“Hard Problems” in the Social Sciences

A Harvard symposium, and input from the public, identify the most urgent problems for social scientists to solve.

Eminent scholars of the social sciences gathered at Harvard in April 2010 to identify what they believed to be the hardest and most important problems in their disciplines. But that was just the beginning of the conversation: the event organizers created an online discussion page, as well as discussions on Facebook, and invited the public to rank the problems and to submit their own if they felt a truly important problem was missing from the list. The results were surprising.



Problems that appear in green were proposed by scholars in the social sciences at the April 2010 Harvard symposium. Problems that appear in blue were proposed by the public on Facebook. The public was asked to rank the problems on a scale of 1 to 6 in terms of importance, and 1 to 6 in terms of difficulty. The scores were parsed in different ways; what’s below is the “Super Top Ten” of the problems that most consistently scored high. The three columns show where each problem ranked in terms of sheer importance, sheer difficulty, and the “Zec score,” in which extreme difficulty counts against a problem in deciding which problems to tackle first. (See the article text for a fuller explanation.) A Ø sign means the problem did not rank in the top 10 on this scale.

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