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‘We Have the Technology …’

In defense of the social sciences.

July 19, 2022

Readers of a certain age and demographic may remember the opening credits of The Six Million Dollar Man. It was a TV show in the ’70s starring Lee Majors as an astronaut who had been badly injured in a crash; he had several body parts replaced with “bionic” prosthetics that gave him the equivalent of superpowers, with which he fought crime. As one does.

The show was slow and silly, but the opening credits were undeniably great. As he ran in slow motion, which somehow indicated great speed, a narrator intoned gravely that “we can rebuild him. We have the technology.” And so they did.

I was reminded of that in reading this piece from The Hill about our society’s failure to use the technology it has. We have the technology for serious efforts at carbon dioxide reduction. We have the technology to get pandemics under control. But we don’t use them to full effect, or even get particularly close. As Ashish Kumar Jha put it in the Hill piece, in reference to the pandemic, “We got the biological science right, but we didn’t get the social science right.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Institutionally, the social sciences are the academic equivalent of Generation X: they do a lot of the heavy economic lifting, but they’re largely ignored in favor of more conspicuous groups on either side. STEM is widely assumed to be the future, business the present and humanities the past; the social sciences are just sort of there. To the extent they attract much attention at all, it’s in the form of attacks on perceived progressive political views. Despite having an enviable portfolio of subject matter—if you can’t find something interesting among money, sex and power, I really don’t know what to tell you—they’re often treated simply as gen ed requirements to be dispensed with as quickly as possible.

The pandemic should have taught us the difference between medical science and public health. Great vaccines don’t work if people refuse to take them. The politics of populism—a blend of backlash and provincialism—can lead people to make decisions that harm both others and themselves. That’s predictable; there’s a deep and robust body of research on populism. These things are knowable, and they should matter in making collective decisions. But we make the same mistakes over and over again and manage to be surprised every single time.

There’s a wave of populism around the world, manifested in figures like Erdoğan, Bolsonaro and Orbán. It’s objectionable in a host of ways, but it’s also legible. It’s explicable as a response to certain social strains that have gone ignored for a long time. Put differently, it’s (largely) preventable, if we’re willing to address the underlying strains early enough.

But that requires looking beyond a short news cycle. It requires asking the kinds of questions that social scientists ask and looking at evidence beyond the anecdotal or electoral.

In higher education, we sometimes fall victim to the Platonic fallacy: we believe that to know the good is to do the good. But it isn’t. People know better and do bad things anyway. If knowledge were enough, nobody would smoke or eat sugary food. But they do. (I’m no different. I don’t smoke, but I know my way around an ice cream carton.) To the extent that we need to save ourselves from climate catastrophe and pandemics, it isn’t enough to come up with better electric cars and vaccines (though both are necessary). We need to take seriously the vagaries of human behavior. That means giving the social sciences their due.

We have the technology. But until we figure out how to get out of our own way, we’ll keep running in slow motion.

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Matt Reed

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