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Issues of the Day The Emerging Science of Inequality

Science is often blamed for reckless technology and the damage incurred by it. Science, though, bears no responsibility for its misapplication. In fact, the pursuit of systematic, reproducible and empirically-based knowledge leads to insights that can cast light on social issues which are often distorted in ideological, political or popular economic discourse.

Formalizing Knowledge

In recent decades, one area in which science has greatly served to clarify an urgent concern relates to its documentation (ex. the IPCC's Climate Change 2013of the causal links between global environmental change and its anthropogenic causes.  


Recently, scientific analyses has focused on another major area of contemporary concern: Growing inequality. Like climate change discussions of this phenomenon has often been obfuscated by emotionally-charged debate dominated by contrary interests that impede careful consideration of the causes and consequences of, and possible solutions to entrenched poverty and inequality.

A Tide of New Data 

As the editors of Science, the journal of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) write of the rancorous debates following the 2011 Occupy movements that changed the discourse on poverty internationally: " Ideology and emotion drive much of the debate. But increasingly, the discussion is sustained by a tide of new data on the gulf between rich and poor." The patterns uncovered by researchers are  reported in special issue (May 23,2014) of Science entitled "The Science of Inequality: What the Numbers Tell Us." 


Basing its conclusions on such new "big data" sets as the World Top Incomes Database produced by the Paris School of Economics, US Census Bureau surveys and diverse sources that include archeological records and studies of prenatal life,  the articles in the issue deal with the disparities and show them to be widening. It also shows their effects to extend to diverse aspects of life and considers the inter-generational legacy it leaves behind. 

Disparaties in the US, But Also Elsewhere 

According to the editors, in the US in 2012 the "richest 20% of Americans enjoyed more than 50% of the nation's total income, up from 43% in 1967. The middle 20%—the actual middle class—received only about 14% of all income, and the poorest got a mere 3%."  

Clearly, the benefits of economic growth are not filtering down and producing an overall improvement in social welfare. The discrepancies vary by geographic region (NBER), but as a report by the Economic Policy Institute reports " this analysis finds that all 50 states have experienced widening income inequality in recent decades."


Significantly, while the social gaps in American society are striking, the chasms between rich and poor are even higher in many emerging economies such as South Africa, Egypt and Latin America where the income differences between rich and poor remain huge and growing.


Informing Debate, Guiding Progress
I have not yet received a copy of the entire special issue of Science but I am encouraged that scientific endeavor is being applied to the domains of social welfare and sustainability and that these matters are being drawn to the attention of leading scientists from around the world.

The documentation of social and economic trends can better inform public debate and policy concerning deeply-felt issues that continue to spawn large-scale protests from Sao Paulo to Tel Aviv and from Manhattan to Kiev.    


© Yosef Gotlieb, . All rights reserved