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.
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.