We’re barely two months from the end of the 2010s, and that has meant a lot of end-of-decade best-of lists on everything from movies to songs to albums to TV shows. And, at least for me, it's meant a lot of arguments with friends over whether, say, Yeezus actually holds up, or if The Master or Phantom Thread is the better Paul Thomas Anderson movie, or if The Good Place is better than Parks and Recreation.
So I started wondering what a list of the papers — in economics, political science, sociology, psychology, and philosophy — that most influenced me over the 2010s would look like. Unsurprisingly, it looked like a list of ideas that have influenced my writing in Future Perfect profoundly.
I should say that this is a small fraction of the research that’s influenced me greatly this past decade, and if you’re an academic reading this and I’ve left you out, I mean no disrespect at all! But here are five papers that have really changed how I think about the world in the 2010s (and keep an eye out for an expanded list on the site in the coming weeks!).
"Cluelessness” (2016) by Hilary Greaves
The choices we make have unpredictable consequences that ripple out for centuries or millennia, by affecting life and death. This is a very technical paper (this podcast presents a more accessible version), but Greaves does a great job of explaining cases where this kind of cluelessness is fine (where we can just make our best guess as to which action will work out best) and in which cases it’s really, really troubling.
I’m cheating slightly with this one; Cohen and Dupas’s article appeared in working paper form before being officially published in 2010. It uses a randomized experiment to show that giving away anti-malaria bednets for free dramatically increases their usage relative to charging a small, nominal fee.
This implies that charities like Against Malaria Foundation that facilitate the direct distribution of bednets can have huge positive effects. I’ve given thousands of dollars to AMF due in no small part to this paper.
The Cohen-Dupas paper is in some ways the best possible case for randomized trials being valuable. Here’s the best countercase I’ve seen.
Focusing on education, this team of researchers tries to use average results of education policies, as measured by big randomized trials held in different locations, to predict the results in individual locations. They find that this doesn't work very well at all: you can't just take average results and expect that the same effect will hold in your specific case. It's a challenging result for evidence-based policy and one I'm still grappling with.
If public opinion doesn’t determine the future of public policy, what does? Here, Noel tells a compelling story that places “coalition merchants” — party activists, sympathetic journalists, and other ideologues — at the center, deciding “what goes with what” and what it means to be a conservative or a liberal.
He illustrates this using race relations in the 1950s and 1960s; he argues that intellectuals like William F. Buckley and groups like Americans for Democratic Action were crucial in identifying support for government services with support for civil rights, and opposition to one with opposition to the other.
We probably focus too much on individual studies and not enough on big pooled evidence reviews. In this review (ably summarized here for folks without NBER access), Jackson walks through 13 recent papers, many coauthored by Jackson himself, that use highly rigorous near-random methods to measure the influence of money on school outcomes.
It’s a very basic question — does pouring more money into public schools improve outcomes? — and the answer, Jackson finds in the research base, is yes. It’s a good model for reviewing an evidence base, and it's a paper that’s genuinely changed my mind on the topic. I previously thought per-student funding didn’t matter much; I now think it matters a great deal.
The degree that EA thought relies on cutting-edge* research in economics, philosophy, etc, from the last 10 years is kinda surprising if you think about it.
It's kinda weird that not just Superintelligence but also Poor Economics, Compassion by the Pound, information hazards, unilateralist's curse, and other things we just kinda assume to be "in the water supply" rely mostly on arguments or research that's not even a decade old!
*the less polite way to put it is "likely to be overturned" :P