Bryan Caplan  

The Man of One Study

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Another great piece by Scott Alexander:

So here's why you should beware the man of one study.

If you go to your better class of alternative medicine websites, they don't tell you "Studies are a logocentric phallocentric tool of Western medicine and the Big Pharma conspiracy."

They tell you "medical science has proved that this drug is terrible, but ignorant doctors are pushing it on you anyway. Look, here's a study by a reputable institution proving that the drug is not only ineffective, but harmful."

And the study will exist, and the authors will be prestigious scientists, and it will probably be about as rigorous and well-done as any other study.

And then a lot of people raised on the idea that some things have Evidence and other things have No Evidence think holy s**t, they're right!

On the other hand, your doctor isn't going to a sketchy alternative medicine website. She's examining the entire literature and extracting careful and well-informed conclusions from...

Haha, just kidding. She's going to a luncheon at a really nice restaurant sponsored by a pharmaceutical company, which assures her that they would never take advantage of such an opportunity to shill their drug, they just want to raise awareness of the latest study. And the latest study shows that their drug is great! Super great! And your doctor nods along, because the authors of the study are prestigious scientists, and it's about as rigorous and well-done as any other study.

But obviously the pharmaceutical company has selected one of the studies from the "very good" end of the bell curve.

Read the whole thing, including the stuff about the minimum wage.


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COMMENTS (4 to date)
Tom West writes:

Wow. Thanks for the pointer. That's a great piece.

And as for minimum wage, Alexander makes it pretty clear that the results are *so* blurry that we can impose whatever narrative fits our world-view upon it. The evidence to support our side (no matter our side is) is overwhelming.

Is it cherry picking when both sides have orchards to support them?

Rick Hull writes:

This relates to Bryan's occasional lament of being able to "prove anything with statistics" (paraphrase).

Jeff writes:

This is why you need an ideology to make sense of it all.

Sometimes you can be agnostic, because the outcome doesn't matter much to you. Normally I don't care whether or not a particular drug works for a particular condition if no one I am close to has that condition or is likely to get it. But even that may change if I am being taxed to pay for the drug.

The classical liberal ideology makes sense to me. But I've met Marxists who feel the same way about their views. I think they're wrong, and I point to all the usual North Korea vs South Korea, East vs West Germany, and so on, but they are not convinced. It's rather like arguing religion: after a certain age you just don't bother any more.

On the minimum wage question, I don't think I need much ideology. Not allowing consenting adults to engage in a transaction both sides agree to makes them worse off. It may be that by doing so you can force one side to engage in a different transaction the makes the other side better off, but if the total value of the second transaction was actually higher, the parties could have agreed to it along with a side payment and both been better off. This is the insight of the Coase Theorem.

You can come up with a bunch of reasons why the free market arrangement is sub-optimal, but the burden of proof should always be on those who want to constrain consenting adults. And even if the burden of proof is met, they still should be required to show that their alternative arrangement will actually be better. Requiring parties to take large externalities into account often meets this test, as does establishing a judicial system to handle disputes and criminal matters. But much of what government does today does not.

Seb Nickel writes:

I'm confused as to how that particular passage is worth quoting. Isn't it totally obvious?

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