It strikes me that Deaton has, in theory, got a point. To put a label on it, one should not do ‘randomisation (or replication) without explanation’. Regarding Russell’s chicken, the flaw with the chicken assuming it will get fed today is because it hasn’t understood the structure of reality. Yet this does not show one should, in practice, give up on RCTs and replication, only that one should use them in combination with a thoughtful understanding of the world.
For Deaton’s worry to have force, one would need to believe that because one context might be different from another, we should assume it is. Yet, saliently, that doesn’t follow. There could be a fairly futile argument about on whom the burden of proof lies to show that one context of replication is relevantly like another, but it seems the dutiful next thing to do would for advocates to argue why they think it is and critics to argue why it isn’t.
I am intrigued by his separate point that getting governments to be more receptive to their citizens is a valuable intervention—the point being that, in poor countries, the governments collect so little tax from those in poverty they feel little incentive to notice them.