Nobel for testing conventional wisdom

Conventional wisdom — even its more intuitive cousin, common sense — sometimes needs to be tested scientifically. This year’s winners of the Nobel Prize in economics are living proof of that.

Michael Kremer of Harvard University and Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were named co-winners of the prize this week. They were saluted for joint research into battling poverty.

What the three found indicates that some of what we may have thought was effective in pulling people out of poverty is not.

The Associated Press explained some of the winners’ findings this way: “Their work in rural Kenya and in India … found that providing more textbooks, school meals and teachers didn’t do much to help students learn more.

“Making the schoolwork more relevant to students, working closely with the neediest students and holding teachers accountable — by putting them on short-term contracts, for example — were more effective in countries where teacher often don’t bother showing up for work.”

In other words, merely throwing money at education intended to better poor children’s lives is not effective.

On the other hand, sometimes common sense is accurate. The Nobel winners found that when parents had to pay for medicine to kill parasitic infections in their children, only 18% did so. When the pills were provided free of charge, 75% of the children got them.

Only a microscopically small percentage of children in our country suffer from the kind of poverty Banerjee, Duflo, and Kremer have studied. Finding better ways to help Americans improve their lives is important, too, and it may be that some of the Nobel winners’ research is relevant here.

But it clearly is applicable to U.S. foreign aid which, by the billions of dollars annually, may not be doing as much good as we hope it does.

Extending the research — finding more ways in which doing real good requires rethinking our approaches — will be important. Good for Banerjee, Duflo, and Kremer for asking questions to which too many of us think we know the answers.


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