The coronavirus will create many natural experiments

There are many theories about society and human behavior that cannot be experimentally tested because of ethical reasons or impracticality. On occasion, there will occur conditions that allow for what are called natural experiments, where social conditions or governmental actions create situations that are suitable for large scale experimental studies that could not have been created by the researchers.

One such case I recall is where a state did not have the funds to expand Medicaid health insurance to everyone in the state who qualified so that they doled it out randomly. This enabled researchers later to study what benefits, if any, access to heath insurance provided, since they now had a large scale test group and a control group. I recall another study that looked into whether raising taxes encouraged people to move to a lower tax state, something rich people often threaten to do when their state is thinking of raising taxes. Researchers were able to study this when one state raised its taxes. They studied a large metropolitan area that was very close to that state’s boundary with a lower tax state to see if people moved a short distance to avoid paying the taxes.

The massive disruptions in every area of life caused by the pandemic will generate huge amounts of data that will keep social scientists all over the world busy for decades to come studying the effects. These dislocations caused by coronavirus will create many such natural experiments. One is measuring whether working at home is feasible on a large scale and over long times. Is it feasible for a wider class of work than we used to think? Does it lead to a more contented workforce? What effect does the lack of daily contact have on the psychology of workers? How does it affect productivity?

Another result that we have seen is that the lockdowns have resulted in the air in certain big cities in China and India, which were notorious for their air pollution, becoming considerably improved. Will this very tangible and immediate benefit cause the people in cities to rethink the way they commute and try to preserve the clean air that they now can enjoy?

There will undoubtedly be studies on the psychological effects of social distancing on people’s state of mind. For the last week, I have been alone at home except for brief periods when I go for a walk around the neighborhood where I have not met anyone. I have been having video chats with family and friends but that was about it. For an introvert like me, this is not particularly a hardship but it made me think that this period of extended social distancing might be much harder for gregarious, socially active people.

Being required to stay at home has resulted in people finding new pleasures that do not require going out, such as reading, playing board games, spending more time online with others, and so on. Will this lead to long-term changes in people’s recreational behavior? Will people in future not feel the need to go out as much to bars, restaurants, cinemas, concerts, and the like?

Another major area is education. When I was director of the teaching center at my university, there was some concern by some faculty about the rising use of online services even for classes that were not distance learning. In certain courses, the lecture would be recorded and posted later online for students to review later. Some faculty did not like it because many students stopped coming for the live lectures. These faculty also felt that this was the first step towards replacing live lectures (and faculty) with recorded ones and that the increasingly corporatized universities would seize this as a way to cut costs by replacing faculty with cheaper commercial lecture courses by ‘famous’ lecturers, leading to a homogenizing effect.

My view was a little different. My feeling is that if you can be replaced by a streamed lecture, then perhaps you should be replaced because you are clearly not adding anything of value. There has to be a reason for getting a large number of people to be in a single room at a single time. I recommended that we should use this technology to reverse that traditional model. Rather than students coming and listening to a lecture with all the others and then doing their homework alone, we should reverse the process. Let the students watch the lectures on their own and then come to the class to discuss the material with others, with the professor being the facilitator. That model has caught on and the sudden burst of online education will be able to shed some light on how effective this is in enhancing student learning.

The items I have mentioned are likely just a tiny fraction of all the natural experiments that will be created by the pandemic.


  1. Jazzlet says

    I’m certainly enjoying the reduced pollution here as a result of far less traffic, the air quality has undoubtedly improved; it is also far quieter, as well as fewer vehicles at the front of the house, there are fewer trains across the field at the back of the house, and no aeroplanes above the house. I find it difficult to believe this won’t result in less stress which will hopefully help balance the stress from COVID at least a little bit.

  2. says

    I was chatting with my doctor the other day, getting my flu shot for the season. I said I’d wondered which other diseases would disappear with the C-19 crisis. She said that gastro outbreaks were already much lower than before the C-19 period. Social distancing and increased hygiene must have a significant effect on quite a number of common diseases.

    As she poked the needle into my arm she remarked on my old vaccination scar and said that studies were showing that populations with a high rate of TB vaccinations had far fewer acute cases due to C-19 that those that didn’t. So that, coupled with a history of non smoking and living in a region with very low air pollution, means that I may have already had the virus and missed all but the weakest symptoms.

  3. publicola says

    Perhaps adjustments can be made in the workplace that can help the environment, such as “work-at-home Wednesdays”, or go to four ten-hour days per week with three day off. Different industries could adopt strategies best suited to them. Of course, that would require foresight, commitment and a willingness to overcome institutional inertia, qualities which Corporate America seems to lack in abundance.

  4. aquietvoice says

    “My feeling is that if you can be replaced by a streamed lecture, then perhaps you should be replaced because you are clearly not adding anything of value.”


    On the one hand, using recorded/streamed/online lectures can be great for the low-interactivity parts of the course.
    Students who like routine can show up, students who have complex commitments (eg. childcare) can use their time flexibly, students who like to reflect can pause whenever they wish, students who excel at burst concentration can speed the lecture up, et cetera.

    So there are lots of good reasons to allow students to use online lectures.

    HOWEVER, on the other hand the single central fight that educators can expect these days is the fight against shitty metrics by people in power who absolutely refuse to let educators educate if it doesn’t make them look good, and will enthusiatically hamstring any part of teaching that does not add to the metrics.

    There’s a lot of stuff that *can* be replaced with an online sort-of-equivalent, without any change in value.
    It’s still a terrible policy goal though.

    In other words, giving educators and students their choice of a bunch of communication and access tools is a great idea.
    Allowing educators to be replaced is an awful idea.

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