April 10, 2010

Hard problems in Social Science symposium: a couple of my propositions

The Hard Problems in Social Science symposium is happening today, and there is a live webcast of the event. From the symposium announcement:
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.

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.
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:
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.


onur said...

Dieneke, I think you have already solved your second problem when you mentioned societies of abundance, as these kinds of societies usually have the luxury to confront all detriments of full democracy without significant losses.

But most of today's societies don't have that abundance and hence luxury. I think such disadvantaged societies should give the preference to improving their conditions rather than democracy.

As to your first problem, I think it is a problem threatening - at least potentially - all societies regardless of wealth. I don't think there are fixed solutions to it, so it is really hard to deal with.

Daniel said...

A "leader" needs special abilities.
Amoung others he needs "Interpersonal intelligence" = the ability to recognice other peopels strenghes and the ability to make best possible use of this.

A leader needs a "staff".
A staff has knowlegde, the leader has not. But no power.
The staff explains the leader why its important to do these and that now and the leader decides after ponding over this information.

The concept worked fine so far.

The concept of democracity in a nutshell:

98% of the people are dumb and of totaly inferior intelligence. Democracity puts all power into their hands. Its the dictatorship of the dumb and unintelligent.

princenuadha said...

What do you call a pseudo intellectual who believes he possess a global knowledge of of multiple subjects. One that believes he has taught himself and now takes it upon himself to teach others.

My Assumption, Just Uninteresting

Jim Bowery said...

Due to absence of experimental controls, estimation of causal structure is the central problem of the social sciences.

Marnie said...


I don't think you can argue today that there is any imperative, with respect to human survival, for a need for genetic homogeneity. If we are going to survive on this planet, our central problems are overpopulation, wealth disparity and global warming. I'll call them OP, WD, and GW.

You can certainly make a homogeneity vs. diversity argument from a cultural standpoint. It's true that if we are spending all our time addressing diversity, it's hard to look at OP, WD, and GW.

For example, in San Francisco public schools, we've pursued a policy of trying to achieve a balanced-on-the-head-of-the-pin-diversity at the expense of focusing on academic achievement.

But I've also seen success win-win stories with respect to diversity. It's a question of balance. While you can't have "ten" different languages, you can certainly have two or three. Languages present different ideological perspectives. I guess I'm not a complete Chomskiite.

"Lost in translation?" So much is communicated without words. What about art and music? I so often see that people get into conflict because they are not willing to listen. It wouldn't really matter if there was a language problem or not. But yes, I do think it is worthwhile to settle on one or two languages, particularly with respect to education.

From a genetic perspective, I don't think there is any clear worthy or unworthy hierarchy that we can delineate. As to your two examples, sure, sickle sell trait is unfortunate for those that possess it. But so is cystic fibrosis. And the thousands of other traits that can shorten one's life span.

As to monogamy: We're not geese.

It's up to us to create a society where we utilise the best strengths of each person. Maju, on his blog, has put up an excellent post on unemployment in the US that touches on that.

What kind of diversity is good?
Laws and policies that do not value one culture over another, that promote academic excellence for the greatest number of people, that promote economic opportunity for the greatest number of people are good. When there is prosperity and intelligence, then there can be generosity and inter-cultural cooperation.

As to central control vs. open society? Americans live in a republic. (But not Californians) The American system of government is by no means an anarchic democracy. It has one of the most fine tuned systems of checks and balances in history and in the world today. As far as I am concerned, the founding fathers [and mothers] of the United States got it right. To fine tune that, we need more regulation of corporate interests. The recent Supreme Court decision on corporate "freedom of speech" is of great concern.

I'm not about to hand myself over to any philosopher king, thank you very much! Having seen the traumatized victims of the worlds "philosopher kings" pile into North America for most of my life, I'd think that we would be fools to subscribe to any such political system.

Finally, the reason that we cannot address climate change is not because of the ignorance of the American citizenry. It is because of the tremendous corporate power of the coal and oil and gas industries. Just love those Texaco adds!

I'm looking forward to following this symposium. Thank you for posting it.

golookgoread said...

I live in Harlesden, Brent, London - very much a working-class neighbourhood in the vicinity of central London and many other more affluent boroughs. It is a favourite destination for all sorts of immigrants to settle in London (illegal as well as legitimate immigrants).

In my experience of Harlesden, the
first or second most 'diverse' borough in London - the word 'diverse' is not exactly what I would use - people don't mix with one another, they hang-out and open businesses within their own ethnic groups.

If you want a nice friendly welcome, without either rudeness or tolerance, then you frequent those businesses that are closest to your own ethnicity - in my case they are Irish, Greek, Polish businesses. Never mind the rudeness that I get simply by trying to walk the pavements or waiting at a bus-stop!

princenuadha said...


I agree that for the most part people are stupid. What makes me wonder is how can Wikipedia, a popular site where anyone can edit the content, have their articles remain relatively structured and accurate. You would think this sort of thing could only come from an atmosphere of well recognized authorities. I'm just very curious at the evolution of the Wikipedia articles.

More About Join Unintelligent

Marnie said...


I've also lived in three very ethnically diverse cities:

Vancouver, Toronto and San Francisco. (I won't get into Thessaloniki.)

As well, my husband grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The kind of rudeness you are describing certainly does exist here. And there are some neighborhoods in Philadelphia where I actually feel unsafe.

But that is not the greater part of what I have experienced.

I think it is important to note that Vancouver and Toronto where mostly European in flavor until the 1980s, each also with an old and established Chinatown.

