Social Science Bites

Political violence aside, the 20th century saw great progress. Looking at health progress, as one example, Princeton University economist Anne Case notes it was a century of expanding lifetimes.

“Just to take one particular group,” she tells interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast, “if you look at people aged 45 to 54 in the U.S., back in 1900 the death rate was 1,500 per 100,000. By the end of the century, it was down below 400 per 100,000.

“The risk of dying just fell dramatically and fairly smoothly. There were a couple of spikes -- one was the 1918 flu epidemic -- and a little plateau in the 1960s when people were dying from having smoked heavily in their 20s and 30s and 40s. But people stopped smoking, there was a medical advance as antihypertensives came on the scene, and progress continued from 1970 through to the end of the century.”

Even stubborn health disparities – such as the life expectancy gaps between say whites and blacks, or between the rich and the poor - narrowed in the century’s second half.

“We thought that sort of progress should continue,” Case says. But as she and fellow Princeton economist Angus Deaton found as they sleuthed through the data, starting in the 1990s progress had reversed for a fairly large demographic in the U.S. population.

“[W]hat Angus and I found was that after literally a century of progress, among whites without a college degree – these would be people without a four-year degree in the U.S. – mortality rates stopped falling and actually started to rise.”

The trend was clear: looking at figures from the 1990s to the most recent data available from 2018, mortality among middle-aged, non-college-educated white Americans rose, stalled, then rose again.

“This was stunning news to us and we thought we must have done something wrong because this never happens, or if it had happened, it would have been reported,” Case admits. But it was news, and Case and Deaton’s findings and analysis – that controllable behaviors like drug addiction, suicide and alcohol addiction were driving the numbers – created a furor. Citing sociologist Emile Durkheim’s argument that suicide is more likely when social integration breaks down, Case explains, “We think of all of these as a form of suicide – not necessarily that a drug addict wants to take him or herself out, but that it leads to that eventually.”

Meanwhile, Case and Deaton’s shorthand expression ‘deaths of despair’ entered the common –not just the academic social science – lexicon. (It helped that they were speaking publicly about this “group that just wasn’t on anyone’s radar” at roughly the same time that a demographic both similar and similarly ‘unknown’ was seen as a surprise well of strength for the political maverick Donald Trump.)

Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism is also the name of the new bestselling book that Case and Deaton, her husband, have written for Princeton University Press. (Deaton, a Nobel laureate in economics, has also appeared on Social Science Bites.) The book looks at the physical and mental causes of these deaths – Case and Deaton count 150,000 of them in 2018 alone – and how aspects of America’s unique medical and pharmaceutical system have resulted in this unique tragedy.

Case explains that these deaths of despair didn’t suddenly arise in the 1990s, but they had been obscured by advances made in treating heart disease (and obesity, despair, drugs, alcohol are all hard on the heart). “As deaths of despair got larger and larger, it would have taken more progress against heart disease for this to continue to fly under the radar. Instead what happened was we stopped making progress against heart disease.”

Also in the 1990s, prescription opioids became widely available in the United States – “a self-inflicted wound,” Case says that made the existing trend “horrifically” worse. “In the U.S. in the mid-1990s Oxycontin was allowed onto the streets. Any doctor with a script could prescribe it. It’s basically heroin in pill form with an FDA label on it, and they sprinkled it like jelly beans. It landed on very fertile soil.”

Between opioids and existing problems with America’s mostly private health care system, deaths from despair keep rising.

What might end this cycle? Something dramatic, Case says. And perhaps something already creating drama …

“We think something is going to have to break, and break badly, in order for us to see reform. Maybe, possibly, COVID-19 is breaking things really badly and this might be a time when enough people in the middle of the distribution start talking about reform, then it might be possible to see change.”

Anne Case is the Alexander Stewart 1886 Professor of Economics and Public Affairs, Emeritus at Princeton, where she directs the Research Program in Development Studies. She’s received numerous awards for her work on the nexus between economic health and physical health, including the Kenneth J. Arrow Prize in Health Economics from the International Health Economics Association and the Cozzarelli Prize from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. She is a research associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research, a fellow of the Econometric Society, and an affiliate of the Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit at the University of Cape Town. Case is a member of the National Academy of Medicine, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society.

