What’s in a counterfactual?

written by Salimah Samji

I am amazed by people’s obsession with the counterfactual, and how evidence cannot exist without it. Why are people so enamored by the idea of ‘the solution’ even though we have learned time and time again that there is no one size fits all?

Is the existence of a counterfactual a sufficient condition? Why don’t people ask questions about the design and implementation of the evaluation? Specifically:

  • What are you measuring and what is the nature of your context: Where in the design space are you? Is your fitness landscape smooth or rugged? Eppstein et al. in Searching the Clinical Fitness Landscape, test two approaches (multicenter randomized control trials vs. quality improvement collaboratives where you work with others, learn from collective experience, and customize based on local context), to identify which leads to healthcare improvements. They find that the quality improvement collaboratives are most effective in the complex socio-technical environments of healthcare institutions. Basically, the moment you introduce any complexity (increased interactions between variables) experiential methods trump experimental ones.
  • Who is collecting your data and how: Collecting data is a tedious task and the incentive to fill out surveys without having to go to the village is high, especially if no one is watching. Then there are questions of what you ask, where you ask, how you ask, what time period it is, how long the questionnaire is, etc.
  • How is the data entered and verified: Do you do random checks? Double data entry?
  • Is the data publicly available for scrutiny?

And then there is the external validity problem. Counterfactual or not, it is crucial to adapt development interventions to local contextual realities, where high quality implementation is paramount to success. Bold et al. in Scaling Up What Works: Experimental Evidence on External Validity in Kenyan Education, find that while NGO implementation of contract teachers in Kenya produces a positive effect on test scores, government implementation of the same program yielded zero effect. They cite implementation constraints and the political economy forces in play as reasons for the stark difference. In a paper entitled, using case studies to explore the external validity of ‘complex’ development interventions, Michael Woolcock argues for deploying case studies to better identify the conditions under which diverse outcomes are observed, with a focus on contextual idiosyncrasies, implementation capabilities and trajectories of change.

To top it off, today’s graduate students in economics don’t read Hirschman (some have never heard of him!) … should we be worried?

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