Eric Wanner

Social Science For What?

VTR Date: May 1, 2007

Dr. Eric Wanner discusses the value of social science.


GUEST: Eric Wanner
VTR: 05/01/2007

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And several times over the past few years my guest today – social psychologist Eric Wanner, the learned President of the Russell Sage Foundation for two decades now – has joined me here to talk about one aspect or another of inequality in America….which somehow nevertheless seems implacably to march on, meaning perhaps that our palavering just hasn’t been all that effective!

What has been effective, however, has been the now century-long joining of the spoils of Robber Baron Russell Sage’s 19th century financial wizardry and the philanthropic instincts and wisdom of his generous widow, Olivia Sage. For it was she who just one hundred years ago took millions her buccaneering late husband had willed to her and endowed the foundation that ironically bears her husband’s name but works so hard to conduct research to help us understand and then perhaps to remedy the harsher heritage of the Gilded Age in which Russell Sage functioned so brilliantly…but that indeed may be trumped in our own times.

Funded by Olivia Sage in 1907 for, quote “the improvement of social and living conditions in the United States”, end quote, the Russell Sage Foundation now dedicates itself to quote, again “strengthening the methods, data, and theoretical core of the social sciences…”, end quote. But to what end? That remains the principal question, one raised by historian Alice O’Connor in “Social Science For What?” one of three Foundation studies that marks the Russell Sage Centenary.

Best, of course, I put the question to Dr. Wanner himself.

WANNER: Well thank you for having me back. “Social Science For What”, indeed.

Social science has always claimed to be able to provide a different kind of social knowledge, a more systematic, reliable kind of social knowledge, which gets at underlying causes; things that you can’t see necessarily on the surface, but are nevertheless going on underneath what you can see.

I have a friend, Sandy Jenks, who talks about social science as “slow journalism”. But he …

HEFFNER: Slow journalism?

WANNER: Slow journalism … but he’s a, he’s not being entirely fair and he knows it. There’s an effort to do more than journalists telling stories, but taking more time to do it. There’s an effort to get in, underneath, and understand what’s driving the stories that you can see on the surface.

HEFFNER: To what end?

WANNER: Ah, to what end? Now we have to talk about democracy a little bit and what you think … how you think democracy … democratic decisions ought to be informed. I think the basic idea of the Progressives was that we need better institutions and to have better institutions we need to know more about how social life works … put simply.

And people need, generally, to have that systematic social knowledge. So the end would be a more informed democracy capable of choosing institutions which were more beneficial broadly to the body politic and to the functioning of the society.

HEFFNER: Eric, seriously, why do you use the phrase, or what do you mean by “better institutions” and would you and I necessarily agree on them? Or more importantly, would you and I and those who reject the Progressive tradition agree on them? And there are many of those people around today.

WANNER: Absolutely. And certainly “better” implies a judgment and judgments are often based on values. And we may disagree in our values. What social science can let you do, however, is understand what the consequences of your value choices might be.

So social science can at least say, if you choose thus and such an institution, here is what will happen, or here’s what has happened.

So then you can see what the implications of your values are and maybe that promotes change.


WANNER: Maybe.

HEFFNER: Do you think that’s been true in terms of the hundred years of the Russell Sage Foundation?

WANNER: I think it has been true in some respects. Certainly the Progressives had a lot of early successes in terms of changing institutions, governing child labor, governing working hours, governing … oh … city managers and the way cities were governed. Health and safety laws and so forth.

There was a … in the high Progressive period from about 1910 to 1915 there was an enormous outburst of reform based, as Alice O’Connor … as Alice O’Connor says, on the kinds of systematic social knowledge that social scientists were beginning to produce, albeit in much more flawed and less sophisticated ways than we can do now.

HEFFNER: She’s not a very happy lady right now, is she?

WANNER: No, she’s not a very happy lady. Because society is being organized and driven more and more by values that she disagrees with. And her argument is that social sciences should be more overt about the values that they believe in so that they can fully do battle, fully armed with their ideological opponents.

HEFFNER: Well, she makes the point and certainly doesn’t … there seems to be every reason to believe that the names she mentions, the institutions she quotes are very real and that is that there has been an counter-social science revolution of a kind, or would you say that the rise of Conservative, non-Progressive think tanks, foundations and the rest, are not … are more anti-intellectual rather than that they are based also upon research, but research with different values in mind.

WANNER: I, I don’t see them as anti-intellectual. And I do believe that there is a research component to the, to the Right Wing … what shall we call it … reaction to the Liberal ascendancy between … whatever …1930 and 1980.

