On ethical issues of randomized experiments

After reading Super Crunchers, a recent book by Ian Ayres, I have thought of ethical aspects of some experiments he mentioned (note that he is not involved in these experiments). In a few words, the idea of so called randomized experiments is to run an experiment with different parameters on the same population (in a somehow large scale) to see the influence of such parameters.

Ayres gives several examples of randomized experiments in his book. Of course, on some of these examples, there is no real ethical issue. For example, one can imagine a company such as Amazon performing randomized experiments. As written in Ayres book, a company may be interested in the impact of the way they threat their customers. For example, the company can decide to apply three different actions on customers who received their order lately. Of course, some customers will be treated with less attention than others. In this case, this way of doing is alright for two reasons. First, customers usually don’t know about such a process. Second, if they know it, they can certainly understand that this is a random experiment of the company.

Now, imagine the more serious case (some examples are presented in the book) of treating illness or influencing education. Performing random experiments will, in certain situations, directly affect the life of people. Would you agree that companies (or governments) performs randomized experiments that can influence your education (or the one of your children)? I think that the experiments mentioned in Ayres’ book can bring important issues about ethical aspects of data mining or statistics. Maybe you have a particular opinion about it?

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2 Comments on On ethical issues of randomized experiments

  1. Christophe Giraud-Carrier on Wed, 9th Apr 2008 1:14 pm
  2. Ethical issues always creep up when trying to run randomized controlled experiments, as one group is either “left out” (e.g., the control group does not receive the treatment that may cure them) or “tampered with” (e.g., the treatment group is subjected to something whose true impact is unknown). In some cases, randomized control trials are simply unfeasible. You might enjoy reading this (fun) paper on that particular subject. The question is: how would you like to be in the control group of an experiment that tests the usefulness of parachutes in free fall? Enjoy!

  3. Sandro Saitta on Thu, 10th Apr 2008 8:30 am
  4. Christophe, thanks a lot for the link! Indeed, it seems a funny paper, I will read it for sure.

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