How empirical studies of political violence (can) help policymakers

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The Washington Post, Monkey Cage Blog, March 16, 2015

In a recent New York Times opinion piece, “Where Terrorism Research Goes Wrong,” social psychologist Anthony Biglan argues that, given the importance of antiterrorism programs and the huge resources devoted to them, far too few are subjected to randomized controlled trials (RCTs) evaluating their efficacy. To his knowledge only two such studies have been undertaken: one evaluating the effects of aid in Afghanistan, the other evaluating the effects of an anti-violence campaign preceding a Nigerian election. While we heartily agree with his appeal for more RCTs, his evaluation of the state of the field is inaccurate, and it’s worth discussing why.

As members of the Empirical Studies of Conflict Project (ESOC), a research collective dedicated to the study of violence and what can be done to reduce it, we agree with Biglan’s central thesis. If a larger portion of antiterrorism budgets were devoted to evaluation, we would have better information to guide policymakers and a better chance at decreasing violence. Also, since rigorous evaluations can identify cheaper interventions that outperform more expensive ones, funding more of them might save money in the long run – and hopefully save lives, as well. But as an overview of the field, Biglan’s count of RCTs is simply off the mark.