Published on Wed Sep 29 2021

On the reliability of published findings using the regression discontinuity design in political science

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The regression discontinuity (RD) design offers identification of causal effects under weak assumptions, earning it the position as a standard method in modern political science research. But identification does not necessarily imply that the causal effects can be estimated accurately with limited data. In this paper, we highlight that estimation is particularly challenging with the RD design and investigate how these challenges manifest themselves in the empirical literature. We collect all RD-based findings published in top political science journals from 2009--2018. The findings exhibit pathological features; estimates tend to bunch just above the conventional level of statistical significance. A reanalysis of all studies with available data suggests that researcher's discretion is not a major driver of these pathological features, but researchers tend to use inappropriate methods for inference, rendering standard errors artificially small. A retrospective power analysis reveals that most of these studies were underpowered to detect all but large effects. The issues we uncover, combined with well-documented selection pressures in academic publishing, cause concern that many published findings using the RD design are exaggerated, if not entirely spurious.