We can, of course, quarrel about their empiricism just as they can quarrel about the empiricism of Liberals, but I think it’s benighted to, to deny to them the same kind of epistemological stance that we have.

So, they have strong convictions about the benefits of markets. They have strong convictions about the benefits of individual responsibility. They have strong convictions generally about non-interference with economic affairs … keeping the government out of the economy and so forth.

Those are their values. I think the most that social science can do is work out some of the implications of those values. So the return of inequality, which is quite unprecedented, really as, as far as we know, in history … the general tendency for mature economies was for inequality to decline. And as we’ve talked about before … beginning in the late seventies, inequality which had been declining since World War II turned around and started to rise. And it’s continued to rise.

So what social science has tried to do, or what the social science that we’ve supported has tried to do is to say … described systematically, here’s what’s happened and the best we can tell you about why it’s happened. So some of the implications of reducing economic regulation, of producing a more unfettered variety of capitalism has been a return of inequality.

HEFFNER: You’re, you’re very generous in accepting the notion that you can give the title “social science research” both to the Right and to the Progressive groups that the Russell Sage Foundation epitomized.


HEFFNER: And you do feel that way? That both represent or both foster social science research.

WANNER: Yes. An example would be the infamous Bell Curve, I guess. Infamous from the point of view of the Left, at any rate. Which tried to argue that meritocracy, the open economy that we are increasingly embracing would lead to a hereditary meritocracy because of the high hereditary component for IQ and that IQ … the economic returns to IQ are increasing … one generation passed on its IQ to the next generation via the genes and that would lead inexorably to an ascendant class and a subordinate class.

HEFFNER: You reject that?

WANNER: Well, it’s very interesting … not the point … not just that I reject it, but how it’s rejected. So that that lead to a long and very vigorous social scientific debate about the interpretation of data, about just exactly how heritable IQ is, what the environmental influences on IQ are, how appropriate IQ tests are to move from one cultural context to another cultural context, are you still tapping something which … some kind of ability which is expressible in other circumstances. Do people who suffer some kind of environmental disadvantage also show up as disadvantaged on the test? So it led to a large scientific debate, not necessarily a values debate, but a scientific debate about whether this was the right way to understand the, the transmission of advantage.

HEFFNER: Do you think, Eric, that the … that the knowledge … that the research of one side, if I may put it that way … rather than the other can be accepted when we’re really talking about values as you, as you suggest. I mean what, what does the research mean?

WANNER: Ah … well … certainly the research will always be contested and it may well be contested because people don’t want to believe it given their pre-scientific values.

So, for example, we’ll get a, we’ll a test of this now because as you know, if you read the paper this week, or was it last week, abstinence-only sex education was shown not to be effective and this was a very high quality study. And there’s every reason to believe this result, as far as I can see, although I haven’t stared at it closely.

This may or may not be accepted by people who find other kinds of sex education morally unacceptable. So notice what happened was the science came in to say “given that you can have different kinds of education about sexual reproduction, what would (HUGE DRAGGING NOISE) … what are the consequences in terms of the behavior of the students who are exposed to those different curricula. That’s what social science does for you.

Then the question is … what do your values tell you by way of continuing, let’s say, a curriculum that has been shown to be ineffective in terms of its consequences.

You may still say, “I want to do it, that’s what I want to teach. I don’t want to teach other methods of … I don’t want to teach any other methods of restricting reproduction”. But that’s a moral decision and it flies in the face of now what looks like a scientific evidence it doesn’t work.

HEFFNER: I was fascinated, when I was there at your 100th … your hundredth birthday … (laughter).

WANNER: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … that, that when there were comments about Russell Sage, the robber baron, there was a lot of snickering … good natured snickering about the fact that … the, the irony of this man’s fortune being placed in part at the service of, of the Progressive Movement, really.

Ah, what is your own posture on the question of the uses of funds that come from the counterpart of robber barons, or the robber barons themselves? The appropriateness … I mean the Russell Sage Foundation has been very fortunate.

WANNER: Yes, I guess we haven’t crossed that moral bridge because the intermediation of our founder Margaret Olivia Sage, and as you described the story so nicely in the Introduction, she inherited his $75 million which in modern terms would be about $1.5 billion, I guess.

And gave it all away in the last ten years of her life … about a third of it to start our foundation. We’ve always considered her our benefactress and yes the money came from this period of American capitalism which was highly unregulated, in which there was this enormous expansion of the continental railroad system, in which there were enormous profits to be made from connecting up the network, network internalities and network profits. And he captured a lot of those.

