapt’ is a paper which the Behavioural Insights Team* is publishing in collaboration with Ben Goldacre, author of Bad Science, and David Torgerson, Director of the University of York Trials Unit. The paper argues that Randomised Controlled Trials (RCTs), which are now widely used in medicine, international development, and internet-based businesses, should be used much more extensively in public policy.
 …The introduction of a randomly assigned control group enables you to compare the effectiveness of new interventions against what would have happened if you had changed nothing. RCTs are the best way of determining whether a policy or intervention is working. We believe that policymakers should begin using them much more systematically.

*The Behavioural Insights Team

The Team’s work draws on insights from the growing body of academic research in the fields of behavioural economics and psychology which show how often subtle changes to the way in which decisions are framed can have big impacts on how people respond to them….

It has also published several papers that that show how the team is applying behavioural insights to the following policy areas:

  • test, learn, adapt, which sets out the methodology of the team and makes the case for the wider use of randomised controlled trials in public policy*
  • fraud, error and debt, where the team has shown how changes to processes, forms and letters can result in significant increases in compliance
  • energy efficiency, including the launch of trials that seek to understand how we can encourage the uptake of energy efficiency measures
  • consumer affairs, including the launch of the ‘midata’ programme and moves to push forward collective purchasing schemes
  • health, including organ donation and smoking cessation

A brief summary of some of the team’s more recent work can be found here.

Does the U.S. have similar science-based policy groups?

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4 thoughts on “RCTs, skeptics, and evidence-based policy

  1. e.berk

    As a proper skeptic, Goldacre would subject any oversimple applications of a 9 step plan to RCT heaven to trenchant criticisms too. Is this not so? Any links?

    • E. Berk: Equivocation and sarcasm in my remarks are always to be considered as possibilities (especially when I’m curious to hear what others think). “Goldacre is not quite the scientific skeptic one might have imagined” can mean that he is not skeptical when it comes to good science, and/or that he’s not skeptical when it means being self-critical. And more besides.
      Now I do not know if he subjects the RCTs in evidence-based policy to criticisms. I hope he does. He at least mentions that changing the end-points after-the-fact can kill the intended meaning/function of the p-value. He should list that up at the very top of his list.
      I am putting completely to one side the value-laden question of whether govts. Should be in the business of “improving” people’s behavior. I’m too much of a Nietzschean to endorse more than a little bit of that…
      I don’t know Goldacre, I should write to him some time.

  2. RP

    Could you give some references that drove you to conclude that Goldacre is not skeptical as we would expect?

    Nevertheless, I am skeptical of the application of their results because my feeling is that there are good evidences for a lot of public policies that work but they are not applied because of other factors. Which are these factors? I do not have the answer but can only imagine some like “if I change this, then I can personally get worse in such and such aspect of my particular life” or “ok, these results seems good, but it deserves a lot of work and ALL the consequences of this change are not clear”.

    I like to repeat that these are not my opinions. They are arguments that I imagine that can be used even if the evidence for a better public policy is good.

    And finally, answering your question, maybe there are some groups like this in the Business/Administration departments of USA’s universities.

    • RP: Well, with respect to the first meaning, I guess I was surprised, pleasantly actually, that he wasn’t just in the business of debunking everything he came across, but was putting forward things like controlled trials as a way to do it better. With respect to the second meaning, I was intrigued he gave the 9 steps or whatever to RCTs, especially with a minimal discussion of the statistics. That made it clear and easy to follow….but could it possibly appear just a bit too easy a recipe to apply? As I said, I really don’t know him at all, but am interested.

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