Social science in action

By Nadine Lymn, director of public affairs

Social scientists have been weathering repeated attacks lately from congressional leaders deriding  the value and validity of their work. The scientific community has responded.   The Ecological Society of America is one of several scientific societies serving as a collaborator to show support for social science and its contributions to other fields and to society. A new initiative of the National Academy’s Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences, Social and Behavioral Sciences in Action (SBSIA) aims to “raise awareness of the vitality, validity, and value of the social and behavioral sciences to the scientific enterprise, to public policy, and to the nation’s well-being…”

Earlier this week, a symposium, held at the National Academy of Sciences, highlighted the key role social science plays in national security, medicine and engineering.  Biologist Rita Colwell, health policy analyst Lucian Leape, national security psychologist Robert Fein and mechanical engineer John Lee were among the speakers who highlighted how social science is integral to their work.

Rita Colwell speaks at the symposium. Photo: N. Lymn

Colwell said that without her social scientist colleagues, she would have had neither the access nor the success in reaching the 150,000 individuals in 50 villages in Bangladesh to tamp down the incidence of cholera.  This social-biological collaboration reduced cholera by 50 percent in three years.   The insights provided by a social scientists opened the way to reach these communities, said Colwell.  The social scientists developed the questionnaire with local mores in mind, knowing what questions would and would not be appropriate in the region.  They understood the cultural practices and environmental views of the local people and selected families to participate in the study.

“It would have been a tragedy” said Colwell, if the scientists had missed the chance to help so many people who were suffering and dying from this disease.  Colwell has studied cholera for 40 years and she and colleagues knew that it can be dramatically curtailed by filtering water through sari cloths folded five times.  Cholera—which is often fatal—is a bacterium that occurs naturally in the environment and is associated with a tiny zooplankton called a copepod.  Filter out the copepod and you’ve also filtered out the cholera bacterium, along with a host of other water-borne bacteria and viruses.

Women in the rural villages of Bangladesh are the ones who educate the family and are therefore key to addressing the problem—Colwell and her fellow researchers  in essence trained the women to be extension agents who learned how to filter the water and then shared this technique with others.  When Colwell and colleagues did a follow-up study five years later, they found that a significant proportion of women were still filtering water for their households and that the severity of cholera cases had declined.

Health policy analyst Lucian Leape focused his remarks on what he sees as a deeply pervasive problem in US health care: disrespectful behavior in the medical community.  Basically, said Leape, people in the medical community don’t treat each other very well and that leads to all sorts of problems.  Belittling of medical students by their superiors, verbal abuse of nurses and humiliation of patients are all disrespectful behaviors.  If that disrespectful conduct is not changed, argued Leape, we won’t make the headway we need to in patient care.  “We need help from social sciences” he says, to make [health care] more humane.  The main problem areas in the health care system, said Leape, are rooted in social science questions.

In addition to the disrespect issues, we also know that doctors are not trained to work in teams; the entire system is set up to reward individual achievements and results in a strong barrier to working collaboratively or to admit personal errors.  In a nutshell, doctors don’t “do teams” very well — at the expense of patient care, and even survival.   In an environment where a resident or nurse does not feel safe in pointing out an error for fear of punishment from higher-ups, they may not speak up and a patient may suffer as a result.  The goal is to create an environment in which errors in procedure can be pointed out without risking punishment, and with the belief that it will improve the situation.

In an interesting parallel to Leape’s remarks, Robert Fein talked about his work in the psychology of school shooters and other assassins.  The environment in which a person is operating is very relevant to their behavior and humiliation, or perceived humiliation, is frequently a significant contributor.  “Humiliation is the parent of bad behavior,” said Fein.

Looking for patterns of behavior is more helpful than trying to develop a profile of someone inclined to become violent, said Fein.   Plenty of people may fit a given profile but never take violent actions.

Other speakers addressed rapidly advancing technologies and how people interact with them.  John Lee, who holds degrees in both psychology and mechanical engineering, talked about the need to make the “marriage” between people and technology work.  Focusing on the mechanics of technology is insufficient.  Lee said we need to understand people’s behavior and the relationships they develop with rapidly changing technologies such as heavily computerized cars and smart phones.

View the webcast of the symposium (or segments thereof) here.


Author: Nadine Lymn

ESA Director of Public Affairs

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