The social sciences offer powerful tools for making sense of the world in which we live. For policy makers, they provide guidance, in the form of study results, for making our world work better. In this edition, two feature articles examine major contemporary issues through the lens of social science theory and research.
First, our cover story on “Getting Preschool Right,” written by journalist Melinda Wenner Moyer, sounds the alarm on some unfortunate trends in early childhood education. Between 2002 and 2012 the proportion of American four-year-olds attending preschool doubled. This should be a good thing—especially for kids coming from families stretched too thin economically to provide much enrichment at home. But the expansion has been done on the cheap, with low-quality programs, canned curricula and grossly unprepared teachers. In addition, pressure to perform on standardized tests in primary school has backed up into the pre-K classroom, leading to worksheets and teacher-driven instruction that are a poor match for the developing four-year-old mind. Research shows we should be doing the opposite, writes Wenner Moyer in the story. Young kids learn best, she says, “through guided—or ‘scaffolded’—play and hands-on, child-led activities, which can help them learn concepts more deeply.”
In “How Trump Won,” Stephen D. Reicher and S. Alexander Haslam—both members of our board of advisers—analyze the messaging and group psychology dynamics that helped bring Donald Trump to the White House. They deconstruct his carefully staged rallies and explain how they reinforced both a “politics of hope” among his supporters and a sense of us versus them vis-à-vis traditional power elites. Trump, they write in the article, presented himself as a prototypical American—a regular guy, despite his billions, whose plain language and sometimes crude or violent imagery were reviled by critics but, to his fans, marked him as someone who could buck the system and bring change.
This issue also includes two articles by top neuroscientists. In “The Footprints of Consciousness,” advisory board member Christof Koch walks us through science's centuries-old search for the locus of consciousness in the brain, including his own modern-day quest. Suzana Herculano-Houzel of Vanderbilt University gives a delightful account of her “brain soup” method of counting neurons in the noggins of dozens of species and the surprising light it sheds on our own “remarkable (but not extraordinary)” human equipment.