He also did some things that were … would be illegal today, but weren’t then.

HEFFNER: Don’t smile so broadly.

WANNER: (Laughter) I said at our dinner that we’re the beneficiaries of a great historical accident, namely the convergence of his financial wiles, her evangelical commitment to social betterment and the Progressive’s belief in social science.

I don’t really think I’ve worried about the morality of accepting that money. It seemed to me the thing to do was to do good social science. And I believe, as the Progressives did, that good will come of it.

HEFFNER: What about the other foundations, your sister foundations, or brother foundations? They have a much larger … you don’t have a problem and I certainly … as far as I know the situation … agree with that. But I would think they do. And in, in her book Alice O’Connor points out the rise of recent right wing groups stem to some extent from the feeling of “Hell, this money wasn’t meant (meaning Ford money and similar money) wasn’t meant to foster progressive movement, liberal leaning movements”. Don’t you think they have a more difficult road to hoe there?

WANNER: Who has the more difficult road?

HEFFNER: Do you think that the foundations …

WANNER: Ah … the big foundations.

HEFFNER: … that are established by the Carnegies, the Rockefellers, the Fords?

WANNER: Well, initially, you know that there was a great outcry about that. And that it was … it was argued that this was just an effort to sanitize this money … basically.

And that the great philanthropies, the Carnegies and the Rockefellers were an attempt to step away from lots of the very, very unpleasant kinds of suppression of the labor movement, for example, that both Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller engaged in.

Those early philanthropoids had … the professionals in those early foundations had to struggle with that. And you can find the results of their struggles. Of course, they manage to convince themselves that in the long run it would be best to take this accumulation and do good with it.

HEFFNER: You would agree with that, wouldn’t you?

WANNER: Yes I would, yes I would. I don’t think that we can be so pure as to refuse to accept, under certain terms, and let me come back to that, an accumulation which can then be turned to positive social purposes.

And the terms are the establishment of a general purpose foundation and Margaret Olivia Sage’s was absolutely the first, in 1907. And what she said, as you … she dedicated the foundation to the improvement of social and living conditions, but she left it up to the Trustees to use any means, including research, publication, scholarship of various kinds and also the establishment of institutions. And the Trustees were allowed to decide that. So once freed, it seems to me, from any kind of dead hand in the terms of the charter of the foundation, the Trustees are free to do as they see fit.

HEFFNER: And what about those newer foundations today that are … foundations or study groups or whatever you want to call them, that are using dollars for … in opposition … let’s say it … in some instances to what the Russell Sage Foundation is doing. Is that an appropriate use of tax dollars?

WANNER: Of, of tax … of untaxed dollars …

HEFFNER: Untaxed dollars.

WANNER: I think so. Look, it isn’t just that doing social science is one way to improve, or to try to struggle to improve social design. It may be that you believe you have strong moral and philosophical commitments, which you also want to publicize. And you want to enter those into the marketplace of ideas and into the political fray and try to see if you can advance your point of view. I think that’s free speech.

I do think we should have some kind of trust in the democratic process. And that people should be allowed to do that. I wouldn’t want to suppress that. Just because, just because the Right Wing foundations are more philosophical and more morally driven and we are more empirically driven, doesn’t mean that our way of doing it is right and theirs is wrong. They’re just very different.

HEFFNER: Wow. You think there are many good people who would disagree with that point of view?

WANNER: Yes. Alice O’Connor would disagree.

HEFFNER: Yeah, well … I meant since it was so clear in, in her book. I, I gathered from the reception to her comments in the last panel of the Centennial celebration that so many of your colleagues in the social science field did not support her, her points of view.

WANNER: Here’s the thing. Social scientists believe, and I think with cause, that theory, philosophy, moral commitment, unhooked from any appreciation of consequences may be a recipe for disaster. You can drive a society off a cliff. For example, take an easy one, which is current right now … we believe that we could somehow democratize the Middle East. This was a theory without a shred of evidence to support it. I just had dinner with a prominent member of the International Relations Scholarship scholarly community and he said not a single one of the schools of international relations theory supported the invasion of Iraq. No one amongst the academic professionals thought it would work, across the spectrum. Nevertheless in the grip of an idea (and maybe some other things that I don’t know about), in the grip of an idea we, we set forth on this adventure.

