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So, What Difference Do the Social Sciences Really Make?

These days we’re all spending a lot of time rethinking how funding for basic and applied research will be sustained. This affects the humanities and basic sciences in almost all fields. It’s thus ever-more important to learn how best to communicate why research in diverse fields is important to the future of the world.

In that regard, it was interesting to see a recent report from the National Academies of Sciences, “The Value of Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences to National Priorities.”

The report concluded that the social, behavioral, and economic sciences are key to our understanding of the “human aspects of the natural world,” that their diverse methods of inquiry are of ubiquitous use, and that the education of future social scientists should prepare them to be more data-intensive, interdisciplinary, and team oriented.

The report contained some good examples of social science findings that truly have changed the world. Developments in game theory decades ago now facilitate the matching of kidney donors to those who need them, vastly improving the efficiency of the process and saving more lives. There is clear evidence that social isolation and stress are precursors to hypertension and diabetes; ignoring that knowledge portends poor outcomes. Experiments in the relevant cognitive burdens of “opt-in” versus “opt-out” decisions have led to large increases in savings for retirement among workers, improving the welfare of millions. Cognitive psychological research in visual perception and memory has informed courtroom practices in eyewitness testimony, consistent with findings that prior beliefs and lawyers’ wording of questions can affect reported memories. SBE research has shown that young children simultaneously learning multiple languages can do so easily, leading to bilingual adults with more cognitive flexibility and less likely to experience cognitive decline in aging. Demographic models of life expectancy are key everyday tools in the insurance sector.

One of the issues in communicating the impact is that the findings themselves have so fully been incorporated into common knowledge that their source has been lost. In contrast to other fields of inquiry (e.g., astrophysics), all of us are embedded in social systems, which confront us with many of the behaviors and thoughts that are themselves the objects of study of the social sciences. To support our self-assessment of our own abilities to navigate this reality, we must believe we understand the mechanisms underlying these behaviors. In that sense, we are all social scientists, amateur, though we are. When new basic research in the social sciences becomes known, we can quickly integrate them into our own belief systems. The findings then become obvious, but only in retrospect.

But there are also counterintuitive findings that have trouble bucking conventional belief systems. While it’s often thought that successful people achieve their state because of superior intelligence, repeated social science findings show that the wealth of parents, quality of schooling, and place of birth has big impacts regardless of intelligence. When groups make decisions, it’s better to have them based on all members’ input than to rely on the single best decision maker in the group. Much of the current biomedical research focus on race and gender differences was motivated by decades of social science findings of health outcome differences in these groups, despite those fields continuing to assume the homogeneity of humans. Such counterintuitive findings from the social sciences generally take longer to have their impact on the society.

So many of the remaining unsolved world problems require deep understanding of human thought, beliefs, and behavior. The Academies’ report and others like it are valuable reminders to the importance of basic research in the social sciences to any hope we have of building a better world.

3 thoughts on “So, What Difference Do the Social Sciences Really Make?

  1. The conduct of Team Science in oncology is a useful exemplar of this appreciation of the importance of the social sciences and synergism among diverse disciplines. For example, clinical palliative care research is informed by previous work in a variety of disciplines, and is advanced by synergism among these same disciplines. Oncologists’ and oncology nurses promotion of their breast cancer patients’ adherence to years of self-administered tamoxifen therapy is informed by their understanding of what motivates people to continue an action over time. Applying Prochaska’s Readiness to Change Theory is useful when instructing a diabetic patient on needed long-term dietary changes. The basic science and behavioral science discoveries of today may have application to tomorrow’s clinical research whose outcomes may lead to improved standard therapy for patients. As a community of scholars, we are all in this together.

  2. Concerning ” self-assessment of our own abilities to navigate ( our ) reality “, I am reminded of a line from the Romanian-born poet Paul Celan, writing in German, but translated into French during his many years in Paris : ” Tout est moins qu’il n’est, tout est plus “, meaning
    ” Everything is less than what it is ; everything is more “. What is often counterintuitive about social science research is the need for humility when it comes to our ability to apply purely rational concepts to mutable experiential realities. This is also a caveat for the in-depth appreciation of philosophy.

  3. you’re right: this was a report on the social sciences (plus bilingualism, weirdly) in contrast to what the title indicated. The omission of anything on mind/brain is striking, revealing, and distorting in an account of the human sciences that NSF funds through its SBE directorate.

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