Friday, April 16, 2010

Hard Problems in Social Science

. Friday, April 16, 2010

If you hadn't noticed already, The Division of Social Science at Harvard kicked off a global effort to identity the hardest social science problems. I had a couple observations.

1. Defining what is meant by "a problem in social science" is a necessary first step that the conveners appear unwilling to take. As a result, the participants in the Saturday convention held very different conceptions. Many seemed to drop "science" to focus on social problems, e.g., the gender gap in pay; the racial gap in educational achievement; inability to engage in effective state-building operations. These aren't problems of social science, these are social problems. Some went the other way and focused on the science to the neglect of the "social" (like the lone political scientist presenter who focused on post-treatment bias. Perhaps important, but a problem of method not of social science per se. Taleb focused on inability to estimate tiny probabilities. Again, clearly important, not obviously a problem of social science in particular.

2. If we wish to define a hard problem in social science as an intractable social problem, then I am stunned that none of the participants focused on the two fundamental problems of human society.
A. Half of the world's population lives in poverty.
B. According to published estimates, between 167 and 203 million people perished in the 20th century as a consequence of state-sanctioned killing; either inter-state war, civil war, or state-led murder of its own citizens.

In the scale of importance, I place these two problems just a teeny bit above the fact that women make 80% of a man's wage for the same job. Yes, I know, that's easy for me to say because I am a man. But I am also not extremely poor.

3. I don't think we should define hard problems as social problems. I think we should define them as theoretic challenges. So, here are what I take to be the two hardest problems in social science.
A. Aggregation
Across levels of analysis--micro to macro
Across space--society is not defined by national borders.
Across policy domains--Very little happens in isolation.
In short, constructing general equilibrium models based on the knowledge generated from the last thirty years of partial equilibrium research.
B. Endogenizing Change
Partial equilibrium models kind of rule this out. Thus, endogenizing change requires prior development of theoretical models that are not wedded to an equilibrium conception of politics.
These are very hard problems and require us to adhere to a very different metaphor: complex adaptive systems. Hence, the third hard problem is figuring out how to transform CAS from metaphor and computer modeling exercise to useful theoretical model that can inform research on real-world politics. That, it seems to me, is a set of hard problems in social science.


Emmanuel said...

I'd add:

C. The limitations of economic imperialism; and

D. Combining "hard" and "social" sciences to come up with new insights like this.

Anonymous said...

but in the end, you weren't invited, and still are significantly less smart and have made significantly less contributions to any disciplines.

Hard Problems in Social Science




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