RCTs — a method in search of ontological foundations

29 Mar, 2019 at 19:41 | Posted in Theory of Science & Methodology | 3 Comments

dessin2sRCTs treat social reality as though some simulacrum of laboratory conditions was a feasible and appropriate scientific method to apply, but in development research, unlike laboratory condition treatments, interventions are not manipulations of individuated and additive or simply combinable material components … but rather intervention into material social relations. While for the former, assuming away or stripping away everything other than a given effect focus can reveal the underlying invariant mechanics of that effect, in the latter one cannot take it as given that there is an underlying invariant mechanics that will continue to apply and one is just as liable to be assuming or stripping away what is important to the constitution of the material social relations … As such, RCTs may make for poor social science, because the approach is based on a mismatch between the RCT procedure and the constitution of reality under investigation—including the treatment of humans as deliberative centers of ultimate concern. In any case, technical sophistication is no guarantor of appropriately conceived “rigour” if the orientation of methods is inappropriate …

Jamie Morgan

Morgan’s reasoning confirms what yours truly has repeatedly argued on this blog and in On the use and misuse of theories and models in mainstream economics  — RCTs usually do not provide evidence that the results are exportable to other target systems. The almost religious belief with which its propagators portray it, cannot hide the fact that RCTs cannot be taken for granted to give generalizable results. That something works somewhere is no warranty for it to work for us or even that it works generally.


  1. Prof. Syll
    The following videos illustrate that indeed, as you suggest, there is never any necessary ontological or epistemological warrant for conclusions from any empirical trial.
    Even so, usually the victor is evident and exportable to other target systems on the basis of common sense without the need for export certificates or other philosophical paraphernalia.
    Enjoy (16 minutes & 15 minutes):

    • Ritualized conflict is as old as humanity, have you ever seen the rock throwing competitions in South America where one village goes another annually.

      Don’t know what to make out of the common sense term as its highly localized.

  2. Professor Andrew Leigh and Australian Labor politician has something to say about RCT’s.
    See http://www.andrewleigh.com/a_randomised_route_to

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