“Placebo Tests for Causal Inference,” Andy Eggers, University of Chicago
QUANTITATIVE RESEARCH METHODS WORKSHOP
Abstract: Placebo tests are increasingly common in applied social science research, but the methodological literature has not previously offered a comprehensive account of what we learn from them. We define placebo tests as tools for assessing the plausibility of the assumptions underlying a research design relative to some departure from those assumptions. We offer a typology of tests defined by the aspect of the research design that is altered to produce it (outcome, treatment, or population) and the type of assumption that is tested (identification or estimation). Our formal framework clarifies the extra assumptions necessary for informative placebo tests; these assumptions can be strong, and in some cases similar assumptions would justify a different procedure allowing the researcher to relax the research design’s assumptions rather than test them. Properly designed and interpreted, placebo tests can be an important device for assessing the credibility of empirical research designs.
Andrew Eggers is a Professor at the University of Chicago’s Department of Political Science and Senior Research Fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford. His research and teaching focus on research methodology, representation, electoral systems, and money and politics.
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The series is sponsored by the ISPS Center for the Study of American Politics and The Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale with support from the Edward J. and Dorothy Clarke Kempf Fund.