An Accidental Experiment: With Guests Steven Levitt, Solomon Ezra & Stephen Spector

August 14, 2023
How can events outside of our control create opportunities for accidental insights?
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Scientifically sound, randomized experiments can be expensive and difficult to run. But there’s an alternative: It turns out that certain real-life situations can also generate useful scientific data. The trick is finding them.

In this episode of Choiceology with Katy Milkman, we look at how events outside of our control can create opportunities for so-called natural or accidental experiments.

The organizers of a heroic airlift transporting thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel broke the record for the flight with the most passengers. It was 1994, and the clock was ticking for Israeli intelligence personnel and leaders of the Ethiopian Jewish community as they worked to transport as many people as possible before the civil war closed in on Addis Ababa. This desperate effort, dubbed Operation Solomon, would change the lives of the Ethiopian Jews in surprising and unintended ways.

Stephen Spector is a professor of religions and culture and medieval English at Stony Brook University. He's also the author of Operation Solomon: The Daring Rescue of the Ethiopian Jews.

Solomon Ezra is an active member of the Ethiopian and Jewish communities in Portland, Oregon, and was a ground operations leader during Operation Solomon.

Donna Rosenthal is the author of The Israelis: Ordinary People in an Extraordinary Land.

Next, Katy speaks with Steven Levitt about how to spot natural experiments and why they can provide such unique information about human behavior.

Steven Levitt is the William B. Ogden Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago, co-author of the bestselling book Freakonomics, and the host of a Freakonomics Radio podcast called People I Mostly Admire.

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