Let’s Shake Up the Social Sciences
By NICHOLAS A. CHRISTAKIS JULY 19, 2013
TWENTY-FIVE years ago, when I was a graduate student, there were departments of natural science that no longer exist today. Departments of anatomy, histology, biochemistry and physiology have disappeared, replaced by innovative departments of stem-cell biology, systems biology, neurobiology and molecular biophysics. Taking a page from Darwin, the natural sciences are evolving with the times. The perfection of cloning techniques gave rise to stem-cell biology; advances in computer science contributed to systems biology. Whole new fields of inquiry, as well as university departments and majors, owe their existence to fresh discoveries and novel tools.
In contrast, the social sciences have stagnated. They offer essentially the same set of academic departments and disciplines that they have for nearly 100 years: sociology, economics, anthropology, psychology and political science. This is not only boring but also counterproductive, constraining engagement with the scientific cutting edge and stifling the creation of new and useful knowledge. Such inertia reflects an unnecessary insecurity and conservatism, and helps explain why the social sciences don’t enjoy the same prestige as the natural sciences.
One reason citizens, politicians and university donors sometimes lack confidence in the social sciences is that social scientists too often miss the chance to declare victory and move on to new frontiers. Like natural scientists, they should be able to say, “We have figured this topic out to a reasonable degree of certainty, and we are now moving our attention to more exciting areas.” But they do not.
I’m not suggesting that social scientists stop teaching and investigating classic topics like monopoly power, racial profiling and health inequality. But everyone knows that monopoly power is bad for markets, that people are racially biased and that illness is unequally distributed by social class. There are diminishing returns from the continuing study of many such topics. And repeatedly observing these phenomena does not help us fix them.
So social scientists should devote a small palace guard to settled subjects and redeploy most of their forces to new fields like social neuroscience, behavioral economics, evolutionary psychology and social epigenetics, most of which, not coincidentally, lie at the intersection of the natural and social sciences. Behavioral economics, for example, has used psychology to radically reshape classical economics.
Such interdisciplinary efforts are also generating practical insights about fundamental problems like chronic illness, energy conservation, pandemic disease, intergenerational poverty and market panics. For example, a better understanding of the structure and function of human social networks is helping us understand which individuals within social systems have an outsize impact when it comes to the spread of germs or the spread of ideas. As a result, we now have at our disposal new ways to accelerate the adoption of desirable practices as diverse as vaccination in rural villages and seat-belt use among urban schoolchildren.
It is time to create new social science departments that reflect the breadth and complexity of the problems we face as well as the novelty of 21st-century science. These would include departments of biosocial science, network science, neuroeconomics, behavioral genetics and computational social science. Eventually, these departments would themselves be dismantled or transmuted as science continues to advance.
Some recent examples offer a glimpse of the potential. At Yale, the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs applies diverse social sciences to the study of international issues and offers a new major. At Harvard, the sub-discipline of physical anthropology, which increasingly relies on modern genetics, was hived off the anthropology department to make the department of human evolutionary biology. Still, such efforts are generally more like herds splitting up than like new species emerging. We have not yet changed the basic DNA of the social sciences. Failure to do so might even result in having the natural sciences co-opt topics rightly and beneficially in the purview of the social sciences.
New social science departments could also help to better train students by engaging in new types of pedagogy. For example, in the natural sciences, even college freshmen do laboratory experiments. Why is this rare in the social sciences? When students learn about social phenomena, why don’t they go to the lab to examine them — how markets reach equilibrium, how people cooperate, how social ties are formed? Newly invented tools make this feasible. It is now possible to use the Internet to enlist thousands of people to participate in randomized experiments. This seems radical only because our current social science departments weren’t organized to teach this way.
For the past century, people have looked to the physical and biological sciences to solve important problems. The social sciences offer equal promise for improving human welfare; our lives can be greatly improved through a deeper understanding of individual and collective behavior. But to realize this promise, the social sciences, like the natural sciences, need to match their institutional structures to today’s intellectual challenges.
