What Randomized Experiments of Alcoholics Anonymous Can’t Tell Us

Might Alcoholics Anonymous Not Work for Those Who Won’t Participate in Randomized Experiments of AA? A Study of Breast Feeding Promotion Could Help Answer the Question

Alcoholics Anonymous’ “faith-based 12-step program dominates treatment in the United States. But researchers have debunked central tenets of AA doctrine,” wrote Gabrielle Glaser in April’s Atlantic. She says that AA may not work for many with alcohol problems and that AA’s supporters unfairly dismiss effective drug treatments based in neuroscience.

Jesse Singal immediately fired back that Glaser had missed several randomized experiments of 12-step facilitation showing its effectiveness. And last week Austin Frakt explained how such randomized experiments can be analyzed to “tease apart a treatment effect (improvement due to AA itself) and a selection effect (driven by the type of people who seek [AA] help).” Keith Humphreys, Janet Blodgett and Todd Wagner did just that using combined data from five randomized experiments to show that AA really works—for those who use it.

Who is right?


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Academics Cost Less Than Journalists

Quality Journalism Is Increasingly Using Academics—and Should Use Even More

Last month Brad DeLong wrote,

“The problem with the @WashingtonPost (and the @NYTimes) is that it sells itself as a trusted intermediary interested in informing you while it is actually focused on seizing your eyeballs so that it can sell them to advertisers”

It’s true that both papers have had financial problems and need eyeballs to sell to advertisers.  But Brad is being a bit unfair. Both papers produce a lot of quality journalism and I’m sure their editors would love to prioritize being a “trusted intermediary” above all else. Unfortunately, unlike Brad, who has a university salary, their journalists need to get paid. One solution is staring DeLong, one of the original academic bloggers, in the mirror: more academics producing journalism.

In fact, this past year the number of academics writing for journalistic outlets grew substantially with the founding of the UpShot at the NYT, which followed in the footsteps of WonkBlog at the Washington Post. (DeLong gave WonkBlog as an example of a trusted intermediary.) Many forces drive this trend, including an increasingly complex world needing increasingly expert analysts and academics intent on branding themselves.

But, perhaps out of politeness, no one is talking about the economic forces behind the trend. For a newspaper, academics are cheaper than journalists. And given quality journalism’s financial problems, academics are what they can afford. Continue reading

Obamacare’s Complexity is Not Designed to Fool People

Obamacare’s complexity is really driven by the complexity of our present health care system—and the preferences of the American people

In a fantastic piece Megan McArdle exhorted journalists, who need both expert knowledge and insider connections to do their job, to nonetheless represent their non-expert, outsider readers. Taking Grubergate as her ostensible peg,  she listed various Affordable Care Act complexities that are meant to hide what’s really going on. For example, we have the Cadillac tax, rather than just limits on the tax subsidy to employer-provided insurance.

But McArdle goes wrong when she claims that deliberate attempts to obscure are the main drivers of Obamacare’s complexity:

“Obamacare was designed—as many laws now are—to exploit [ordinary people’s] lack of understanding.  It is huge and complex for a reason, and that reason is that this complexity is an effective thicket in which to hide what you are doing.”

The desire to obscure, though real, is only responsible for a tiny share of Obamacare’s complexity. The dominant cause is the complexity of our pre-ACA health care system. The second main cause is giving Americans what they want from health care—like the lowest possible cost to government. That’s really the opposite of what McArdle claims.

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Avik Roy on Health Care: Faith in Markets, Prejudice Against Government Hurt Otherwise Good Proposal

Avik Roy is on to something with his call to conservatives: focus on health care costs. The Affordable Care Act isn’t really about controlling costs and has just thrown in a grab bag of miscellaneous stuff to address it. (Some of those ACA bits and pieces may be working, though.) But Roy’s supposed evidence for the cost control of “market oriented systems” left me confused: Copy Switzerland, because its “results are remarkable.”


The last time I checked, Switzerland was way up there on the health care expenditure charts. Nowhere close to the US but above most everyone else. In fact, Switzerland, with its ‘more private than most countries’ health care system fits a pattern. Empirically, tight government control systems (like the UK’s) are cheapest—not a result that fits neatly into Roy’s belief system. Continue reading

More Than Big Data Needed for Estimates as Good as Randomized Clinical Trials: Prospective Observational Causal Studies

A research methods post…

Bill Gardner is cautiously—very cautiously—hopeful that big data from electronic health records (EHRs) will enable unbiased estimates of the effects of medical treatment, without any randomized controlled trials.  Gardner’s hope, his caution and his description of the data needed—“all the factors that determine who gets what treatment”—are all right on the mark. And EHRs will massively increase data on detailed clinical factors that drive clinical decisions.

But I fear researchers will focus only on the data laying around in EHRs. To cure confounding, you need to go out and measure all the confounders—everything related to both treatment and outcome. Continue reading

When all Possible Diagnoses are Rare and Doctors’ Predictions Differ Widely

“An infection of that size of that bacteria in that part of the lungs is very unlikely. It’s probably a fungal infection.” “A fungal infection producing so few symptoms is very unlikely. It’s probably cancer.” “Cancer after negative biopsies in two different places is very unlikely. It’s probably all due to the bacterial infection.” “Negative biopsies are a dime a dozen. Cancer is still a real possibility.”

Doctors’ predictions were all over the map during my husband’s recent medical episode. So were their reactions to new test results. Intellectually I understood why: once all the remaining logical possibilities were rare, most of their clinical experience didn’t help in assessing probabilities. At the time, the diverging probabilities and their explanation provided health-economist-me and my biostatistician-husband with a bit of distraction from our emotions. Now that things look virtually certain to be fine, I see some lessons for patients, their families and physicians. Continue reading

Casey Mulligan Worships Market Icons and Denounces Apostate Health Economists

Casey Mulligan kept repeating “market analysis” and “compensating differential” like an Evangelical minister invoking Jesus, though with less charisma and more of an Aspy affect. Mulligan, a University of Chicago economist, was speaking about the Affordable Care Act at the opening plenary of the American Society of Health Economists conference last week. Despite his audience’s knowledge of both economics and the ACA, Mulligan made few substantive points. In fact, Mulligan behaved like a religious zealot, denouncing many health economists as apostates who ignore “market analysis” and demonstrating his own devotion to Platonic ideals of economics.

Mulligan seemed like a religious zealot first and foremost because he did not bother to engage in real analysis or provide evidence. Obviously, Mulligan is a very smart, highly trained economist, who is more than capable of analyzing the complexities of anything he wants. But at least at this event, he did not do so.

(Caveat: This post is based on my memory, my notes and conversations with others. I will check my memory once ASHEcon posts the video.)

Leaving the plenary furious, I wondered if I was seeing Mulligan through partisan eyes. Although I see the flaws of Obamacare—the avoidable, the unavoidable, and the tradeoffs—I am a supporter. I decided to ask conservative health economists, over the course of the three-day conference, what they thought of Mulligan’s performance. I sought out those who I knew to be or suspected might be Obamacare critics. (Since I did not ask to quote anyone and had not even planned to write this post when I asked, I will not name anyone.) My survey is obviously not representative of audience members, biased towards those I know and happened to run in to—and had a sample size in the single digits.

The consensus was overwhelming: “same stuff over and over again” and “not a lot of content.” The most complimentary responses were: “he didn’t explain very well” and “there was a lot to be conveyed, but it didn’t happen.”

Mulligan was not utterly without substance nor was his substance without merit. In the interest of fairness and to give you a flavor of what he did and did not say, below are all of Mulligan’s points with more explanation and context than he provided: Continue reading