Saturday, August 28, 2010

Why study social science?

That was the question I was asked to help answer this afternoon, as part of a panel discussing the Social Sciences at Harvard, for incoming freshmen who will formally begin college when Harvard's fall semester starts this week. (We were right after a similar panel in the same room, on the Humanities. I listened to the end of that discussion from the back of the room, and, let me tell you, it sounds like it would be loads of fun to be a Humanities major.)

We were each asked to speak briefly about our own work, and what excites us about it, and about what students could expect to learn if they studied in our department.

Our panel consisted of Eric Beerbohm representing the interdisciplinary Social Studies concentration at Harvard, Dan Carpenter representing the Department of Government,
Theodore Bestor, chair of the Department of AnthropologyMaya Jasanoff representing HistoryNicholas Christakis  representing Sociology (one among many hats he wears),
and me, Al Roth, representing Economics.

As always, I'm amazed and delighted at the interests of my colleagues (and struck by the fact that I too rarely have the time and opportunity to listen to colleagues from the other social science departments).

Eric began by talking briefly about some of his work on polling (including not just assessing what people think, but how strongly they hold their opinions, and how they come to hold them).

Dan spoke about his work on regulatory bureaucracies, which he'll be speaking about at the White House in the coming days.

Ted (I actually don't recall if he's called Ted, or Theodore) announced that he studies sushi (at which point I recalled that I still hadn't read his book on the famous Japanese Tsukiji fish market), and quickly illustrated something about social change by asking students "who eats sushi?" (many hands raised), "who thinks your parents ate sushi?" (most hands remained up), "at your age??" (most hands came down).

Maya spoke about her studies of Revolutionary War loyalists who left the country after their side lost the Revolution. I thought about vacations we've had in the Anglophone Eastern Townships of Quebec, and as it happens she quickly ratified this line of thought by asking "who likes to travel?" and saying "then history is your ticket," and described her own far flung travels "and also Canada".

Nicholas introduced his work on networks (e.g. his well known work on how your friends influence your body mass index, and whether you smoke) with an analogy from chemistry: he pointed out that you couldn't hope to learn about how graphite is different from diamond just by studying carbon atoms, the differences result from how those atoms are connected to each other.

I spoke last, about my work in market design, and how economists thought about a much broader collection of marketplaces than freshmen might realize, such as the college admissions process they had just experienced. I pointed out that Harvard abolished its early admissions program only a few years ago and asked "how many of you applied to at least one other college?" (virtually all hands raised); how many applied to another college early admission (many hands, maybe a majority still raised); and "how many of you applied to another college with binding early decision? (one brave young man kept his hand up, and I told him some other college's loss was Harvard's gain). Then I explained that Harvard's decision to abolish its early admission program had prompted Princeton to abolish its binding early decision program, precisely because of the kind of strategic behavior that students could be expected to exhibit, as they had, and that this was the vantage point through which game theory entered economics. (I then briefly described how my colleagues and I got to help design school choice systems, and kidney exchange, and when I got back to my seat, Nicholas leaned over and told me that when I spoke about kidney exchange in the future, I might want to tell people about the movie Strangers on a Train, whose plot revolves around a proposed exchange of murders, so neither murderer could be connected to the crime by a motive...)

I confessed that I like Economics for some of the same reasons I sometimes like to hear gossip, because it gives me a picture of how other people go about getting what they want, and what choices they face that I might also face, or might have faced if my life had taken a different path.

Economics is often the biggest academic concentration for Harvard undergrads, so I don't doubt that many of the freshmen will soon be enjoying Greg Mankiw's introductory class Ec. 10 (often the class with highest enrollment at Harvard), where they'll be introduced to many of the more usual things that economists study, not only in class, but also on his popular blog.

It's clear that any of the social science departments offer a fantastic intellectual experience, and a window through which to understand those (big) parts of the world that human beings make when we interact with each other. I actually don't wish I was a freshman again, but I feel at least a tinge of envy at the range of exciting choices that freshmen face.

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