I would add that my parents were quintessential and established WASPs. Many of my relatives still are.

My observation is that friction occurs when people are poor and ethnically isolated.
I never see that kind of friction in my work place where Jews, Arabs, Persians, Latinos, Asians, American WASPS, and Europeans all get along without any friction at all. I work in a high tech company.

I don't know if they'd all go off and marry each other, but they certainly sometimes do.

You can't force people to engage with each other. But you can work toward the conditions where they might. And where there is tension, you can try to create policy and laws to diffuse it. For instance, when a lot of Hong Kong Chinese moved to Vancouver, they knocked down many of the Arts and Crafts homes to build much larger, and frankly uglier, homes. The city eventually changed the building code so that you could no longer do that. That's an example of a "middle way" policy to reduce ethnic friction.

Dienekes, I don't think the notion of diversity as "novelty" is reflective of the North American experience. I went to a high school where there were Asians, Jews, WASPs and European immigrants. My two best friends from high school (still best friends) are the children of German immigrants. My husband is the child of Greek immigrants.

My work place is very diverse. That is mostly a pleasure. It is occasionally annoying when I run into someone from a country with very backward notions about women in technology.

Surprisingly, the problem children on this front are not from the Middle East.

Some of the worst offenders are older 'white' men from the UK, US and Canada. So there's a mind bender for you. So much for the notion that genetic homogeneity always reduces friction. There is nothing more tedious than having someone tell you that you "can't think spatially" because you are a women.

As chaotic and ghettoized as diversity can be, it is clear to me that the greater problem is poverty, lack of opportunity and lack of education.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Re Captain and Sailors.

War ships and merchant ships have been historically big on the captain as dictator of the ship doctrine. Yet, pirate ships, in the same material environment and frequently high stress encounters, are classic and earliest direct worker democracies and to some extent even practice separation of powers.

Empires are typically viewed as more "advanced" than mere chiefdoms, but most empires in ancient times were brought down by barbarian chiefdoms.

Part of the agrument for diversity of societies is that there is no one right mix of relationships or solutions for all seasons. One needs a mix so that the right society for the right time is available to take over.

One interesting example is that places prone to disease tend to have many religions with differing food rules in a small area, allowing for somebody to survive any particular plague, while less disease prone areas tend to have more homogeneous faiths.

While homogenity promoted Putnam's social capital which has benefits, diversity is better associated with growth (a la Florida's Creative Class hypothesis).

hippo c said...

"Paying lip service to diversity is a favorite pastime in the western world"

How is manically diversifying our once beautiful white western world, and therefore, destroying it, not itself the real lip service here. How exactly does pushing Europeans to go post-European increase Global diversity?

Uwe Hayek said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Uwe Hayek said...

"Psychologically most 21st century people feel a revulsion against the idea of their lives ruled by unelected philosopher kings."

Since the Lisbon Treaty is in Effect, December, 1, 2009, all the countries in the EU are ruled by 27 unelected philosopher kings.

See this Video :

And I see not much revulsion from anybody here in Europe....

When I tell people what has happened in Europe, they simply do not believe me.

See the speech of mr Nigel Farage on the "European unelected philosopher president" Herman Van Rompuy.


Saturday, April 24, 2010 2:13:00 PM

Dienekes said...

"Psychologically most 21st century people feel a revulsion against the idea of their lives ruled by unelected philosopher kings."

Since the Lisbon Treaty is in Effect, December, 1, 2009, all the countries in the EU are ruled by 27 unelected philosopher kings.

I would not call any EU officials "philosopher kings" as they are all appointed by politicians who are elected.

Philosopher kings (in the Platonic sense) are not elected but are selected by virtue of their excellence. A good analogy would be the way academia works, minus the need for external funding.

Uwe Hayek said...

"I would not call any EU officials "philosopher kings" as they are all appointed by politicians who are elected."

This is only for the first time. Once the European Commission of 27 is formed, they will elect replacements themselves. And they appoint the president also, just like the Bishops in Rome replace themselves and choose their pope

Marnie said...

Well, in academia, there is the intense many year process of getting tenure. Not sure if you can say that it is a democratic process, but it is a process where the "philosopher" is subject to intense review by his or her more senior peers.

As we all know, in some cases, tenure is a problem. Older professors resting on their laurels, or intense, unbreakable many year political fights.

The point about the need to raise funding is not to be taken lightly. It also is a kind of democratic process, also subject to a kind of bias.

The fund raising issue has a direct parallel for politicians. (The problem of wealthy lobbyists.)

I certainly wouldn't want a politician with tenure, no matter how smart, and I do think that term limits for politicians are healthy in that they support dynamicism (and limit power concentration.)

I can think of Roosevelt (Franklin)or Trudeau (Pierre), as the closest the US and Canada have ever come to a philosopher king. By the end of their terms in office, both had seen better days. In the case of Trudeau, his presence dominated for so long that with his departure from public life, his party was left without a competent replacement.

In the case of Roosevelt, Truman turned out to be a lucky surprise.

That's a common problem with the philosopher king system. It concentrates political skill in one person, surrounded by compliant (but usually less competent) assistants.

That assumes, of course, that the philosopher king is both sensitive to the needs of his people and benevolent. A big assumption.

Hmmm. Queen Elizabeth was a rather successful philopher queen. So maybe we should discuss philosopher queens. She was interestingly quite consensual in her style, a patron of the arts, greatly interested in the wellfare of her people, able balance different political forces and certainly able to inspire her people.

Again, in spite of that, her death left a disastrous power vacuum.