Yale leaders talk about COVID-19: FAS Dean of Social Science Alan Gerber

Alan Gerber
Alan Gerber

This interview is the latest in a series.

How are the social sciences responding to the COVID-19 crisis?

I’ve been impressed with how rapidly faculty across the social sciences have turned their attention to key challenges of the global pandemic. Broadly speaking, they are working in three main areas.

First, some scholars are using their subject area expertise and methodological training to provide knowledge that will help improve the design and implementation of public policy responses to the crisis. There’s a lot of activity here.

Steve Berry and Zack Cooper are using economic analysis to advise state and federal officials on COVID-19 policies, including developing guidance for strengthening the economic incentives for providing widespread disease testing. John Eric Humphries, a labor economist, is studying how small businesses in the United States and Latin America have been affected by the crisis, and the role of information frictions in their use of government programs designed to help small businesses and promote economic recovery. Molly Crockett, a psychologist, has been showing how key findings from social psychology can be used to shape effective public messaging. 

Rohini Pande and Mushfiq Mobarak, leading development economists, are using their knowledge of labor markets and economic forces to illuminate ways that policy responses need to be tailored to local conditions. Pande is conducting research to measure how the COVID-related lockdown in India and Nepal is affecting those countries' very poorest citizens. This work will help ensure that policymakers charged with assisting those affected by the lockdown can target those most in need. Mobarak is analyzing how the public health responses in the United States and Europe might need to be adapted to the different circumstances in low- and middle-income countries.

Sociologist Nicholas Christakis, who is both one of the world’s leading scholars of social networks and also a medical doctor, is a central participant in the public discussion of the science and public health around the pandemic and doing pioneering research assessing the effect of networks on contagion. He’s also studying the effects of Chinese mobility restrictions on the spread of the epidemic. This work is leading to the development and improvement of models for predicting how infectious disease spreads.  

A second group of scholars is examining how the pandemic is affecting social well-being, and what people can do to better cope with the crisis. For example, Laurie Santos, in psychology, has been engaged in an enormous amount of outreach, providing scientifically based advice about dealing with anxiety and isolation. She is reaching millions of people worldwide.

Still other social science faculty are beginning to explore the long-term implications of the pandemic and responses to it. For example, the MacMillan Center is holding virtual workshops on how societal crisis can lead to broad changes in democratic political institutions and increase the threat of authoritarianism. The Jackson Institute for Global Affairs is bringing leading thinkers together to discuss the effects of the pandemic on the global economy.

At Yale, we’re fortunate to have not only extraordinary intellectual capacity, but also intellectual breadth, and our exceptional research centers are playing key leadership roles. The Tobin Center has reached out at the local, state, and national level to offer analysis and assistance. The Institution for Social and Policy Studies (ISPS) is organizing information sessions to help faculty connect with students interested in working on COVID-related research projects, and to help social scientists connect with the NSF and other external funders.

The pandemic is devastating. But crisis also spurs innovation, and I am confident we will see many important lines of social science research emerge at Yale in the coming months.

Looking ahead, how might this crisis influence the way the faculty go about their research?

It’s hard to know, of course, but here are a few possibilities. The most obvious is that, as the crisis continues, there will be more learning and innovation around how to work effectively online, especially in teams and across disciplines.

At Yale, the disruption is stimulating the emergence of many new connections across departments and schools. At the initiative of School of Public Health Dean Sten Vermund, FAS social and political psychology professors held meetings with faculty of the public health social and behavioral sciences division. Becca Levy and Jack Dovidio are helping this group move forward to identify opportunities for collaboration and further exchange of ideas.

The pandemic could refocus the social science research agenda. A crisis like COVID-19 exposes the strengths and weaknesses of our society and institutions. In fatality statistics, we are seeing the effects of severe inequality and health disparities, such as the disproportionate burden of illness and death among racial and ethnic minority groups. There will be a lot for scholars to reflect on. I teach political science. Viewing the crisis from a political science perspective, I believe the crisis will focus the research community’s attention on fundamental questions about the responsiveness and accountability of our democratic institutions: How well did our government and political leaders prepare for this public health challenge and address the crisis once it began? What lessons can we learn for how best to design institutions that perform better under conditions of high stress and great uncertainty? How can we more quickly and reliably get the information we need to make effective and equitable public policy decisions?

You chaired the committee that wrote a report about improving the data-intensive social sciences at Yale. How has the COVID-19 crisis changed your views?

The university data intensive social science committee report (DISSC), issued earlier this spring, had recommendations for teaching and research. There were suggestions for reducing the cost and administrative hassles related to acquiring and safely using sensitive datasets, such as health data and online data trails. There are signs that the current crisis will accelerate the already growing prominence of applied empirical work using “complicated” datasets and increase the importance of supporting these efforts across the social sciences at Yale and elsewhere.

Data literacy is more important than ever. Our report called for expanding opportunities for students to take courses in which they learn the basics of statistics and computation and apply data analysis to questions they are intensely interested in. Imagine a course where a student who wants to understand the pandemic could learn data analysis and computation, and then use data to estimate models of how infectious disease spreads and use data visualization techniques to show the burden of the disease in different communities. A history student interested in the early part of the 20th century could apply modern text analysis algorithms to newspaper archives from the 1918 flu pandemic to assess how societal awareness of the epidemic evolved and use modern data visualization techniques to look at the spread of the epidemic in ways that were not previously feasible.

The DISSC report also called for large lecture courses that cover the fundamentals and applications of data analysis to spur conversations and foster the common knowledge of the fundamental principles of quantitative analysis. Big courses would help to build a culture of intelligent engagement with empirical claims. Yale students, who will become leaders in government, the private sector, the media, and their communities need to be competent in engaging with empirical claims and confident in asking questions based on the best available evidence and informed by rigorous thinking. During this crisis, incredibly important decisions are being made on the basis of studies that are released without the normal peer review. The public debate over these studies matters.

Numbers alone are not enough for making decisions. Hard decisions in public and private life involve tradeoffs, and tradeoffs are about both normative values and consequences of choices. Data and statistical reasoning help us quantify the tradeoffs. Yale aims to produce well-rounded graduates who are not only ethical, curious, and broad-minded, but also confident quantitative thinkers. When important decisions are made, we need leaders with all those qualities. We also need a well-informed public to hold leaders accountable.

Alan Gerber, dean of social science in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, is also the Charles C. & Dorathea S. Dilley Professor of Political Science, professor in the ISPS, and professor of economics and public health.

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Part of the In Focus Collection: Yale responds to COVID-19