ZHANG: The empirical kids are alright

I am an empirical kid. And I’m proud of it.

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.

One example is how field experiments have aided efforts to get out the vote. Two decades ago, my advisers, professors Donald Green and Alan Gerber, became concerned with low voter turnout in the U.S. Using randomized field trials, they found the most effective way to increase voter turnout is door-to-door canvassing. Their findings have been used by campaigns, including President Obama’s, and civic groups to increase political participation in the U.S. and abroad.

Another example is how field experiments have aided economists to create effective poverty alleviation programs in developing countries. Although many development NGOs have good intentions, much of their aid money is often wasted on ineffective projects. To combat these inefficiencies, nonprofits like Innovations for Poverty Action and the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab use randomized evaluations to test programs, select the best ones and improve them before introducing them to large populations. Today, established development agencies, such as USAID, have recognized the importance of these kinds of rigorous program evaluations.

Surrounded by this type of research, our generation lives in an exciting age of empirical analysis. Unfortunately, many of us are passive consumers of data rather than active participants. We are flooded with reports, surveys and news articles. There are plenty of poorly conducted surveys, garbage-can regressions and assumption-leaden models in print and on the Internet. What can we trust? Who can we turn to for advice?

Due to this confusion, we might become indecisive, cynical or apathetic. Big data seem daunting, but our Yale education can and should help us navigate this brave new world. Our quantitative course requirements should not be viewed as mere chores, but as training to become savvy consumers and creative users of data.

Not all of us will become researchers fluent in the latest statistical methods. But those of us who will become policymakers, reporters or simply informed citizens should also actively engage with empirical works to make prudent decisions. Furthermore, those in leadership roles should provide accurate and lucid explanations of empirical studies to the public and not deceive them through deliberate misinterpretations.

Like it or not, we live in the age of empirics. We can bemoan the impersonal aspect of big data and yearn for a groovier past. The famed generation of the 1960s questioned the injustices of their society and pushed for social and political change, and we should seize their activist spirit when engaging in research to tackle the problems facing our own times. Our generation faces socioeconomic inequality, climate change and an unsustainable welfare system. But picket signs, marches and protests are not enough to overcome these challenges. By combining empirical analysis with political action, we can begin to innovate solutions to these complex problems.

Baobao Zhang is a senior in Calhoun College and a former multimedia editor for the News. Contact her at baobao.zhang@yale.edu .

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