What Higgs Boson Can Teach Us About Aging Populations

07/12/2012 06:07 pm ET | Updated Sep 11, 2012

It was an improbable week in Europe. In capital cities across the continent, economists and politicians continued to wrangle with recalcitrant economic models built on equations derived from nineteenth-century Prussian demographics. But near the Swiss-French border, deep in an underground laboratory, a team of researchers discovered the Higgs boson. Though many are cautiously describing the boson discovery as "preliminary," in less-prudent moments it is being touted as "one of the greatest discoveries in the history of science." Dubbed "the God particle," the boson fills an enormous hole in our understanding of the Big Bang.

Put simply, the discovery explains how the Big Bang transformed weightless matter into weighted matter. And it has led one Yale scientist to claim that it is "on par with Copernicus's discovery that the sun is the center of our solar system."

But the Higgs boson discovery doesn't just uncover a mystery of the universe. It also illuminates a striking disparity in contemporary thought -- a disparity that has been on full display in Europe over the past week. On one hand, there is what science has just done; and on the other, there is what policy elites can't get done. As European public officials are making all too clear, social scientific thinking, unlike that of the hard sciences, is obstinate to change. Even against clear data and compelling statistical evidence, many political attitudes remain inflexible.

In other words, what scientists may find overwhelming, a public official may find unconvincing. And what makes for good science often makes for political suicide. In American politics, this is often referred to as "the third rail."

Today, as we prepare to have over two billion people over 60 in the next couple of decades, we continue to grasp onto models of work, health and retirement that are mysteriously stuck in time. Indeed, they are stuck in the moment when they were invented over a century ago, when life-spans and demographic ratios of old to young were dramatically different than they are today. As scientists transform our understanding of the universe, the political class remains wedded to Bismarck, FDR, Bevin and Lyndon Johnson.

As we see each day across the world -- in Europe, east Asia and in the U.S. from D.C. to California -- the unremitting attachment to the entitlement systems of a bygone era is at antithetical odds with the reality of our aging world. And our politicians and economists, unlike the scientists in Europe, aren't testing their paradigms against new data, and they're not building policies and institutions relevant for this century.

So how can politicians and economists break out of this funk and learn from science? They could start by reading Thomas Kuhn. Part philosopher, part scientist, Kuhn argues in his monumental The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that science progresses by a "series of peaceful interludes punctuated by intellectually violent revolutions." In other words, Kuhn argues that what is "true" in science or what is accepted as "fact" -- think of the flat earth or the heliocentric universe -- is only the operating paradigm until something better comes along.

The link between science and politics/economics is imperfect, but not irrelevant. As Kuhn himself said, there is a "parallelism" between politics and science, because 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."

This insight by Dr. Kuhn is both prophetic and ironic. Writing in the early 1960s, Kuhn had no idea where we'd stand in 2012 with 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 regards to the global economic challenges we face today based on the transformational realities of our aging societies.

And on top if this prophesy, there is deep and unfortunate irony to Kuhn's argument. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn uses political revolution as the example through which to explain scientific revolution. That is, he assumes 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. As we have been demonstrating across all G-20 countries, this is not the case today. Science has proven to be far more flexible and dynamic, and it is the social sciences that are wedded to the past.

Because population aging is the greatest social, economic and political transformation of our time, it demands an "an intellectually violent revolution" to re-align antiquated institutions with twenty-first century demographic realities. Since many countries will soon have over one-third of their population past traditional retirement age, it is time to acknowledge that "existing institutions have ceased adequately to meet the problems posed by an environment that they have in part created." The Higgs boson has been a reminder of the potential of fearless, pioneering leadership. Let's hope it's a lesson the political classes heed.