Experiments, Institutions, and Outcomes

John Patty was on to something when he mentioned social choice problems, but he really strikes a chord in the discussion of the recent judical election experiment controversy in his post Ethics, Experiments, and Election Administration:

[A]n experimental manipulation of an election is–in practice–equivalent to a “reform” of election administration.

If the implementation of field experiments can be considered changes to electoral institutions (and I think they certainly could be in many circumstances), then we should admit that experiments are potentially threatening to electoral outcomes as well.

Discussions of election experiments aren’t really about preference neutral scientific ethics, they are about election outcomes with everything that entails. It doesn’t matter how much IRB approval is granted or how much agreement political scientists share on the value of experiments; there is no ideology-free, politically frictionless safe space for us to play in.

Thrown-in a healthy dose of risk aversion on the part of voters, interest groups, parties, candidates, non-voters even and admit the fact that plenty of people don’t like to be messed with by scientists – social or otherwise. It’s no wonder that the Montana controversy has stirred so much strong resentment. The seemingly botched use of the state seal compounds the problems, but didn’t create them all.

Scholarship generated by field experiments conducted during elections (and also on elected officials) has been incredibly useful, interesting, and enlightening, but there is no reason to think that the public appreciates being a part of that process as much as political scientists enjoy the fruits of this research.

To date, researchers have benefited from ignorance. Going forward, they may very well be forced to either pause while they persuade more people of the value their interventions produce for society as a whole, or develop methods which more closely resemble the opt-in nature of a clinical drug trial which presumably leave no doubt about subject consent.

In the short-run, it may be difficult to implement an experiment, but hopefully in the long-run, political science will have benefited from such a public discussion of research.

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