Friday, February 4, 2011

Laws of nature? Can social science find them?

Nature has published a list of the 10 most pressing questions in social science, as determined by a symposium of social scientists who met last April to collect ideas and propose the list.  These questions will, they hope, drive social science research for decades to come.
The 'top ten' approach was inspired by a list of 23 major unsolved questions compiled by the mathematician David Hilbert in 1900. The Hilbert problems helped to focus the attention of mathematicians throughout the following century. "He laid out the road map for twentieth-century math," says Nick Nash, a vice-president at General Atlantic, an investment firm based in Greenwich, Connecticut. "What if we had a road map for other disciplines?"

So here's the social science road map.
Social science lines up its biggest challenges
Top ten social-science questions:
1. How can we induce people to look after their health?
2. How do societies create effective and resilient institutions, such as governments?
3. How can humanity increase its collective wisdom?
4. How do we reduce the ‘skill gap’ between black and white people in America?
5. How can we aggregate information possessed by individuals to make the best decisions?
6. How can we understand the human capacity to create and articulate knowledge?
7. Why do so many female workers still earn less than male workers?
8. How and why does the ‘social’ become ‘biological’?
9. How can we be robust against ‘black swans’ — rare events that have extreme consequences?
10. Why do social processes, in particular civil violence, either persist over time or suddenly change?

We can't say that we actually understand all of these -- number 6, for example.  What is it that we don't understand about how humans create knowledge?  The anatomy and physiology of creativity, learning and speech? The role of cultural context in inspiration?  Not sure.

But, we'd say that a lot is already known about some of the others.  Number 1, how to induce people to look after their health.  You know what they are talking about here -- not how to get rich people to be more careful when they ski to avoid breaking their legs, or how to prevent their yachts from capsizing.  Yes, effective health education is a problem.  But really, which segments of society are most likely to smoke and be overweight?  Not the rich.  The obvious solution is to give more money to the poor.  Improve their standard of living, and their health will follow. 

And number 2, how do societies create effective and resilient institutions, such as governments?  Aren't repressive regimes effective at what they do?  Wasn't Saddam's government effective in many ways?  Electricity was on more hours of the day, a lot more oil got pumped out of the ground than the post-Saddam government has managed to do.  But we're pretty sure that's not what the list-makers had in mind. 

And number 4, how to reduce the skill gap between whites and blacks. Better funding for schools in poor neighborhoods would be one way.  Unless the unstated assumption is that whites are genetically predisposed to be better skilled.

This list strikes us as largely about what might be called 'bourgeois' concerns of the here and now (and upper-middle class) in a way that the list of mathematics challenges can't be, or a list of, say, unanswered questions in biology wouldn't be.  That doesn't make these questions irrelevant by any means, but they are a kind of we-they list of current issues, reflecting assumptions and perspectives of the people asking them. 

These applied social engineering questions are analogous to pharma or agribusiness objectives of using genetics to make drugs or crops that work, or, by their sales, satisfy the companies, or whatever.  If social science is to actually make progress in understanding human nature, rather than simply re-inventing the questions whenever something crops up, we think more attention should be paid to the basics.  For example, does life follow tractable 'laws' and if so how they are to be understood and applied to specific questions, across the spectrum of life, like the nature of thistle burrs or the nature of lipid metabolism? If there are such laws, do we know them?  can we know them?  can they help us account for societal structures? 

The social sciences should be at the core of our understanding of ourselves.  But they need to come up with a better list of questions before that can happen.


ResCogitans said...

4. This is a racist objective. All anyone can do is accept that they are not responsible for the sins of their father, and that discrimination on the basis of race is ethically wrong. That includes positive discrimination. The best thing to reduce racism is to promote inclusive childcare and schooling - studies have shown that even babies show racist tendencies if they are only exposed to white/black faces.

6. is this not a pretty obvious question of an evolutionarily fit strategy?

Ken Weiss said...

Well one would generally consider it an anti-racism objective, but a subjective one and one that may or may not include underlying assumptions that the differences in performance are inherent (genetically based). One doesn't have to take on the sins of fathers to believe that the inequities should be corrected somehow, and some would say by positive discrimination. That's a political judgment, not a scientific one, regardless of what side someone's on.

