TRIALS CHANGING LIVES
Friday, 18 May 2018 - The Daily Telegraph
It’s no ordinary courtroom. If former drug users take a step forward – by finding a job, staying off drugs or graduating from the program – the judge leads the courtroom in a round of applause. When one man, a former heavy user and dealer, graduated from the program to the applause of the courtroom, he wept. ‘You were the first people who gave me a chance.’
If applauding drug users makes you uneasy, you’re not the only one. When the NSW Drug Court was proposed in 1999, the nation was in the grip of a heroin epidemic. Many people thought that harsher sentences were the only answer. Many experts, including former Director of Public Prosecutions Nicholas Cowdery, were sceptical that the Drug Court would work.
So the government of Bob Carr, who had lost his younger brother to a heroin overdose, took an unusual approach. It put the Drug Court to a randomised trial, just the way that we test new pharmaceuticals.
In the Drug Court trial, a group of eligible offenders – who had committed non-violent crimes and were willing to plead guilty – were randomly assigned either to the Drug Court or to the traditional judicial process. Offenders were then matched to court records to compare reoffending rates over the next year or more.
The study found that for every 100 offenders who went through the traditional court system, there were sixty-two drug crimes committed in the year after release. For those who went through the Drug Court, there were eight drug crimes committed in the subsequent year.
The randomised trial showed that even someone who didn’t give a hoot about the wellbeing of drug users should support the Drug Court, since it reduced crime at a cost about the same as that of the traditional system. Nicholas Cowdery admitted that he had evolved from being a sceptic to a strong supporter: ‘the Drug Court of NSW is a success’.
Randomised experiments are everywhere. If you’ve used Google, Netflix or Amazon today, you’ve probably been part of one of their many randomised trials. Google used randomised trials to select the colour of its search bar. Netflix deploys randomised experiments to refine which movies it shows you next. One commentator observes that ‘every pixel on the [Amazon] home page has had to justify its existence through repeated testing of alternative layouts’.
If you grew up on Sesame Street, you benefited from the randomised trials that the show’s creators used to develop its content. If you’re wondering why half of all published prices end in $9, you can thank the randomised trials that retailers are constantly deploying. And if you have benefited from modern medicine, you can probably thank randomised trials. For every new treatment – AIDS drugs, the human papillomavirus vaccine, magnetic resonance imaging, genetic testing – medicine has discarded old ones – bloodletting, gastric freezing, routine circumcision and tonsillectomy.
Thoughtful organisations are increasingly turning away from greybeard folk wisdom towards a more sceptical and data-driven approach. One in every hundred FlyBuys cards is randomly selected to be part of a control group, which does not receive any promotional mailings. This lets the Coles board confidently benchmark the impact of their marketing campaigns. In sport, the best athletes and teams are using randomised trials to try new equipment and techniques. As a runner, I took up wearing compression socks thanks to a randomised trial showing that they improved recovery among marathoners. But I dropped my daily fish oil tablet after a series of large scale randomised trials showed that such supplements did little to improve health.
The philosophy of test-learn-adapt also characterises the most thoughtful government agencies. Bodies like the British Nudge Unit and the American What Works Clearinghouse have worked hard to replace blinkered ideology with thoughtful evidence. It’s a more modest approach, and it delivers better results to taxpayers.
The NSW Drug Court randomised trial has led to similar models being deployed in other Australian states. And the organisation has maintained its evidence-based philosophy. In 2010 the court conducted another randomised trial this time to see whether there was value in bringing Drug Court offenders before the judge twice rather than once a week. The evaluation found that more intense judicial scrutiny halved the chances of a positive drug test.
Across Australia and around the globe, the randomistas are changing the world for the better – one coin toss at a time.
This is an edited extract from Randomistas: How Radical Researchers Changed Our World. Andrew Leigh is the Shadow Assistant Treasurer.