The social sciences have long been considered the runt in the litter of the science family, if not the bastard child of wild conjecture with deluded mathematics. Broad-minded practitioners of the physical and biological sciences admit that the study of human behavior and social systems presents particularly thorny difficulties that are different in kind from those confronted by the “hard” sciences. Many physical and biological scientists take a more rigid view: No laboratory-style structured experiments, no control groups, no repeatable experiments means no science.
The problem is that scientists also harbor the admirable notion that science should be useful to society, and because they are scientists they want to see the insights of science applied in a rational way to the needs of society and to have evidence that these efforts are succeeding. Physicists who identify the prevalence of waste in the energy system would like to see government officials, industry managers, and individuals take actions to improve energy efficiency. Neuroscientists who unlock the secrets of how the human brain learns would like to see their insights reflected in the way schools are organized and classes are taught. Standing between scientific knowledge and its effective use is the unruly morass of human behavior and the maddening array of irrational social, political, cultural, and economic systems that humans have created.
Scientists discover how rocks, liquids, and gases buried underground can be used to perform a myriad of useful and difficult jobs and to transport us easily around the globe, and the goddam humans use them to foul the air, disrupt the climate, and provide one more reason to go to war. Scientists unlock the secrets of the atom, and the goddam humans immediately jump on the opportunity to develop the means to create terrifying explosions. Increased understanding of the genetic machinery underlying all life is a boon to bioterrorists and an opportunity to revive eugenics.
Of course scientists have been active in the efforts to improve air quality, respond to the threat of climate change, control nuclear proliferation, and protect society from terrorism. But these efforts have not produced stunning successes that match those emerging from laboratories. H. L. Mencken once observed that for every problem there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong. Scientists are problem solvers, and their rigorous rational methods have been fabulously successful at cataloging and explaining the machinery of the physical universe. They are often eager to propose rational solutions to the problems of the social universe. When these brilliant solutions are not implemented or fail to yield the desired results, the blame is often placed on incompetent civil servants or benighted social scientists who clutter up the plans with ungrounded notions about human behavior or political institutions. But the real blame belongs on the heads of the goddam humans and their social institutions, which stubbornly refuse to act rationally.
We can continue to complain about the goddam humans who will not be guided by rigorous analysis, reliable evidence, and the grace of reason, or we can wade into the murky waters of social science. Elegant solutions that do not produce the desired results might provide some intellectual delight, but clunky solutions that enable us to make real progress will make a meal that will stick to your ribs. And although the grand challenges identified by natural science researchers are a noble quest, we should also respect and pursue the grand challenges facing the social sciences. These challenges are a bit more difficult to define and will be a good deal more difficult to conquer.
The National Science Foundation Directorate for the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences recently appealed to the research community to help it identify the grand challenges that should inform its decisions about what research to fund in the coming 10 to 20 years. They could build on the 2009 National Science and Technology Council report Social, Behavioral, and Economic Research in the Federal Context, which identified significant challenges in understanding the structure and function of the brain, the complexity of human societies and activities, and human origins and diversity. The report argued that research in these areas could contribute to addressing practical policy questions in education, health, cooperation and conflict, societal resilience and response to threats, creativity and innovation, and energy, environment, and human dynamics.
This might seem to be an absurdly ambitious agenda, but the reality is that no matter how much progress is made in the natural sciences, humans will reap the full benefits only when we acquire the societal wisdom that will enable individuals, institutions, and systems to implement this knowledge. Some argue that common sense is sufficient to guide our actions, but there is no common sense. There is only a vast array of individual, national, cultural, economic, religious, philosophical, and ethical senses. In this soup of competing interests and value systems we need to search for some common ground and some way to accommodate all that is not held in common. This is one holy grail for the social sciences.
The confusion is made no easier by the plurality of the social sciences. Just as an understanding of the brain progresses slowly and fitfully because it must encompass the sometimes contradictory findings about physiology, chemistry, and circuitry, the understanding of human behavior and institutions must evolve in ways that are consistent with what is learned through the lenses of psychology, anthropology, economics, sociology, and political science. Expect conflict and contradiction. Although there is a popular belief that science is an edifice of fact and truth, scientists know that it is really an evolving approximation of what we’re pretty sure about for now but that we must always be willing to challenge. Because of the complexity of their questions and the lack of controlled experiments and easily isolated variables, the social sciences face an even higher level of uncertainty.
But the difficulty of the endeavor is no excuse for failing to pursue it. Money will be wasted, blind alleys will be pursued, theories will be invalidated, data will be questioned. What could be more satisfying? Besides, what choice do we have? The problems are real, and those of us who value evidence and analysis must do what we can to apply these tools. We all need to think about which deep questions could lead us to the data and insights we need to combine with the developments in the natural sciences to move toward a safer, healthier, more productive, and more just world.
To prime the pump, consider a couple of significant challenges. One that might be difficult for natural scientists is to consider when other disciplines have a more important contribution to make to solving a problem. Consider the enormous attention given to brain scans in neuroscience. As we try to unravel the mysteries of human behavior, it is tempting to be seduced by the brilliant images that appear on the screen that seem to be telling us what the brain is doing. This is physical evidence, so it has to be given the most weight. But we all know that these images are at best a very crude reflection of what is happening in a dauntingly complex organ. Listening to the subjective reports of research subjects and observing behavior have obvious limits as research tools, but in this case they might be better than the seemingly reliable evidence of a scan. We need to consider many areas in which our preference for what is measurable and quantifiable might lead us to rely on data of questionable applicability and to discount insights gained through less “scientific” means.
For those who care about public policy, there is no way to avoid the study of governance. What have we learned from more than 60 years of experience in regulating nuclear weapons? That no nation has used a nuclear weapon in war is clearly a triumph, but are the mechanisms that produced this result likely to be effective in a world of terrorists and rogue states? We expend enormous time and effort to craft and approve environmental treaties, but we know that many of them fail miserably at achieving their purpose. How can we do better? The wealthy countries seemed to have solved the problem of infectious disease long ago, yet tens of millions of people are dying from these diseases every year. In hundreds of decisions made every year in cities, states, and nations, we know that the best evidence and the most recent knowledge is not being taken into account. We all support the production of new scientific knowledge as essential to meeting the world’s needs. If we are serious about results, shouldn’t we be even more supportive of research necessary to make effective use of this knowledge?