Bayes’ Rule and the Paradox of Pre-Registration of RCTs 29

By Donald P. Green (Political Science, Columbia)

Not long ago, I attended a talk at which the presenter described the results of a large, well-crafted experiment.  His results indicated that the average treatment effect was close to zero, with a small standard error.  Later in the talk, however, the speaker revealed that when he partitioned the data into subgroups (men and women), the findings became “more interesting.”  Evidently, the treatment interacts significantly with gender.  The treatment has positive effects on men and negative effects on women.

A bit skeptical, I raised my hand to ask whether this treatment-by-covariate interaction had been anticipated by a planning document prior to the launch of the experiment.  The author said that it had.  The reported interaction now seemed quite convincing.  Impressed both by the results and the prescient planning document, I exclaimed “Really?”  The author replied, “No, not really.”  The audience chuckled, and the speaker moved on.  The reported interaction again struck me as rather unconvincing.

Why did the credibility of this experimental finding hinge on pre-registration?  Let’s take a step back and use Bayes’ Rule to analyze the process by which prior beliefs were updated in light of new evidence.  In order to keep the algebra to a bare minimum, consider a stylized example that makes use of Bayes’ Rule in its simplest form.