Three of four recent major sanitation intervention trials found no effect on diarrhea. These results conflicted with longstanding beliefs from decades of literature. To understand this discordance, we placed recent trials into the historical context that preceded them in two ways. First, we evaluated the history of published literature reviews on sanitation and diarrhea. Second, we conducted meta-analyses on studies from the most recent systematic review to uncover features that predict effectiveness. We found that 13 literature reviews dating to 1983 consistently estimated a significant protective effect of sanitation against diarrhea. However, these were marred by flawed studies and inappropriately averaged effects across widely heterogeneous interventions and contexts. Our meta-analyses highlight that the overall effect of sanitation on diarrhea was largely driven by sewerage and interventions that improved more than sanitation alone. There is no true overall effect of sanitation because variability between intervention types and implementation contexts is too complex to average. Ultimately, the null effects of recent latrine interventions are not surprising. Instead, the one trial that found a strong relative reduction in diarrhea is the historical outlier. The development of transformative sanitation interventions requires a better understanding of the social and environmental contexts that determine intervention effectiveness.