USAFA Cadets as Lab Rats

US Air Force Academy cadets long suspected there were OSI agents among them. While most often dismissed as an inflated feeling of self-importance, it turns out they were right.

USAFA cadets have also long suspected they are used as lab rats, given the very controlled environment in which they live. For example, there were rumors for years that flu vaccines and other medications were tested en masse at USAFA before being released to the general population.

It seems the “controlled lab” suspicion, too, has been borne out as correct, at least in one instance. NPR reveals that a “social experiment” was conducted at USAFA over a period of two years, led by a Dartmouth College professor, Bruce Sacerdote, and two USAFA staffers: Scott Carrell and James West (who taught at USAFA from 1997-2011): 

Cadets were assigned to squadrons based on academic performance, with weaker cadets paired with stronger cadets, and the “average” cadets lumped into the same squadrons.

Did that improve the performance of the weaker cadets? Nope:

The news is even worse than that. When the students who were the weakest academically were stuck in the same squadrons as the top performers, they actually did worse. Here’s Sacerdote again.

SACERDOTE: The results are pretty clear that the least able students had lower GPAs than low ability students in the control group. As soon as we realized that we were harming the least able students, we stopped the experiment.

According to a cursory search, it would seem Scott Carrell — now a LtCol in the reserves — has made a virtual career of mining data from the USAFA cadet wing, often with James West, including a recent paper about race:

We examine whether white men’s preferences for African Americans change based on the number and type of African Americans with whom they interact. To overcome selection bias, we exploit data from the U.S. Air Force Academy in which freshmen were randomly assigned to squadrons. Results indicate the aptitude of black students to whom white men were assigned has statistically significant effects on both stated and revealed preferences. Specifically, whites assigned to higher-aptitude black students have more favorable opinions of African Americans in general and are more likely to room with black students the following year. In contrast, we find that ceteris paribus, exposure to more African Americans does not significantly affect stated or revealed racial preferences.

It would seem the USAFA cadet wing is a frequent tool of social experimentation.