During the daylong symposium, a panel of experts from multiple universities will individually present what they believe to be the hardest unsolved problems in the social sciences, emphasizing both why the problems are hard and why they are important. At the end of the day the panelists will debate their proposals with each other and with the audience. Over the days and months following the event, anyone from around the world will be able to view streaming video of the symposium, vote on the proposed problems, and, perhaps most important, submit additional problems for consideration and voting.I don't quite think that there are hard problems in the social sciences in the sense of Hilbert's original 1900 problems. The reason for this is simple: we know when one of Hilbert's problems has been solved, but it's hard, or even impossible to know when a social science problem has been answered to everyone's satisfaction. To quote Aristotle's Nicomachean ethics:
The final votes will be used, in combination with the symposium proceedings, to develop a prioritized list that we hope will serve to focus and inform research and policy directions, as well as funding support, in the future.
Our discussion will be adequate if it has as much clearness as the subject-matter admits of, for precision is not to be sought for alike in all discussions, any more than in all the products of the crafts. Now fine and just actions, which political science investigates, admit of much variety and fluctuation of opinion, so that they may be thought to exist only by convention, and not by nature. And goods also give rise to a similar fluctuation because they bring harm to many people; for before now men have been undone by reason of their wealth, and others by reason of their courage. We must be content, then, in speaking of such subjects and with such premisses to indicate the truth roughly and in outline, and in speaking about things which are only for the most part true and with premisses of the same kind to reach conclusions that are no better. In the same spirit, therefore, should each type of statement be received; for it is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs.
With the caveat that social science hard problems are not "hard" and cannot be solved in the same way as those of mathematics, here is what I think are two of the hardest problems in the social sciences.
Homogeneity vs. Diversity
Paying lip service to diversity is a favorite pastime in the western world. Indeed, (genetic or cultural) diversity has its advantages. From the genetic standpoint, increased genetic diversity increases the chances that the population will be able to adapt to changes in its environment. A race of clones is doomed to extinction if its genetic Achilles' heel is discovered; that is less likely for a diverse population where there is enough variability to ensure adequate response to selection pressure.
From the cultural standpoint, diversity can also be an asset. It is pleasant to have different choices of food, dress, entertainment, or to be able to talk to people with different backgrounds and life experiences. It is sometimes also practical: having people with different perspectives is a good way to ensure intellectual alertness as cultures tend to stagnate in their own assumptions if they are not continually challenged by people with a fresh viewpoint (whether these are young ones who have not yet internalized their society's tradition, or foreigners who view it as something novel).
However, the downsides of diversity are also numerous. Two are particularly important, and I will call them friction and hierarchy.
By "friction", I refer to the ineffectiveness of diversity. While having 10 different languages may make the expression of cultural nuances possible, it makes communication more difficult as these nuances are "lost in translation". Indeed, friction may reach explosive levels, both because heterogeneity breeds distrust, or even outright conflict as different segments of society begin to see themselves as inimical to each other.
By "hierarchy", I refer to the fact that some things that are unequal may in fact be organized in terms of superiority or inferiority. Different foods may all be pleasant to have as options, but they are not all equally good for one's health. Sickle-cell trait may harden the population against outbreaks of malaria, but it is not exactly pleasant at the level of individual. Monogamy or polygamy may be different social practices, but they have important adverse consequences for societal functioning (e.g., cheating by polygynous-inclined males in monogamous societies vs. an excess of unattached, potentially troublesome, males in polygynous ones).
To conclude: it is time to go beyond the "diversity is power" slogans and study the problem of homogeneity vs. diversity with an open mind, trying to figure out when, how, and what kind of diversity is good.
Central control vs. Open Society
The argument for central control was put succinctly by the Platonic Socrates who made the argument that when a ship is in danger the captain has command, and not the assembly of sailors, because the captain has superior knowledge of what is to be done.
The argument for "open society" and its more libertarian or even anarchic versions is that the leader --any leader-- is prone to error or misuse of power, so it is better to organize society bottom-up, and to trust in peoples' ability to find good solutions to their problems.
Psychologically most 21st century people feel a revulsion against the idea of their lives ruled by unelected philosopher kings. On the other hand, there is an abundance of examples of democracies shooting themselves in the foot, and the idea that a captain should lead the sailors is intuitively right.
Indeed, we accept central control in a number of different social institutions, e.g., sports teams, corporations, classrooms, or military units. Coaches, CEOs, teachers, or COs lead these organizations, and the principle of democracy goes out the window.
If there was an optimal decision maker, then most people would be fine with ceding control to them. That is why some historical rulers are known as either heroes or tyrants. Those who make good decisions and keep their societies strong and happy are elevated while those who bring them to ruin are demonized.
An unstated assumption in political science is that different constitutions can be evaluated in isolation, without considering the actual states and populaces over which they will be instituted.
Democracy, we are told, is best, but how good is it really in a society filled with superstition and lacking in scientific knowledge? How can we expect such a society to democratically decide what is good for it? Or, how appropriate is democracy in a society of abundance where decisions can be made rationally and cool-headedly, vs. a dog-eat-dog society of scarcity where voting majorities may be inclined to live at the expense of minorities?
The modern world as a whole experiences an increase in expertise. Moreover, problems are increasingly technical in nature: the average citizen doesn't have a clue about how serious climate change is, or how drastic measures to address it should be enforced.
To summarize: putting down democracy is unpopular, but it is time to see how it can function in today's world, as opposed to the small-scale states it was first instituted in. The goal: to figure out which problems should be decided democratically and which should be left to experts, and to create a political system that will distinguish between the two.