Direct download: Case_MixSesM.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 11:12am PDT

The current pandemic has and will continue to mutate the social landscape of the world, but amid the lost lives and spoiled economies in its wake has come a new appreciation of what science and scientists contribute.

“You don’t have to go back many months,” says Hetan Shah, the chief executive of the British Academy, “for a period when politicians were relatively dismissive of experts – and then suddenly we’ve seen a shift now to where they’ve moved very close to scientists.

“And generally that’s a very good thing.”

In this Social Science Bites podcast, Shah details how science, and social science in particular, has come to be deployed, how it’s been a force for good throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and how it can help policymakers understand and shape a better tomorrow.

Arguably, even before coronavirus the British Academy, a national body of humanities and social science scholars, has served in similar roles. In addition to its well-known body of fellows, the academy funds new research and serves as a forum to discuss humanities’ and social science’s role and impact beyond academe. Shah took the reins of the academy in February, having headed the Royal Statistical Association for the eight years previous.

Given that his time at the academy roughly mirrors COVID’s arrival on the world stage, he’s had to hit the ground running. “It’s also been very interesting to see the government using the term, ‘We are following the science.’”

This has been a prime opportunity for social science to show its importance for the public, but also a chance for the public to consider what science is and isn’t.

“There isn’t a single monolithic thing called ‘The Science,’” Shah explains, adding, “I think governments have recognized that the pandemic is not just a medical phenomenon but a social and economic one.”

But even within the subcommunities of science there’s no single ‘Answer’ to any given challenge. “It does feel to me the public has seemed to cope quite well and understood the level of uncertainty of the science. It’s an argument for treating the public as grown-ups.

“We are making decisions at speed. That data are limited and being gathered as we speak. This is how science happens. There may well be settled science on these matters [someday] – but that might take really quite a lot of time.

“This is why none of us envy our decisionmakers. They’re having to make decisions on imperfect knowledge.”

Even without those capital-A answers, established social science has been deployed to good effect already, Shah says.

“Anthropologists who wouldn’t have been surprised at all by the panic buying of toilet paper. They have known for a long, long time, rooted in the work of people like Mary Douglas, the cultural and symbolic importance of things like cleanliness and security in times of crises. “

As other examples he offers the campaigns detailing how best to wash your hands, the crafting of the United Kingdom’s economic package along needs rather than party lines, and how to enforce social distancing. It was social science that shows that rather than shaming – in essence, promoting -- the few people who are breaking rules, compliance increases if you praise those who are keeping the rules. And social science also helps address wicked problems that predate COVID but which now have new facets, such as the unequal impact the disease has on ethnic minority communities.

There’s even a lesson in how science gets applied, he suggests. Like those anthropologists …  “[A]nthropology seems like it’s for other people -- ‘Other people have strange customs; we’re normal in the West and what we do is normal’ – but I think the key is to bring an anthropological lens to our own behavior. What are the practices that we have and how can we change them?”

Arenas like critical thinking and psychology are also brought to bear tellingly on the home front: “Our leaders share our biases,” he tells Edmonds, before detailing a number of logical traps policymakers and the populace currently share.

The podcast closes out with a look to the future, both through specific initiatives Shah is part of, and in general. “I think there will be all sorts of fascinating data about how the pandemic has affected us,” including, he made clear higher education and academic research itself. Shah, meanwhile, is acting chair of the Ada Lovelace Institute, which while looking at technical solutions to COVID also draws on social science insights, i.e. in digital contact tracing, it was revealed that those most vulnerable to COVID were also least likely to have a smart phone.

And the British Academy itself, he noted, has a group of scholars assembled who will provide a rapid response to government inquiries and needs, as well as looking at some of the other implications of the future “that the government doesn’t have the bandwidth for.”

Direct download: Shah_Mix_SesM.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 9:15pm PDT

Depending on your views, far-right populism can represent a welcome return to the past , or a worrying one. The former, argues sociolinguist Ruth Wodak in this Social Science Bites podcast, is one of the hallmarks of far-right populism – a yearning for an often mythical past where the “true people” were ascendant and comfortable.