Wouldn’t we have really wanted to be informed right from the outset by what we knew about tribalism in Iraq? What we knew about the likely reactions of neighbors of Iraq. What we knew about the likelihood that rivalry, sectarian rivalries between religious sects would be set off and so forth. All that was ignored and put to one side. So you had pursuit of a theory, which I think led to the predicament that we’re in now.

So those people who are committed to science as a way of knowing, a way of understanding, a way of seeing what’s there would say that that would always be superior or it should at least be coupled with pre-scientific, pre-theoretic, philosophical and moral commitments in order to try to understand the likely consequences of our actions.

HEFFNER: And what they were concerned about then, if I understand you is that her complaint in the “Social Science For What?” book … her remedies would lead to questioning of social science work that, that these people were concerned that their own fields would be undermined.

WANNER: Yes I think that’s right. She, she argues that social scientists have tried to be so disinterested, so neutral that their results could not be impugned, so they have tried to pretend to being neutral, to doing the best social science they can to get the best results, to get the best perception of what’s happened.

I think that it’s possible to admit in choosing the problems that you select for study, that you are driven to some extent by ideology or by pre-theoretical hunches about what might be going on. So go back to inequality. We, as you know have been studying inequality now for about 20 years. Why? Because we worried that this may be one consequence of an, of an increasingly unfettered brand of capitalism. And so we wanted to see what was happening. Our measurements now suggest that it has been happening and we can tell you where inequality has been rising and what … during what years it’s gone up most and so forth. And the rich are getting richer, the poor are falling behind and sometimes both. And so on.

So we can tell you all those details. When we chose the problem … we didn’t choose it innocently. But once we choose the problem, we tried to do the best, most honest social research we could do …


WANNER: … we certainly didn’t try to skew the results.

HEFFNER: I suggested in my introduction that all the palaver hasn’t done that much good in the programs we’ve done … talking about inequality. What do you think lies in the future for us as a people?

WANNER: It’s always difficult to predict, especially about the future. We’ve been …

HEFFNER: About the past, it’s easy.

WANNER: I’ve ducked that … I’ve ducked before. I do believe that there are small signs and Kathleen Hall Jamison, who was also at the dinner, mentioned that George … none other than George W. Bush had recently admitted rising inequality is real.

That may sound like a small win, but compared to 20 years ago when nobody on the Right would admit that inequality was increasing, it’s, it’s really a major change. Slow, sluggish sea change. Now it’s a step from that to saying … to addressing the problem and asking ourselves what can we do to reduce inequality and mainly to look at the bottom of the distribution and ask, what should we do for people who are working hard, playing by the rules, but nevertheless are mired increasingly in poverty. How can we help them?

And that I think is a problem that is within our grasp, technically we know how to do it, it’s just a question of having the moral conviction to do it.

HEFFNER: What do we know … just in … fortunately, we have, for me in terms of asking you the question, we have just two minutes left …


HEFFNER: … what do we know that could point the way to action?

WANNER: Well, the two minute answer is that we need to find a way of supplementing low wages. And that can be done through the tax system. In fact it is now done through the tax system, something called the “Earned Income Tax Credit” for families with children provides a wage supplement as a refundable tax credit. This is a wonderful way to add income on to a family which is working hard and playing by the rules, but whose market incomes fall below or close to the poverty line.

So we know how to do that. I think the program is currently about a $30 billion dollar program. And effort to say double that would have an enormous impact at the lower tale of the distribution and it would only be a third of what we’re spending in Iraq every year.

HEFFNER: Why do you say that at the end?

WANNER: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Seriously.

WANNER: What … about Iraq?


WANNER: Because that suggests something about our values, doesn’t it? That is … our budget is a very revealing instrument … it really reveals what you care about. And if we’re spending $100 billion dollars on Iraq and only $30 billion dollars to supplement wages of people who are here … that suggests something about what kinds of social enterprises we can be convinced to … as a, as a democracy to support. I think there will be a reaction that will set in … that adventures of this sort will again turn out to be very unpopular.

I would hope that there’d be a deeper reaction against theory driven adventures; against adventures which are basically driven by a dream or something that is less than empirically grounded. In the future, we would ask for much better evidence, whether its from the CIA or the National Security Agency or whoever before we have another adventure, we’d like better scientific underpinning to say what really is happening, what should we really be done?

HEFFNER: That’s certainly an answer to the question, “Social Science For What?”.

WANNER: That is.

HEFFNER: Eric Wanner, thanks for joining me again on The Open Mind.

WANNER: Thank you very much, I enjoyed it.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. For transcripts of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.