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This year’s Nobel prizes prompt soul-searching among economists

NOBEL PRIZES are usually given in recognition of ideas that are already more or less guaranteed a legacy. But occasionally they prompt as much debate as admiration. This year’s economics award, given to Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer, was unusual both for the recency of the contributions it recognised and the relative youth of the recipients. (For a review of “Good Economics for Hard Times”, by Mr Banerjee and Ms Duflo, see Books and arts section.) Intentionally or not, it has inflamed arguments about the direction of the profession.The prize, awarded in early October, recognised the laureates’ efforts to use randomised controlled trials (RCTs) to answer social-science questions. In an RCT, researchers assess the effect of a policy intervention by dividing participants into groups, only some of which are treated with the policy. This year’s winners used RCTs to study the effectiveness of anti-poverty programmes in developing economies. To take one example, Mr Kremer suspected that poor health might depress learning by reducing school attendance. By using randomisation to set the schedule by which different schools’ pupils would be treated for intestinal worms, Mr Kremer and his co-author, Edward Miguel, learned that deworming improved health and attendance—but not test scores. Their work has been highly acclaimed, before the Nobel and after. But strikingly, given its practical success, it has also faced sustained criticism.
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