She’s termed this blurred look backward retrotopia, “a nostalgia for a past where everything was much better,” whether it was ever real or not.

Wodak, who to be clear finds herself worrying and not welcoming, offers host David Edmonds a recipe for becoming a far-right populist. In her scholarship, she’s identified four ingredients, or dimensions, to the ideology that often underlie populist far-right parties.

The most apparent from the outside is a strong national chauvinism or even nativism. This nativism is very exclusive to a specific set of insiders, who focus on creating “an anti-pluralist country, a country which is allegedly homogeneous, which has one kind of people who all speak the same language, have the same culture, or look the same. [Having] this imaginary ‘true people’ is very important.” is very, very important. Far-right populists decide who belongs and who does not belong to the ‘true people.’”

And just as important is then having a group of outsiders to cast as scapegoats responsible for major problems – making for “an easy narrative for very complex issues.” It’s probably no surprise, then, that “conspiracy theories are part and parcel of the far-right agenda. They are very supportive in constructing who is to blame, etc., for all the complex problems.”

Another ingredient is an anti-elitism that targets elites or ‘the establishment’, i.e. managers, teachers, journalists, intellectuals, liberals or your political opponents; “all the people who allegedly don’t listen to ‘us’ and who have very different interests from ‘the true people’.”

Next comes a focus on law and order (“an agenda of protecting this true people”) enforced through a hierarchal party structure. This top-down structure frequently focuses on a charismatic leader who encapsulates the spirit of the ‘true people’ – and rejects the ‘other.’ “Along with the scapegoat,” Wodak explains, “comes ‘the topos of the savior’ … the leader who will save the true American or the true Austrian or the true British people from those all dangers, they will ‘solve’ the problems, protect the people, and they promise hope.”

The final standard ingredient is endorsing conservative values and perceived cultural touchstones, such as Christianity in Europe.

This recipe matters, of course, thanks to the rise of far-right populist politics across the Americas, Europe and Asia. Wodak herself is Austrian – she’s professor in linguistics at the University of Vienna and emeritus distinguished professor and chair in Discourse Studies at Lancaster University – has seen plenty of recent natural experiments in populism throughout continental Europe.

She cites several reasons for the popularity of far-right populism, including the end of the Cold War and the resultant increase in migration from Eastern Europe into the West. Those migrants, previously seen as refugees from communism who were welcomed and even feted, morphed into unwelcome and fear-inducing interlopers (and despite being white and from Christian cultures). Around the same time, she continues, neo-liberal policies changed labor policies in the West, creating inequalities that the right could build on – just as they did in the pro-business responses to the global financial crisis of 2008 (“saving the banks instead of the people”) and globalization.

In this podcast, Wodak also discusses how right-wing populism makes use of social media, how exploiting “otherness” helps roll over self-interest, what the role of a social scientist is in exploring fraught ideologies, and how someone might counteract malign politics.

Wodak has studied right-wing discourse for years, work that is covered in 2015 book The Politics of Fear: What Right-Wing Populist Discourses Mean, which will see a second edition later this year. At present, she is senior visiting fellow at Vienna’s Institut für die Wissenschaft des Menschen where with  Markus Rheindorf she is examining “repoliticization from below.”

Direct download: Wodak_MixSesM.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 4:18pm PDT

ichard Layard remembers being a history student sitting in Oxford’s Bodleian Library on a misty morning, reading philosopher Jeremy Bentham (he of the famed “It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong”). As he recounts to interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast, he thought, “Oh yes, this is what it’s all about.”

And while much has changed for the current Baron Layard FBA in the years since that epiphany, his laser-like focus on seeing happiness as the key product of any successful society has remained. Much of his effort as a labor (and Labour) economist has gone into popularizing the idea of happiness as the real measure of national success; he’s written extensively about the concept, ranging from his 2005 book, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, to his latest, just released this year, Can We Be Happier? (written with George Ward). Layard is also co-editor, with John F. Helliwell and Jeffrey Sachs, of the World Happiness Report.

The fundamental impulse of a government, he insists, should be the creation of well-being, and not just wealth.

