A Discussion of Dawn Langan Teele’s Field Experiments and Their Critics: Essays on the Uses and Abuses of Experimentation in the Social Sciences
by Dawn Langan Teele, University of Pennsylvania
Experimental approaches to political science research have become increasingly prominent in the discipline. Experimental research is regularly featured in some of the discipline’s top journals, and indeed in 2014 a new Journal of Experimental Political Science was created, published by Cambridge University Press. At the same time, there are disagreements among political scientists about the limits of experimental research, the ethical challenges associated with this research, and the general model of social scientific inquiry underlying much experimental research. Field Experiments and Their Critics: Essays on the Uses and Abuses of Experimentation in the Social Sciences, edited by Dawn Langan Teele (Yale University Press 2015), brings together many interesting perspectives on these issues. And so we have invited a number of political scientists to comment on the book, the issues it raises, and the more general question of “the uses and abuses of experimentation in the social sciences.”
- Henry E. Brady, University of California, Berkeley
In Novum Organum (1620), Francis Bacon offered a new method of “true induction, with the assistance of experiment” (p. 117) based upon a series of tables (of presence, of absence, and of comparison) which were early versions of John Stuart Mill’s “Joint Method of Agreement and Differences.” Through his method he hoped to reveal “forms, … nothing else than those laws and regulations of simple action which arrange and constitute any simple nature” (p. 148). Read the full article.
- Yanna Krupnikov, Stony Brook University
Decisions about methodological approaches are pivotal to empirical political science research. Often, however, discussions of the costs and benefits of a given method take place in only a few paragraphs of a journal article. These paragraphs are often designed to highlight the benefits of and dismiss the common critiques against whichever method the author has used in a particular piece of research. By necessity these discussions are often brief and rarely examine how a methodological approach fits within the broader ideas of scientific research. Read the full article.
- Jessica Robinson Preece, Brigham Young University
Alan Gerber, Donald Green, and Edward Kaplan begin their volume, Field Experiments and Their Critics, with a forceful argument in favor of field experiments. They derive the “Illusion of Observational Learning Theorem” and then discuss the implications for the efficient allocation of research resources. They conclude that it generally makes sense to allocate all of one’s research resources to experimentation. Only when the costs (financial or ethical) of experimentation are extremely high and good-quality observational data is readily available should researchers invest in observational research. They throw down the gauntlet: Either you’re doing experiments, or you’re probably wasting your time. Read the full article.
- Peregrine Schwartz-Shea, University of Utah
In recent years, experiments—in laboratories, but especially in the field—have come into their own in political science and developmental economics, accompanied, often, by the argument that these methods and the evidence they produce are superior to others or, in the increasingly tired metaphor, that they constitute a “gold standard” to which all researchers should aspire. The implication is that researchers using other methods are doing “second-best” research and that funders and policymakers should not waste their money or attention on studies conducted using “nonexperimental” methods. Read the full article.
- Betsy Sinclair, Washington University in St Louis
This book reflects a magnificent debate between highly regarded, serious researchers. It provides space for the authors to develop careful arguments in each chapter and the chapters provide a coherent sense for the weaknesses of experimental work circa 2009. As a greater preponderance of the chapters are leery of experimental work, this book could be a critical read for those scholars who do want to engage an experimental toolbox. Read the full article.