The "the God particle," a recent discovery in a lab near the Swiss-French border – the Higgs boson – is being touted as one of the greatest discoveries in the history of science. Explaining how the Big Bang transformed weightless matter into weighted matter, the subatomic particle fills an enormous hole in our understanding of the universe. One Yale scientist even put it "on par with Copernicus’s discovery that the sun is the center of our solar system."
If only we could be as open to recognizing and accepting change in the social sciences as we are in the hard sciences – even in the face of hard and convincing data.
The aging of our populations, as one critical example, is the greatest social, economic and political transformation of our time. Yet our antiquated institutions are still not aligned with today's demographic realities. Social scientists and political officials alike cannot seem to get "unstuck."
Leadership in the political world based on the evidence of our aging societies would be hugely welcome. We especially need to examine our core institutions of health care, work and retirement, and education and update our old notions of "dependence" and "retirement."
Two billion people are reaching 60 years-plus in the next several decades – yet we continue to stubbornly cling to models of work, health and retirement created over a century ago, when lifespans and demographic ratios of old to young were profoundly different than in our modern world.
Across Europe, in Asian economies from Japan to South Korea, and throughout the U.S., from D.C. to California, this dangerous attachment to a bygone era of entitlement systems is at odds with the realities of our aging world. Our political officials must begin to test knowledge paradigms and begin to build policies and institutions relevant to this century.
As the philosopher Thomas Kuhn has said, there is a "parallelism" between politics and science: Revolutions in both are "inaugurated by a growing sense... that existing institutions have ceased adequately to meet the problems posed by an environment that they have in part created." Interestingly, Kuhn, writing in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, assumed that his readers would accept as common sense that politics change in the face of inadequate institutions – and this truism would illustrate the more esoteric changes within scientific thought. But as we’ve seen all across the G-20 countries, this is not the case today. Science has proven to be far more flexible and dynamic.
Writing in the early 1960s, Kuhn, of course, had no idea where we’d stand in 2012 in terms of aging populations and stagnating economic growth. But his claim about institutions "ceasing adequately to meet the problems" that they created is about as incisive a criticism as anyone could articulate with regard to the economic challenges we face today based on our aging societies.
Today, we need to be just as flexible and dynamic about the necessary economic, structural and political changes we must make as a result of our aging populations – just as the scientists in Europe have so readily shown a flexibility and willingness to reach new undersandings and conclusions in the face of fresh data.