Online symposium: “the hardest unsolved problems in social science”

Submitted by Sammy Smith (

Elsewhere on this website, we have defined culture as the learned beliefs and behaviors shared, and passed on, by the members of a society. Archaeologists, therefore, deal with the products of culture—that is, human-made things like tools, pots, buildings (and building remains), and the like—rather than culture directly. After all, the way these human-made remains are fashioned and decorated reflect the culture of their makers and users; indeed, they are sometimes referred to as material culture.

Nevertheless, understanding and reconstructing ancient cultures is a goal of archaeologists. Cultures are learned and cultures change. They are among the adaptive mechanisms that our species has used to survive and spread across the globe.

Archaeologists consider themselves anthropologists who study ancient peoples and their cultures.

On April 10th 2010, Harvard University and the Indira Foundation:

will convene a symposium of multidisciplinary experts to propose and prioritize an analogous set of the world’s hardest unsolved problems in social science.

During the daylong symposium, a panel of experts from multiple universities will individually present what they believe to be the hardest unsolved problems in the social sciences, emphasizing both why the problems are hard and why they are important. At the end of the day the panelists will debate their proposals with each other and with the audience.

Here’s the really exciting part. Although this symposium will be held from 10AM to 5PM in Lecture Hall B103 in the Northwest Science Building on the Harvard Campus (52 Oxford St, Cambridge MA 02138), the event will have a webcast, so you can see it, too! Indeed,

Over the days and months following the event, anyone from around the world will be able to view streaming video of the symposium, vote on the proposed problems, and, perhaps most important, submit additional problems for consideration and voting.

The symposium will be divided into three sessions. Participants include

    Session 1: Nassim Taleb, Peter Bearman, Ann Swidler, Nicholas Christakis
    Session 2: Emily Oster, Nick Bostrom, Claudia Goldin, Gary King
    Session 3: Roland Fryer, Susan Carey, Richard Zeckhauser, James Fowler

Note that Taleb’s book The Black Swan has been mentioned elsewhere on this website.

Read this web page for more information on the symposium and to link to the webcast and video stream.