Three basic principles underlie happiness economics, Layard explains:

  • “The way we judge the situation or the state of a nation is by the happiness of the people, especially the happiness of the least-happy people.”
  • “We should try and produce the best state in the world that we can in the way that we live our lives and the people we touch or could touch. So we should be trying to produce the largest amount of happiness in the world that we can, especially taking into account the people who are least happy.”
  • “Governments should also be trying to produce the greatest happiness in people, especially preventing misery. That was the view of Thomas Jefferson; I think it was the right view.”

While not spoken about in government circles nearly as much as say gross domestic product, these ideas aren’t revolutionary – both Bentham and Jefferson were active at the close of the 18th century, after all.

“It always had some traction,” Layard says, “but I think it’s gaining more traction now, particularly because the new science of happiness is making it practical to aim at the happiness of people. And secondly, because people have become somewhat disillusioned with economic growth — even before the financial crash.” New Zealand, Scotland and Iceland – all with female prime ministers, he notes – all have budgets aimed at wellbeing.

In the podcast, Layard explains how a qualitative instrument – asking people how happy they are or are not – turns out be an excellent predictor of future lifespan, work productivity, and whether an incumbent government is re-elected. These happiness-generated predictions prove to be more accurate than predictions based on the economy. “Bill Clinton said, ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ I’m afraid he was the stupid one. … It is pretty clear in our mental fabric that how you feel is of ultimate importance, and these other things [such as wealth or health] are a means to that end.”

In 1990, Layard founded the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics, and was director of the center until 2003. His elevation to the House of Lords in 2000 was followed by some signal policy-oriented projects on happiness, mental health and even climate change. In addition to being a fellow of the British Academy, Layard was elected a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in 2016.

Direct download: Layard_MixSesM.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 10:29pm PDT

With each new year comes a wave of good intentions as people aim to be better. They want to lose weight, exercise more, be nicer, drink less and smoke not at all. They want to change behavior, and as Susan Michie knows well, “behavior is related to absolutely everything in life.”

Michie is a clinical and health psychologist who leads the Centre for Behaviour Change at University College London. She specializes in behavior related to health – for behavior or health practitioners, patients and population as a whole – and in looking at how behavior impacts the natural environment. And while you might think that the essentials of human behavior are pretty similar, one of the things Michie quickly tells interviewer Dave Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast is that it can be unwise to jump to conclusions when studying behavior (or trying to change it).

She notes, for example, that lots of behavioral research is done in North America, where there’s relatively abundant funding for studies, “but the biggest need [for research] is often where there’s the least investment. There’s no point in developing an intervention based on research evidence conducted in parts of the world that are very far away from the type of context we want to implement the findings in – only to find out it’s not going to work.”

So yes, she says, do look at both the rigour of the research, but also base any potential application of the findings on deep understanding of local conditions and using local knowledge.

Michie and her team describe this using a model, COM B, to account for the ‘capability, ‘opportunity’ and ‘motivation’ necessary to change behavior.

Changing behaviors is important – “In order to solve any of these big social challenges we need people at different positions in society to change their behavior” -- so these considerations matter. But that begs the questions of what behaviors need changing – and who decides what those selected behaviors are..

“There’s a big issue about who decides what the key issues are,” Michie says. “But I think there are certain problems which are very self-evident – there are people dying unnecessarily as a result of smoking, obesity but also environmental conditions – poor housing, etc. There are areas where the social consensus is that things needs to change, and I’d say those are the ones we start with.”

In the interview, Michie also addresses the ethics of behavior change and how algorithms and machine learning will be “absolutely vital” to parse through all the relevant data . Her own Human Behaviour Change Project is a collaboration between behavioral scientists and computer scientists combing the global literature to see what works, with an initial focus on smoking cessation. A comprehensive tobacco control strategy, she details, involves those infamous “nudges” beloved of policy makers, but also the legislation, services and taxation, that need to work synergistically to effect real change.

Michie had a long career as a research fellow and clinician before joining the Psychology Department of University College London in 2002. She’s a fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences, the Academy of Social Sciences, the Academy of Behavioral Medicine Research, the Society of Behavioral Medicine, the European Health Psychology Society, the British Psychological Society and a Distinguished International Affiliate of the American Psychological Association. 

Direct download: Michie_Mixdown_SesM_online-audio-converter.com.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 7:41am PDT

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