It turns out (Social Science Lines Up its Biggest Challenges, Jim Giles, NATURE vol. 470 no. 7332 February 3, 2011 page 18) that somebody is getting together a list of 10 issues for the social sciences to study, two groups actually.  There are some self appointed experts and the National Science Foundation working in parallel.  The inspiration was that list of 23 unsolved problems in mathematics was proposed in 1900 by somebody named David Hilbert and guided much mathematical research over the next century.  The question that was asked was what wonderful things could have been accomplished in the social sciences given a similar list of goals.

As long as we are playing the alternative history game, I would ask the converse question.  What would we have learned in math had we not been dominated by Hilbert’s prestige?  Face it.  Either he had an effect or he did not.  And if he did then skills were directed toward what he thought was important and not toward what people working at this issue or that thought was important. 

I don’t know, but I would feel quite confident that the question of the social impact of infertility arising out of lack of kinship is NOT on the top ten list being laid out by either team.  And yet it dwarfs all other questions period.  Not just question in the social sciences and the hard sciences, but all questions of technology, health, politics and so forth.  Even religion is dwarfed in this sense in that there are not any new questions on the horizon. 

Instead we will get questions as to why people are lonely.  Really?  Well people I call, write to, visit, invite over or call on very seldom return the gesture.  If they are lonely, don’t blame me.  And if you want to feel good, do something for somebody.  Then you’ll feel good.  Children are happy – some of them.  And children do chores.  It’s the ones that do chores who are happy.  Yes the social scientist will say that parental affection is important and that consistent parental rules are even more important.  In real life that translates to chores.

Do something for somebody.

Will that really require a significant fraction of the attention of social scientists for the next century?

It’s the anarchist in me talking of course.

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