The experimentalist ‘revolution’ in economics

18 Nov, 2021 at 10:34 | Posted in Statistics & Econometrics | Comments Off on The experimentalist ‘revolution’ in economics

What has always bothered me about the “experimentalist” school is the false sense of certainty it conveys. The basic idea is that if we have a “really good instrument” we can come up with “convincing” estimates of “causal effects” that are not “too sensitive to assumptions.” Elsewhere I have written  an extensive critique of this experimentalist perspective, arguing it presents a false panacea, andthat allstatistical inference relies on some untestable assumptions …

Maimonides Quote: Teach thy tongue to say 'I do not know,' and thou shalt  progress.Consider Angrist and Lavy (1999), who estimate the effect of class size on student performance by exploiting variation induced by legal limits. It works like this: Let’s say a law  prevents class size from exceeding. Let’s further assume a particular school has student cohorts that average about 90, but that cohort size fluctuates between, say, 84 and 96. So, if cohort size is 91–96 we end up with four classrooms of size 22 to 24, while if cohort size is 85–90 we end up with three classrooms of size 28 to 30. By comparing test outcomes between students who are randomly assigned to the small vs. large classes (based on their exogenous birth timing), we obtain a credible estimate of the effect of class size on academic performance. Their answer is that a ten-student reduction raises scores by about 0.2 to 0.3 standard deviations.

This example shares a common characteristic of natural experiment studies, which I think accounts for much of their popularity: At first blush, the results do seem incredibly persuasive. But if you think for awhile, you start to see they rest on a host of assumptions. For example, what if schools that perform well attract more students? In this case, incoming cohort sizes are not random, and the whole logic beaks down. What if parents who care most about education respond to large class sizes by sending their kids to a different school? What if teachers assigned to the extra classes offered in high enrollment years are not a random sample of all teachers?

Michael Keane

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