What If We Tested Laws Before Passing Them?

Social Science,Statistics — Zac Townsend @ December 13, 2010 2:16 pm

An interesting article in the Boston Globe today on whether we should use randomized trials to test laws before they are passed.

There are certainly potential problems with this vision. First is the question of effectiveness: In some cases, it may prove too difficult to run an accurate test. The full repercussions of laws often take years to manifest themselves, and small-scale experiments do not always translate well to larger settings. Also at issue is fairness. Americans expect to be treated equally under the law, and this approach, by definition, entails disparate treatment.

“The problem is, we’re dealing with laws that have a huge impact on people’s lives,” says Barry Friedman, a law professor at New York University. “These aren’t casual tests. It’s not, you try Tide or you try laundry detergent X....Here we’re talking about basic benefits and fundamental rights.” Though Friedman is sympathetic to the goal of gaining better empirical knowledge, he says, “My guess is some of it’s doable in some contexts, and a lot of it’s not doable in other contexts.”

But others are more sanguine, and they make the opposite argument: That precisely because the stakes are so high, the laws that we enact on a large-scale, long-term basis must be more rigorously tested. This wave of thinking is part of a broader trend in fields from health care to education: Our practices should be “evidence-based,” rather than deriving from theories and unproven assumptions. The question is whether this kind of scientific approach can successfully take on a project as unruly as our society — and our politics.

From my earlier post, I think it is clear that I fall in the "the stakes are so high" lets test group.

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