Vox.Com — a popular news and opinion online platform — recently published an article on research from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (NAS) that found 40-50% of respondents believed that Randomized Control Trials (RCTs) were unethical. RCTs are often called A/B since participants are randomly allocated to two groups wherein one group is given the intervention (i.e., the control group) and one group isn’t to determine the efficacy of the intervention. This “randomness” reduces selection bias in the scientific process. Treatment effectiveness is assessed in comparison to the control group. RCTs are considered the Gold Standard in scientific research and the article reveals that more than 360 million patients have been involved in medical — and 22 million in social science — RCTs between 2007-2017.

These findings surprised the researchers since opposition to RCTs was greatest among those with higher educational attainment and possessing science literacy. The researchers concluded these outcomes reflected an “illusion of knowledge” wherein participants believe RCTs are unnecessary since scientists already know what works. Consequently, the researchers condemn contemporary science education’s failure in successfully communicating to students the necessity of the A/B approach in creating better policies for society’s benefit.

Yet, the study’s findings reflect the deeply-ingrained anti-intellectualism — alive in the national culture since the founding period — the late Columbia University historian Richard Hofstrader identified in his 1964 Pulitzer Prize winning book “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.” Anti-intellectuals demonstrate a preference for intuitive experience and practical wisdom as opposed to empirical facts (i.e., the A/B scientific method). Hofstrader noted that (a) anti-intellectualism is found in the democratic institutions and egalitarian sentiments of the country while the intellectual class is an elite group because of its manner of thinking and functioning; (b) intellectuals try to be good citizens in our democratic society while simultaneously resisting the vulgarization of the culture which society constantly produces; and (c) it is rare for intellectuals to candidly confront the unresolvable elitism of their class and that of democratic aspirations. Hofstrader accepts that tensions between intellectuals and anti-intellectuals exist in American democracy, acknowledges the appeal of both sides, and proposes a continual struggle between them rather than have an American version of Plato’s Republic where politics is viewed as a dirty business that mainly seeks to manipulate the unthinking masses.

Consequently, Hofstrader wouldn’t view the NAS findings concerning the unethical nature of RCTs surprising or abnormal. However, in an era where anti-intellectualism provides parents with a rationale for not vaccinating their children against global pandemics or a logic for climate change deniers, it is legitimate to question whether Hofstrader’s anti-intellectualism’s benign neglect should be so uncritically accepted?

One of the questions asked NAS respondents concerned “employee retirement plan enrollment nudges.” This is a topic I teach in a Public Policy class based on the behavioral science economic research of Richard Thaler, the 2017 Nobel Prize winner. Thaler advocates that retirement plans be based on automatic default options (i.e., nudges) — featuring an opt-out provision — that benefits both the individual and broader society. For instance, his research shows that (a) workers in automatic enrollment plans participate at higher rates than workers who opt-in to a standard retirement plan; (b) existing workers in a firm with a default contribution rate of three percent of salary put in exactly that amount to the plan despite the existence of a dollar-for-dollar employee match on contributions up to six percent. Thus, these employees left free money on the table. However, when the firm set the automatic default at six percent for new hires, few opted-out to the three percent default setting; and (c) a lower percentage of workers — then leaving a job — opted-out of automatic rollovers to a 401k plan compared to those who could opt-in to a retirement plan, where a majority took a cash distribution. Hence, automatic enrollments are extremely influential at every stage of retirement plan decision-making — participation, distribution, and decumulation.

Importantly, HR personnel or financial planners would not be able to advise workers on maximizing retirement benefits without the A/B research that Thaler and other economists have conducted in this area of behavioral science.

There are no “illusions of knowledge” in either medical or social science. Researchers develop a hypothesis and test in RCTs to determine whether the cause and effect relationship exists. As such, citizens who value RCTs will live medically and financially healthier lives in 21st century America than anti-intellectuals.

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