Ten Big Questions

At a recent symposium, social scientists gathered to create a list of “big questions” that might serve as a driving focus for academics in the years to come—inspired in part by David Hilbert’s (largely successful) use of this technique to guide mathematicians.

More on the symposium here. The final list of questions is highly informal, but gives us a good idea of what problems are on the minds of very smart people:

1. How can we induce people to look after their health?

2. How do societies create effective and resilient institutions, such as governments?

3. How can humanity increase its collective wisdom?

4. How do we reduce the ‘skill gap’ between black and white people in America?

5. How can we aggregate information possessed by individuals to make the best decisions?

6. How can we understand the human capacity to create and articulate knowledge?

7. Why do so many female workers still earn less than male workers?

8. How and why does the ‘social’ become ‘biological’?

9. How can we be robust against ‘black swans’ — rare events that have extreme consequences?

10. Why do social processes, in particular civil violence, either persist over time or suddenly change?

I like this list a lot! I think all the problems mentioned here are serious, and worth the attention of many smart people all working at once.

Some are quite narrow, but this makes sense, given the sponsorship of the National Science Foundation, which will naturally focus on America-centered issues like the racial skill gap and gender pay gap. (Similarly, an Indian symposium might raise questions about class inequality and gender-specific abortion.)

My favorite questions are (1), (3), (5), and (9), for some mixture of intellectual and personal reasons. When I consider “big questions”, I prefer to do so on a global scale, with an eye towards the far future (what humanity will be doing in 100 or 500 years).

To that end, (4) and (7) aren’t quite broad enough. Meanwhile, (2) and (10) are questions for political scientists, and outside my realm of expertise (relative to my knowledge of other topics).

And I’m not sure what the NSF is talking about with (6) and (8). The former seems to have strong applications for artificial intelligence, the latter for genetic engineering—but I may be reading them completely wrong.

For more on (9), I recommend The Black Swan and Antifragile. For (1), I’d start with the first publication from the UK government’s Behavioural Insights team.


Here’s my own list of “big questions” for social science. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about them, and if I ruled the world, I’d ask more scientists to study at least some of them. I’ll avoid duplicating any questions from the list above. (I’ll also avoid questions which are less about social than physical science—for example, “how can we prevent aging?”)

In no particular order:

1. Which experiences tend to induce long-term behavior change, especially in terms of self-perception?

2. How can societies start thinking in terms of “positive freedom” to the same extent they do “negative freedom”?

3. Which problems should we be working on to best reduce global catastrophic risk for human civilization?

4. How can we design tests and applications that better predict success in school, careers, and other areas of life?

5. How can we improve the average person’s problem-solving ability?

6. How can we build stable, neighborly communities centered around a non-religious, non-consumerist worldview?

7. Why are some scientists, research groups, and companies so much more productive than others?

8. How important is artistic experience and creation to human flourishing, in relation to material needs?

9. How can we help people do a better job of aligning their habitual actions and their instrumental goals?

10. Why do children who once loved school and learning come to hate one or both of those things?

Thousands of scientists around the world work on these kinds of problems—dozens of them at Yale alone. I should be spending more time asking those people about their work.

But first, I’ll need to break each question above into a series of sub-questions, and make an effort to discover which organizations are doing the best job of answering those.

(Meanwhile, other organizations actively stand in the way of our finding answers—and stopping them may be just as important as helping the “good guys”.)

I’m sure excellent books have been written on each of these topics, but I’ll stick to recommending three: Redirect for (1), Creating Capabilities for (2), and Making Minds Less Well-Educated Than Our Own for (10).

One example of phenomenal social science “research” I found recently was Givewell’s analysis of criminal justice reform, which reflects hundreds of hours spent interviewing scientists and combing through academic literature to find the most promising organizations and ideas. In the process of reading that report, I learned some useful things about (1), (5), and (9) from my list.

Other organizations doing work in these areas—probably good work, though it’s too early to say for sure—are Leverage Research and the Future of Humanity Institute. They’re not like most think tanks you’ve heard of, and if you found either set of questions above to be interesting, I’d recommend looking into both.

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