E-books are not the answer to a literacy crisis
When librarian Jennifer Nelson arrives at the tiny library at Crewe Primary School each morning, she is confronted with a cart of first-generation iPads. The detritus of attempts to infuse technology into one of the poorest and most rural schools in Virginia, the tablets are hopelessly obsolete, worth little more than the cart on which they reside.
The White House recently announced the launch of Open eBooks, an app giving access to thousands of free e-books to any educator, student or administrator at one of the more than 66,000 Title I schools or any of the 194 Defense Department Education Activity schools in the United States. It’s an admirable endeavor and recognizes that we have a literacy problem. However, it brings to mind Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous line: “Water, water, every where/ Nor any drop to drink.”
On that list of Title I schools: Crewe Primary. The whole of Nottoway County, Va., is a high-poverty tract; there is no public transportation, no fiber-optic Internet available for the county’s 16,000 residents. In Southside Virginia, the commonwealth’s poorest region, most schools don’t have broadband; Crewe Primary School has DSL but little more than 40 usable iPads (not counting the old and obsolete ones) for its 318 students.
The Nottoway County Public Library is the only location in the 316-square-mile county with publicly funded Internet access. To use Open eBooks at home, primary school students would have to rely on their parents’ phones and tablets. Older students may have their own devices, but downloading the e-books would eat into very pricey and limited data plans.
Open eBooks is part of the ConnectED initiative, which “empowers teachers with the best technology and the training to make the most of it, and empowers students through individualized learning and rich, digital content.” It’s a bold mission for a country in which, the Census Bureau reports, nearly 55 million people lack access to broadband service and 17 percent of households don’t have a computer. According to the Federal Communications Commission, of Americans making less than $25,000 per year, 48 percent do not have access to broadband at home. In poor regions such as Southside, that’s a lot of people.
Even if our poorest schools had broadband and ample devices, believing that free e-books are the key to ending our literacy crisis is dangerously misguided. Technology is repeatedly touted as a cure for the United States’ educational woes, promising everything from banishing boredom to widespread reform. Interactive whiteboards were the hope a few years ago, and Google Earth was supposed to make our children masters of geography. There is more technology in our classrooms and homes than ever, but too often these expensive technologies yield few gains in learning or gains not commensurate with cost.
Serving as the executive director of the Virginia Children’s Book Festival, in the heart of a literacy desert, has taught me two things: Literacy is an instilled value, and too frequently reading is a luxury instead of a necessity. Reports from the National Center for Education Statistics are clear: Children raised in homes that foster literacy are better readers and better students than children raised in homes where literacy is not promoted. Children who see their parents reading and engage in reading with their families have higher than average reading scores, regardless of their parents’ occupational status.
If a love of reading is not learned in the home, even technologically advanced schools are hard-pressed to make up that deficit. Despite the almost universal view about the importance of reading for pleasure, it continues to be given a low priority in schools. While teachers focus on testing and mechanics, school libraries such as Crewe’s are desperately underfunded or are being shuttered altogether. While there are no figures detailing the total number of public schools affected by library cuts and closures, the American Association of School Librarians’ data indicate an alarming trend. In Philadelphia, only 16 of 214 public schools have a certified school librarian. Of Los Angeles’s 545 elementary and middle schools, 316 are staffed with library aides.
The Open eBooks initiative is laudable, but it fails to address the root of the country’s literacy crisis. While it will make textbooks and storybooks accessible to those lucky enough to have the technology, without critical intervention to create a culture of reading in every home and school, that access has little chance of making any meaningful change. At best, the program and ConnectED must be seen as supplementary solutions to a problem we haven’t addressed in a sustained and intensive manner. At worst, Open eBooks will go the way of Crewe Primary’s iPads: well-intentioned but extraordinarily insufficient.