I think #6 is so vague as to be vacuous in that regard, and even includes the assumption that other species can't do this in their own way. So accumulating and articulating knowledge is clearly not, in itself, a particularly fit strategy. If it happened to be, for our ancestors, then it was. But the same advantage could be assumed to apply to sparrows, fish, and so on.

Maybe the question there is whether we know that accumulating knowledge was the evolutionary adaptive reason for our human abilities, or whether those evolved for other reasons but happen to be useful in knowledge-transmission.

This is a famous issue, indeed that led Alfred Wallace to assume the existence of God: how else to explain our ability to compose music or do calculus, which our ancestors clearly didn't to?

So item 6, as phrased, is pretty far removed from science, social or otherwise.

Anne Buchanan said...

How to interpret item 6, I think, depends on whether the social scientists who came up with the question have adopted the genetic model for explaining society and behavior. If so, is this a way to ask about genes for intelligence?

If not, perhaps it's a way to ask how social context inspires creativity.

Someone might know, but I don't.

ResCogitans said...

If 4 isn't racist, why isn't it stated as wanting to reduce the skills gap between the lowest and highest socioeconomic demographics? there may well be a statistically significant difference in, e.g. intelligence, between different races, but the difference in the means is small compared to the standard deviation - so assuming a significant causal genetic relationship between race and low socioeconomic status is simply wrong.
One doesn't have to take on the sins of fathers to believe that the inequities should be corrected
if you are referring to inequities suffered by people in the lowest SE demographic then yes, you are not considering the sins of your fathers; if you are trying to bolster a group simply on the basis of their race, then i suspect you are.

these are difficult issues, and as you say, it will be political will rather than rational thought as the prime instigator of any change - and as we know those 2 things are not always congruent! :p

Anne Buchanan said...

Res, I think we're on the same wavelength here. As we say in the post, the answer to how to reduce said "skill gap" is obvious. As we also say in the post, it's not possible to interpret this question without knowing the bias of those who ask it. Are they, like many social scientists these days, looking for a genetic answer, or a social context one? Rewriting the question as you suggest, while not entirely eliminating the possibility that they're looking for genes for poverty, would at least encourage a non-biologically determined explanation.

Holly Dunsworth said...

You can't take your money with you when you die. So why not help make Earth a little more heavenly by sharing some of it?

My liberal tendencies surface like crazy when I read those questions above. I can't help but worry that people refuse to accept a societal cause for inequality and continue to search for a biological one simply so they can hold on to their money and not pay more taxes toward education of OTHER people's kids... who will grow up to take care of them when their house is on fire or when they get too old to take care of themselves, but WHATEVER.

Sorry for the rant.

Ken Weiss said...

I couldn't agree more....but how much do we really have at stake? We can vote 'liberal', but if taxes were raised enough to equalize resources, especially worldwide, we'd have to go from living with a house, two cars, and a few cats, to a few thousand (or hundred?) dollars annual income?

So probably it is a bit of posturing on all our 'liberal' parts, and maybe the cogent question is how much would properly concerned people have to give up, in order for there to be at least equity in terms of basic quality of life, in our country, or in the world? And how could more tax resources be used to do this without the problem--as conservatives often argue at least--that just giving more money out will make it a perpetual, wasted need?

I think that many modern societies have made great progress in at least reasonable equity. But worldwide?

The pro-Mubarek protesters show this, in a sense. They are supposed at least partly to be among the rich and privileged who have done very well under Mubarek. It is only natural that they don't want to lose everything to the hordes of the desperately poor.

And the tea parties who don't want to pay for someone else's health care or welfare (especialyy if they're the wrong hue, and who yet often purport to be Christian, and don't realize that they already pay for that through funds to public hospital ERs, etc.)

So there--that's my rant! Anyway, I always try to step back and see things from a point of view other than my personal one, and in that sense to be skeptical even of myself.

At the same time, orderly increases in taxes that went efficiently to cover real human needs, in ways especially to enable everyone to make it on their own, is what I believe I'd like to see.