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Harnessing the Hope of Social Science

A failure of imagination may explain why we didn't see the last year's political shocks coming. But while our capacity to predict the future is limited by our expectations, social-science research into the problems we confront today may be able to loosen such constraints.

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.”

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