Essays on Science and Society

Rigorous Evaluation of Human Behavior

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Science  15 Jun 2012:
Vol. 336, Issue 6087, pp. 1398
DOI: 10.1126/science.1224965

Scientific and technological advances, combined with an internationally coordinated effort to help the diffusion of those technologies to poor countries, have had important impacts on the quality of life for millions of poor people. For example, antibiotics and vaccinations have dramatically increased life expectancy. New seeds have promoted a “green revolution,” making several Asian countries self-sufficient for their food needs. Some current development challenges undoubtedly would benefit from new technologies. The world still needs vaccines for malaria and HIV, as well as crops better suited to Africa.

The contribution of science to development and poverty alleviation, however, should not be limited to facilitating the development of new products. For there are numerous technologies that are known to be effective but have not been widely adopted, from bed nets to chlorine to iron pills. And others have yet to prove their effectiveness in the real world, despite their promise in the lab, such as cheap laptop computers in schools. The missing part is often recognizing human behaviors that are barriers to adoption or correct use and designing appropriate policies to address them. A recent experiment on improved cookstoves, for example, showed that the stoves were not properly used or maintained. This was sufficient to override the encouraging effects of stoves on health that were found in more controlled conditions.

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In the last 15 years, social scientists have adopted the method of randomized controlled trials (RCTs), one of the key tools of scientific practice, to evaluate development policy. RCTs allow researchers and policy-makers to rigorously evaluate the impact of an intervention. Once very rare in social science, they are now widely used: Hundreds of RCTs are currently being run to evaluate the impact of policies ranging from police reform to the health impacts of fortified foods. Beyond the obvious value of finding out what works and what does not, RCTs can also shed light on the reasons for individuals' behavior, by incorporating insights from economics, psychology, and sociology into the design and analysis of experiments. This makes for good science; these experiments make it possible to test scientific hypotheses with a degree of rigor that was not available before. It is also essential to the design of policies that take our human nature into account. This is the new frontier for the collaboration between science and development policy.

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