But kids like me, who value evidence-based research, have come under criticism. Last Friday, New York Times columnist and Jackson Institute for Global Affairs senior fellow David Brooks lamented young “wonksters,” who he believes lack passion and idealism. Brooks drew upon a paper written by Victoria Buhler ’13 that attempted to convey the zeitgeist of our generation.
In his conclusion, Brooks wrote that our generation has “an empiricist mind-set, a tendency to think in demoralized economic phrases like ‘data analysis,’ ‘opportunity costs’ and ‘replicability,’ and a tendency to dismiss other more ethical and idealistic vocabularies that seem fuzzy and, therefore, unreliable.”
His conclusion, however, might be too harsh. Most of the empirical kids I know, both in the natural and social sciences, seek to better society. They spend countless nights in labs researching ways to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. They travel to developing countries to evaluate and improve projects that alleviate poverty. They set up programs in public schools to teach civics and to deter bullying.
Today, one can easily be an “idealist” do-gooder. Just hop on a plane to volunteer in India or Uganda during spring break. If that’s too much to ask, one can donate $20 to Oxfam over the Internet — or “like” the Human Rights Campaign’s Facebook page. But superficial activism does little to actually help the world relative to more sustainable policies. What the world needs is not just another good cause to rally around, but rigorously tested solutions that actually benefit people.
Empiricism driven by the desire to challenge the status quo has already made big impacts. There are too many examples to list, so I will limit them to my discipline, the experimental social sciences.
Over a surprisingly brief period, the use of social tools and technologies has grown from limited experimentation at the edge of corporate practice to what’s now the mainstream. But after this strong initial uptake, many companies find themselves at a crossroads: if they want to capture a new wave of benefits, they’ll need to change the ways they manage and organize themselves, according to the results from our sixth annual survey on the business use of these technologies.1 A remarkable 83 percent of respondents say their companies are using at least one social technology, and 65 percent say employees at their companies access at least one tool on a mobile device. Ninety percent of executives whose companies use social technologies report measurable benefits from these tools, and what’s more, a small yet growing number of companies—the most skilled and intensive technology users—are racking up outsize benefits.2
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