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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Solving the Social Sciences' Hard Problems

I'll focus on things related to economics -- there's more in the original:

Solving the Social Sciences' Hard Problems, Harvard Magazine: Across all the disciplines of the social sciences—economics, history, anthropology, political science, sociology, and more—what are the hardest problems that need solving, and which are most worthy of time spent working on a solution?

Scholars from a range of disciplines presented their answers to this question in an April 10 symposium at Harvard. The discussion continues online...

Nicholas Christakis, professor of medical sociology and of medicine at Harvard Medical School and professor of sociology in FAS, argued for further exploration of how the social becomes biological. ...: why, for example, does emotional contagion exist? Why would it provide a selective advantage if, when you meet someone in a foul mood, it poisons your own mood, too? And how can biology account for behavior—which is not genetically determined, although genes may contribute—with findings such as abusive behavior being transmitted through subsequent generations of rats?

Noting that he and collaborators recently published a study showing that altruism spreads through social networks, Christakis said he believes this line of inquiry will also shed light on the origins of goodness. ...

University of California, Berkeley sociology professor Ann Swidler ’66 highlighted the question of how societies create institutions, and how they restore missing or damaged ones. The American military’s experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan indicate just how little is known about this, she said. Swidler cautioned that any solutions would be tremendously complicated...

Nassim Taleb ... spoke of “the problem of small probability.” Taleb ... noted that science—whether lab science or social science—cannot account for extremely rare events such as financial meltdowns. ... “Not only can we not predict rare events,” he said, “but we cannot even figure out what role they play in the data.” That is because “you don’t measure risk like you measure a table,” he said: risk cannot be quantified in a precise way. This problem may not be solvable, Taleb acknowledged; the most to hope for, he said, may be to define its boundaries. ...

Oxford University philosopher Nick Bostrom challenged the academic community to identify the biggest fallacies that are accepted as common knowledge today, and highlighted past misconceptions that were once universally believed... “Not all progress consists of going forward,” said Bostrom. “Sometimes if we’ve taken a wrong turn, what we need to do is turn back.”

Weatherhead University Professor Gary King, who directs Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science, posed a methodological problem: “post-treatment bias in big social-science questions.” Post-treatment bias happens when researchers, in attempting to control for variables that may skew the results of a study, inadvertently control for a variable that is directly related to the outcome they wish to measure, yielding erroneous results.

King gave the example of a company accused of paying black employees less than white employees. When studying whether the accusation is true, a researcher’s natural instinct would be to control for position within the firm, so that the question being asked is whether employees are getting equal pay for equal work. But if 99 percent of employees in the mailroom are black, and 99 percent of employees in upper management are white, it might not matter that all the mailroom employees are paid at the same rate ... and all the high-level managers are paid at the same rate.... “If you control for position in the firm,” said King, then you’ll find that race has “no effect on salary—and then this racist firm gets to say, ‘Hey, no problem!’ ” King highlighted ... pressing real-world questions for which post-treatment bias stands in the way of finding answers...

Emily Oster ’02, Ph.D. ’06, focused on behavior change in health. Massive increases in life expectancy during the twentieth century resulted from advances in sanitation, technology, and medicine; in the twenty-first century, she said, they will depend on getting people to change their behavior—an infinitely trickier task.

Oster ... noted that newly diagnosed diabetics who are very obese gain more weight, in the year following their diagnosis, than similarly sized people who are not diabetic—contrary to what one might expect... In addition, she noted, only 60 percent of diabetics who are prescribed medication take it as directed.

Over and over, when economics and public-health researchers ask, “Do people do good things for their health if they’re very easy?” the answer turns out to be no...

Lee professor of economics Claudia Goldin called for further research on the persistent problem of why women are paid less than men are, and how to level the playing field. Her own research has shown that most or all of this bias is unintentional: women self-select into fields that pay less. ...

Beren professor of economics Roland Fryer drew attention to another persistent problem in American society: the racial achievement gap in education. This gap, he said, underlies numerous other social problems: racial differences in the incarceration rate, employment, wages, and health. ...

Although each presenter supposedly outlined what he or she saw as the most pressing problems in the social sciences today, an audience inquiry about what other questions the panel would have raised, having heard each other’s contributions, prompted the formation of a whole new list.

“I’m glad that we were given this opportunity,” Goldin responded, “because when we were asked to come up with a hard problem in the social sciences, I think all of us thought very hard about it, and we came up with a bunch of hard problems. But when we had to create something for the audience, we realized that we had to come up with something that we actually knew something about, so then we threw away that hard problem and we took our research.”

She added that the problem she really wanted to talk about was how and why social norms change. Other presenters added these problems to the mix:

  • the problem of emergence: “How do you get the mind out of a bunch of neurons? How do you get a political system or an economic system out of a bunch of individual people?” (Kosslyn)
  • the role for genetics in thinking about social-science problems (Oster)
  • how, in general, to jump from breakthroughs on small problems to progress on big problems: “We’re better at biology than behavior.” Obesity, from a biologist’s point of view, is “totally solved,” said King—people just need to exercise more and eat less. But as Oster noted, getting people to do these things is easier said than done, and so from the point of view of economics and psychology, the problem is “not solved at all.”
  • how to square the realization that people don’t always behave rationally with the need to avoid paternalism and let people make their own decisions even when they choose an outcome that isn’t good for them (Zeckhauser)
  • trying to understand ideologies—“the beliefs we have that we’re willing to die for” (Carey)
  • the “translational gap”—the gap between advances in knowledge and their implementation. “You go to business school and take a class in finance, and they teach you theory that we know doesn’t work, that we have known doesn’t work now for 25 years,” said Taleb. But “people still teach it today.”
  • how to explain “small outbursts of creativity and achievement”: such Renaissance Florence, the Scottish Enlightenment, Silicon Valley. “What enabled small populations to achieve disproportionately for a period of time?” Bostrom asked. “Is that something we could learn to recreate deliberately?”
  • the evolutionary origin of overconfidence. Citing a study that showed that 94 percent of academics think their work was above average, Fowler said, “We have this ‘Lake Wobegon effect’ that really interests me.”
  • developing better models of what culture is and how it works. “It’s really important to remember,” said Swidler, “that you cannot derive the properties of a complex arrangement from the properties of the individual pieces.”
  • the question of where tastes come from. “If your tastes come from the people around you,” asked Christakis, “where do their tastes come from? Maybe all of a sudden one person wants something for a chance reason, and it just ripples through the network.”

To read more about the symposium, see accounts from the Harvard Crimson, the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal, and on the HarvardScience and Alumni Affairs & Development websites.

    Posted by on Wednesday, April 28, 2010 at 01:04 AM in Economics | Permalink  Comments (25)


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