A New Kind of Science for the 21st Century
These three things—a biological hurricane, computational social science, and the rediscovery of experimentation—are going to change the social sciences in the 21st century. With that change will come, in my judgment, a variety of discoveries and opportunities that offer tremendous prospect for improving the human condition.
It’s one thing to say that the way in which we study our object of inquiry, namely humans, is undergoing profound change, as I think it is. The social sciences are indeed changing. But the next question is: is the object of inquiry also undergoing profound change? It’s not just how we study it that’s changing, which it is. The question is: is the thing itself, our humanity, also changing?
[NICHOLAS A. CHRISTAKIS:] In the 20th century, there was a tremendous expectation, or appreciation, for the role that the biological and the physical sciences could play in improving human welfare and human affairs. We had everything from the discovery of nuclear power to plastics to, in biology, the discovery of new drugs, beginning with penicillin (which is one of the gigantic feats of human ingenuity ever). We had this phenomenal progress that was made in the sciences, in the physical and the biological sciences.
In the 21st century, the social sciences offer equal promise for improving human welfare. The advances that we have made and will be making, especially in understanding human behavior and its very deep origins, will be translated into interventions of diverse sorts that will have a much bigger impact in terms of improving human welfare than many of the prior examples that I gave.
This new frontier in the social sciences is being abetted and even accelerated by three things that are happening. The first is that a biological hurricane is approaching the social sciences. Discoveries in biology are calling into question all kinds of ideas, historically important ideas, in the social sciences—everything from the origin of free will, to collective expression and collective behavior, to the deep origins of basic human behaviors. All of these things are being challenged and elevated by discoveries in biology.