RCTs, skeptics, and evidence-based policy

January 9, 2013

(This article was originally published at Error Statistics Philosophy » Statistics, and syndicated at StatsBlogs.)

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?

Filed under: RCTs, Statistics Tagged: RCTs

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