Blattman protests too much, I fear

I think Chris Blattman recent post on “fear” which got a lot of reposts, represents sort of exactly why some people are dubious of the micro-evaluation randomista approach.  The way any normal person reads Chris’s post, is that he is suggesting that poor and marginalized people have a lot of fear and this keeps them down. The production of this fear is all rendered in the passive voice.  Something out there (a fog? really?) produces the conditions for which fear is the correct reaction, debilitating as it may be.  So randomistas need to search for the psychological mechanisms at work and design programs that will empower people and reduce fear… and hence spur development.

Reading Joshua Oppenheimer’s timely oped about the mass killing of Indonesian leftists in 1965, you can easily see what is left out.  Oppenheimer writes (Source: Suharto’s Purge, Indonesia’s Silence – The New York Times):

The purpose of such intimidation is to create a climate of fear in which corruption and plunder go unchallenged.

Chris in his blog post asserts, “The tragedy is that modern social science has very little to say about any of this.”  I think modern social science (and even more broadly, the humanities, including people like Oppenheimer) actually has a lot to say about this.   I know that when I went to Chile, the only destination on my list was the museum established by Michele Bachelet’s government to remember and understand the violence and fear created by Pinochet.  The museum, in my hazy memory, was largely informed by modern social science and humanities.  Yes, there is no randomized control trial telling us whether such museums change the nature of fear for a given sub-group of some population.  But if Chris really does mean “modern social science” = “experimental method with regression analysis” even this comparative neglect by economics can hardly be labelled a tragedy.  He doth protest too much!

About mkevane

Economist at Santa Clara University and Director of Friends of African Village Libraries.
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