Richard Freeman: Can Social Science Make the World Better?

richard-freeman-douglas-massey-and-alice-rivlin.480.319.sOn June 2, 2011, Alice Rivlin introduced Richard Freeman, who was inducted into the Academy as the Frances Perkins Fellow. Upon presenting Professor Freeman, Dr. Rivlin remarked that Freeman “… is a truly useful social scientist, remarkably a truly useful economist, which most people think is an oxymoron.” Dr. Freeman’s speech focused on “the problem we face today”; namely, “whether social science can actually play a significant role in making the world better…” Below is a transcript of Richard Freeman’s acceptance speech.

Thank you, Alice, thanks to you, Academy, and thanks to Frances Perkins who is, of course, not here but played a major role, together with Senator Wagner of New York in really setting the labor scene in the United States for many years.

I want to talk about the problem we face today and whether social science can actually play a significant role in making the world better at this point.  I think we are in an extraordinary period of time.  We have more scientists and engineers producing more research and development, learning more about human beings, about nature, about disease, about the E. coli and so on – we can track where these things come form and so forth – then we have ever had before.  We have computer power that makes us all wonder, you know, when we are going to be retired in favor of a machine.  This country has educated the intellectual leaders of a large part of the world.  I think of, in particular, of China, where we all see our Chinese students throughout the American academe, Chinese colleagues, people who come as immigrants to our country, and it just seems like a great time for advancing human knowledge and solving many of the problems that face us.  And here is this great opportunity.  And then we see a set of difficulties, social difficulties, that perhaps will mean this will not be a great period for humanity, even with the spread of education throughout the world.  We have economic and financial problems, the deficit which Alice has worked to try to bring some rationality, the public infrastructure issues – Doug referred to Moynihan and where we are today and Penn Station – but we know that there are bridges that have collapsed in our country and the engineers have given our infrastructure a D grade and anybody who has been to China or some of the developing countries knows that they have put in modern infrastructure.  We have huge levels of inequality in our country – if it was a developing country it would be in the bottom third in terms of their inequality.  So we are just not off the map for an advanced country, we are off the map – not quite off the map but we are worse than the majority of developing countries for inequality.  And that is something I think the Sage Foundation has done a lot of work about.

So the question is, how can we somehow or other resolve these incredible social and political difficulties and make use of this great science and the most knowledge we have ever had and I think the fastest creation of knowledge we have ever had.  So what I have been worrying about of late is can the social sciences help the country and the physical sciences in actually, you know, making use of science to resolve these problems.  Can we as social scientists come to the rescue?  Well, what do we have to bring?   I was happy the discussion of the brain scan is being done – social scientists have become much more scientific in the last X years.  We have much more data than ever before to analyze and we have much more tools.  So we are more like the physical sciences.  I think that is all to the positive.  Evidence-based things are what we can talk about.  But we have these problems.  There is clearly a good deal of human irrationality, be it discrimination or other areas.  Economics has great trouble – we keep on saying “homo economicus” – he or she is extremely rational.  And then the evidence grows that no, there was something that psychologists and sociologists and other people had to say that was not so rational.  I think my profession still has difficulties in dealing with that, but we are grappling with that and I think the other social sciences have been better.

Then, we have this terrible problem of dealing with people who are ideologically committed, and they could be committed on one side or on the other side.  I have a friend who has had serious problems in his career because he is a fundamentalist Christian and he did social science, normal social science, and found that at various universities he was having much more trouble getting promoted than elsewhere.  So the ideological or irrationalities cuts across, I think, the world.

So, I am hoping that with more evidence, more analysis, the social sciences, we can indeed nudge policymakers and move the world so that it makes rational decisions.  A rational decision may still be wrong.  We all know we made what looks the best decision with the knowledge facing us and we did not understand something and it went wrong.  But it does seem that that is a much better way than having ideological battles or things like that.  I wish I could say to you I know that good social science will convince everybody of the right way to operate but – someone is already laughing – we know that is not true but we can at least hope so.  I do not know what else we can do but keep doing rational, try to keep the ideology out, analyses and try to bring that to the attention of the country and the policymakers.

There is a saying by my favorite, I suppose, author Sam Beckett where he says, you know, “I can’t go on, I can’t go on, I must go on, and I will go on.”  And I think we have to keep going on with evidence-based analysis and just hope that eventually that wins the day.  Thank you.

Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are solely the opinions of the individuals and not those of the Academy.