Benefits and limitations of randomized controlled trials: I agree with Deaton and Cartwright

January 8, 2018
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(This article was originally published at Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science, and syndicated at StatsBlogs.)

My discussion of “Understanding and misunderstanding randomized controlled trials,” by Angus Deaton and Nancy Cartwright, for Social Science & Medicine:

I agree with Deaton and Cartwright that randomized trials are often overrated. There is a strange form of reasoning we often see in science, which is the idea that a chain of reasoning is as strong as its strongest link. The social science and medical research literature is full of papers in which a randomized experiment is performed, a statistically significant comparison is found, and then story time begins, and continues, and continues—as if the rigor from the randomized experiment somehow suffuses through the entire analysis.

Here are some reasons why the results of a randomized trial cannot be taken as representing a general discovery:

1. Measurement. A causal effect on a surrogate endpoint does not necessarily map to an effect on the outcome of interest. . . .

2. Missing data. . . .

3. Extrapolation. The participants in a controlled trial are typically not representative of the larger population of interest. This causes no problem if the treatment effect is constant but can leads to bias to the extent that treatment effects are nonlinear and have interactions. . . .

4. Researcher degrees of freedom. . . .

5. Type M (magnitude) errors. . . .

Each of these threats to validity is well known, but they often seem to be forgotten, or to be treated as minor irritants to be handled with some reassuring words or a robustness study, rather than as fundamental limitations on what can be learned from a particular dataset.

One way to get a sense of the limitations of controlled trials is to consider the conditions under which they can yield meaningful, repeatable inferences. . . .

Where does this all leave us? Randomized controlled trials have problems, but the problem is not with the randomization and the control—which do give us causal identification, albeit subject to sampling variation and relative to a particular local treatment effect. So really we’re saying at all empirical trials have problems, a point which has arisen many times in discussions of experiments and causal reasoning in political science; see Teele (2014). I agree with Deaton and Cartwright that the best way forward is to integrate subject-matter information into design, data collection, and data analysis . . .

Once we recognize the importance of diverse sources of data, statistics can be helpful in making decisions and quantifying uncertainty. . . .

Again, here’s my discussion, and here’s the original article. I assume other discussions are coming soon.

The post Benefits and limitations of randomized controlled trials: I agree with Deaton and Cartwright appeared first on Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science.



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