President Post – Why the Social Sciences Matter

23 February 2015

I’ve been writing and talking about why the social sciences matter over the past few days, as a result of the publication of the Academy of Social Sciences book by that title, which I co-edited. The reason might appear to be rather obvious, namely to be able to understand society, and to improve outcomes including through evidence-based policy, whether regarding education, health, housing, the economy, or the whole range of other aspects of our lives. To misquote slightly, this would appear to be a statement of the rather obvious.

Yet politicians are obsessed with the ‘STEM’ subjects. Given that Kellogg’s largest group of students and fellows are in software engineering and systems security, I’m not about to decry the importance of the STEM subjects. Indeed, I’ve been something of a fan ever since as a young child trying to understand the machine my dad had made in the very early 1960s – before computers had developed sufficiently to be useful for research into artificial intelligence – constructed out of matchboxes and colored beads, which not only played noughts and crosses, but learned how to improve its playing as it went – perhaps the earliest example of machine learning. This was what he and Alan Turing had discussed each week when they left Bletchley Park for the pub to play chess – neither of them were any good at the game, but they were fascinated about whether one might be able to build a machine that could not only play, but might learn how to improve its play.

But to get the most out of computing, we do need to understand how societies work, how decisions are made, and so forth. Indeed, a striking example was given to me recently when I was sent a transcript of my dad being interviewed about Bletchley Park, in which he relayed the well-known fact that the enigma code was broken due to a signal having been re-sent without having re-set the machine. Donald made the point that it would have been a simple matter to have engineered the enigma machine so that it could not re-transmit without being re-set. So why did the Germans not do this – especially given their excellence in engineering?

Donald’s hunch was that while the Germans were great engineers, they were also great believers in discipline, especially military discipline. So if the operators were ordered to re-set the machine between transmissions, then the machine would indeed be re-set. Nowadays it would be standard to any such innovation to be reviewed in operation, in which case this weakness in the system might be picked up. But these are matters for organizational behaviour, management decision-making and other social science disciplines – the conclusion is that we need all the relevant disciplines to be brought to bear.

To win a free copy of the book, tweet @PalgraveSoc your thoughts on why #SocSciMatters

Jonathan Michie, February 2015

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