With no ethics to worry about, what amazing advances could economics make?


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The Telegraph has an article on seven scientific experiments that would have large pay-offs to science, but which would be completely unethical. Examples include separating twins at birth, testing new chemicals on humans, and cross-breeding a human with a chimpanzee. For each, they discuss the scientific premise, and the payoffs to science if it were to be accomplished. The closest thing to an economic experiment among them is the twin separation – where there have been many studies that look at twins in different environments. However, this got me to thinking, what are the experiments that would offer most potential in economics, but would never be able to be done for ethical reasons?

Maybe your imagination is better than mine, but the examples that come immediately to my mind are mostly macro ones. For example:

·         Randomly deciding which institutions different countries have – there is a huge literature about the importance of institutions, but they are intertwined with so many other things about cultures and countries it is hard to know specifically what matters…

·         Randomly experimenting with different tax and expenditure policies – let’s solve the debate once and for all!

·         Industrial policy experiments – should countries be trying to follow the model of Korea/China and develop through light manufacturing and heavy state intervention, or should they be trying to develop their natural resources more, and developing more like Australia/Chile?

I’m not sure what would be the most interesting micro experiments – many of the key things we’d actually like experimental evidence for we are starting to see experiments providing it, or at least I see hope that we could in the future. What do our readers think, if you had your own planet to experiment on, what experiment would benefit economics most?


David McKenzie

Lead Economist, Development Research Group, World Bank

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August 16, 2011

*Let's settle this argument : randomize aid allocations across recipient countries for a minimum of five years. Control group gets nothing.

*Twin separation? Let's just randomly re-sort infants immediately after birth to new parents (in the same maternity ward).

*Flip a coin when deciding whether or not to send in peacekeepers, conditional on some sort of war. Might take a while to build up enough power.

Joshua Muskin
August 17, 2011

this is just silly, and more evidence of the vanity of economics, thinking of itself as a science. there are two reasons this pondering is vain and irrelevant. first, the scientific experiments to which you refer can actually be done. the sorts of "experiments" to which you refer cannot, and not just because they would be unethical. most simply, they are not possible because too many persons and other interests (e.g., corporations, which are most definitely NOT people - sorry mitt romney), would not let them occur. second, scientific experiments aspire to proof by being replicable in all settings by all people. in other words, any competent person who repeats the same steps in the same conditions in different locations should yield the same results. this goal is unattainable in economics, not least because it is impossible to replicate conditons, due to many reasons, including prominently that niggly factor known as humans.
remember, please. economics may be rigorous and it may use some scientific method, but it is NOT science.

August 17, 2011

World Bank staff come from a few highly selective and socially desirable institutions where high-income families send their children. Let's experiment by excluding applicants from the 10 most common institutions. We can then find out how recommendations and topics of discussion will differ between the high-status and the lower-status graduates. Also we can find out whether the two sets of staff differ in perceived characteristics such as arrogance and lack of realism.

August 17, 2011

David - you can be more devious than that. Perhaps a discussion of unethical experiments is better tackled anonymously.

What about moving all the poor people of a country into one area?
Paying poor people to stop having children?
Or stopping aid to certain countries completely, and showering others with massive aid and technical assistance? (ok, this one may already be an experiment in progress
Giving high IQ people 10 times the number of votes in a democracy?
Allowing corporations to make economic policy?

Dave Algoso
August 17, 2011

"Randomly deciding which institutions different countries have"? It takes a lot more than wishing away ethics to make this possible. It would take omnipotence on the part of the experimenters. Even if you suppose that the experiment could be run, what would you do with the results?

August 17, 2011

Take the economists at WB to the basement and put them into two teams: poor countries and economists at the Operations Dept of the Bank and let the fun begin.

August 20, 2011

Muskin, you sound more like the generation of dogmatic positivists that once existed in the earlier centuries. Knowledge is not solely acquired through observation as your primitive uncles use to claim. I suggest you page throuth the works of philosophers of science. Economics is science that reveals the workings of economy; Politics is science that graples with the polis.