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Harnessing the Hope of Social Science

VIENNA – In his opening address at the 2016 Nobel Prize Award Ceremony, Nobel Foundation Chairman Carl-Henrik Heldin drew parallels between our current milieu and the late nineteenth-century world in which Alfred Nobel lived and worked.

Nobel’s era was one of rapid industrialization and economic expansion. Progressive political ideas about peaceful international cooperation flourished, but nationalism, xenophobia, geopolitical tensions, and terrorism were also on the rise. Anarchists assassinated a Russian Czar, an Austrian Empress, and American and French presidents, and the outbreak of World War I dealt a near-fatal blow to European civilization.

The similarities to today’s world are obvious. Scientists continue to surprise us with amazing discoveries, and billions of people around the world have been lifted out of poverty. But dark clouds have formed on the horizon. Terrorists have struck Europe with a vengeance, and millions of refugees fleeing wars and hunger are taxing European institutions, and straining social cohesion. Populist movements have emerged, calling for closed borders and new walls, and their rejection of expertise has led Heldin to a “grim truth”: that “we can no longer take it for granted that people believe in science, facts, and knowledge.”

Of course, our expectations will always be in tension with reality. A decade ago, hardly anyone would have predicted that the European project would be tested by a massive influx of refugees and asylum-seekers. Before Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, it was hard to imagine that a mendacious conspiracy theorist who flouts all rules of political decorum could win enough support. And prior to the Brexit referendum, few expected that a majority of British voters would swallow the lie that they could retain the benefits of European Union membership without any of the responsibilities.

Our imagination is constrained by past experience, and this contributes to a lack of foresight. But while our capacity to predict the future is limited, social-science research into the problems we confront today may be able to loosen those constraints. The social sciences are often considered pessimistic; in fact, they are based on hope: a deep-seated belief that social improvement is possible.

The intellectual roots of today’s social sciences – newcomers compared to the humanities and natural sciences – are to be found in Nobel’s milieu. The political, economic, and social turmoil that emerged in response to rapid industrialization and urbanization caused many to wonder whether order was even possible. The social sciences developed in the shadow of the nation-state, which had to develop a functioning administration, modern institutions, and policies to support order.

Much of the work that followed was guided by the belief that technological progress is inseparable from social progress. Today, the International Panel on Social Progress – a major international effort based on the work of some 300 social scientists – shares this belief, and recognizes the importance of good governance in all policy fields. Good governance is the lynchpin that holds societies together in an era of uneven globalization, accelerating technological innovation, growing inequalities, and social injustice.

So, could we have foreseen the political events of the past year? As it happens, an impressive body of social-science research shows that the mounting public disaffection that policymakers ignored or simply missed had been in the making for some time.

Politicians, the media, and the public may have neglected the white working class; but social scientists did not. One does not have to quote Thomas Piketty to know that rising inequalities now threaten to tear apart the social fabric of the advanced economies. Such inequalities have been analyzed since the 1980s. And the working and living conditions for the most vulnerable populations in Europe and the US have been studied by social scientists for years.

Meanwhile, much of what we know about terrorism – the conditions that fuel it, who is susceptible to radicalization, how terrorist networks function – comes from social scientists who have patiently gathered data, conducted interviews often under difficult conditions, and analyzed terrorist networks for many years. And there are numerous studies that shed light on nationalism and populism, too.

These problems persist, despite our insight into them, because of the complex relationship between scientific knowledge and human action. Cognitive biases limit our ability to foresee future outcomes, leading to unintended consequences when we turn ideas into action. We are not good at understanding the complexity inherent in large, interlinking systems, from which major, unexpected events can emerge.

Knowledge alone can never replace action. Graphs, figures, simulation models, and even seemingly incontestable facts make no difference until action and context are taken into account. And this raises additional questions: How do we apply the knowledge that we have, and what comes next when we do?

If we want to avert Heldin’s “grim truth,” we will have to build bridges between knowledge and possible courses of action. In an era no less tumultuous than Nobel’s, social science furnishes us with the hope that our situation could be different, because it generates the knowledge to make it so.