In ‘Why the Social Sector Needs Scientific Method’, first published on the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Caroline Fiennes examines how the scientific method can help to safeguard individuals working in development and philanthropy.
In her piece, Fiennes takes a look at three papers that raise important questions about the practice of treating children with intestinal worms, a major focal point for international development programs. As a result of a 1999 study, two U.S. economists conducting research in Western Kenya, found that “deworming” a number of school children improved their nutritional intake, reduced anemia, and increased school attendance and academic performance overall. In addition, they claimed that attendance at schools where children did not receive treatment also increased, because those children (who lived near the children who were treated) were not effected by the worm eggs in faeces in the soil near their homes. As a result of these findings, the Copenhagen Consensus made deworming one of their top recommendations.
The three papers Fiennes mentions in her piece use the scientific method to great effect – by isolating variables, replicating the experiment elsewhere and repeating the analysis, they found substantial evidence that the mass deworming treatment does not improve nutritional status, cognition or academic performance.
Fiennes points out just how different this approach is from impact research in the social sector, which is often unreported, or reported unclearly or incompletely. Raw data is rarely made available to be examined externally, and charities and nonprofits struggle with impact evaluations as eradicating misleading biases is a challenge. She calls for the publication of the full details and data, as required by the scientific method – and highlights the importance of the scientific method for the social sector.