Menus Subscribe Search

Why We Do What We Do

• January 09, 2013 • 10:27 AM

A letter from Sara Miller McCune, founder of the Miller-McCune Center and Pacific Standard.

miller-mccuneFOR MORE YEARS than I care to count, I have been reading and publishing academic articles about the latest research in political science, education, sociology, and psychology. Together with economics, these areas of study—the social sciences—make up the empirical backbone of American public life. From James S. Coleman’s research proving that “separate but equal” schools were anything but equal, to James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling’s “broken windows” theory of policing, to Robert D. Putnam’s bracing look at the decline of civic engagement and social connections in his 2000 book, Bowling Alone, the research and the findings of social and behavioral scientists have repeatedly risen to the forefront of the national debate, and set the course of policy.

Just as often, however, valuable and potentially transformative insights from the social sciences have been overlooked, misunderstood, or passed over. Today, whole edifices of policy and public opinion rest on outdated models of human behavior and expedient nostrums about how markets, cultures, and institutions work. Where this is the case, the best research cries out to be heard.

We live in exciting times when it comes to our understanding of the mind, human behavior, and society. Advances in psychology and brain science have begun remaking entire fields of knowledge, including economics, law, and education. The notion that we humans are rational actors seeking always to maximize our self-interest—a concept that has been the basis of much modern economic policy and thought—is losing ground to explanations that chart the ways in which we are, to borrow a term from the behavioral economist Dan Ariely, predictably irrational.

These ideas have already begun to reshape the world of policy. In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister David Cameron has created a Behavioural Insights Team within his Cabinet Office. Here in the United States, the fledgling Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was deeply informed by behavioral economic principles from its founding—which means that these theories now stand to transform the market for mortgages, credit cards, and numerous other products that define the financial lives of Americans. Not long ago, the National Academy of Sciences sponsored an open meeting, in which we participated, to discuss the contributions of the social and behavioral sciences to national security, medicine, and engineering. The discussion covered the prevention of medical errors, the importance of human factors on the battlefield, and the ways in which an understanding of national and global human behavior can be harnessed to complete complex engineering projects in developing countries.

The world is facing so many overwhelming problems. How do we build an economy that is both fair and vibrant? How can we deliver basic, affordable health care for all? How can we educate our children so that more are trained for lives of success? How can we develop an environmentally sustainable society? How can we create a more just and democratic world in the face of rising inequality? These questions beg for answers, facts, and serious inquiry. Yet all too often the media pose merely rhetorical questions, leaving the loudest mouths on the far edges of the political spectrum to answer them, while neglecting the job of getting to the empirical truth of the matter.

Over the years, as one trailblazing article or book after another came across my desk at SAGE Publications, I would worry about how to get these important ideas to a wider audience. I founded the Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy to do just that by pairing experienced journalists with the researchers and experts who scientifically scrutinize the nation’s biggest issues relating to education, justice, the environment, and the economy.

Today, early in our sixth year of publishing this magazine—formerly under the name Miller-McCune, and now as Pacific Standard—we look around and see an unharnessed wealth of research that can address many of today’s problems and actually advance our most intractable debates. Two of the organizations I am involved with—the American Academy of Political and Social Science and the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University—are working to expand the public’s recognition of research that should be central to our national conversation.

Pacific Standard’s goal is to be the publication that explains the deeply researched work that is, and that should be, changing policy. We endeavor to give our readers the tools—in the form of lively reportage and robust research findings—to answer the most vexing problems facing the world today.

Sara Miller McCune
Sara Miller McCune is the founder and executive chair of SAGE Publications, as well as the Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy, which published Pacific Standard. She also serves as president of the McCune Foundation, and is a member of the board of directors of both the American Academy of Political and Social Science (which was founded in 1889) and the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University.

More From Sara Miller McCune

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


August 28 • 2:00 AM

Poverty and Geography: The Myth of Racial Segregation

Migration, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality (not to mention class), can be a poverty-buster.


August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


August 27 • 2:00 PM

Do Better Looking People Have Better Personalities Too?

An experiment on users of the dating site OKCupid found that members judge both looks and personality by looks alone.


August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


August 27 • 11:05 AM

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”


August 27 • 9:47 AM

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.


August 27 • 8:00 AM

A Skeptic Meets a Psychic: When You Can See Into the Future, How Do You Handle Uncertainty?

For all the crystal balls and beaded doorways, some psychics provide a useful, non-paranormal service. The best ones—they give good advice.


August 27 • 6:00 AM

Speaking Eyebrow: Your Face Is Saying More Than You Think

Our involuntary gestures take on different “accents” depending on our cultural background.


August 27 • 4:00 AM

The Politics of Anti-NIMBYism and Addressing Housing Affordability

Respected expert economists like Paul Krugman and Edward Glaeser are confusing readers with their poor grasp of demography.


August 26 • 4:00 PM

Marching in Sync May Increase Aggression

Another danger of militarizing the police: Marching in lock step doesn’t just intimidate opponents. It impacts the mindset of the marchers.


August 26 • 3:03 PM

The Best Reporting on the Federal Push to Militarize Local Police With Riot Gear, Armored Vehicles, and Assault Rifles

A few facts you might have missed about the flow of military equipment and tactics to local law enforcement.


August 26 • 2:00 PM

How the Other 23 Percent Live

Almost one-fourth of all children in the United States are now living in poverty, an increase of three million kids since 2005.


August 26 • 12:00 PM

Why Sports Need Randomness

Noah Davis talks to David Sally, one of the authors of The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong, about how uncertainty affects and enhances the games we watch.


August 26 • 10:00 AM

Honor: The Cause of—and Solution to—All of Society’s Problems

Recent research on honor culture, associated with the American South and characterized by the need to retaliate against any perceived improper conduct, goes way beyond conventional situations involving disputes and aggression.



August 26 • 8:00 AM

The Transformative Effects of Bearing Witness

How witnessing inmate executions affects those who watch, and how having an audience present can also affect capital punishment process and policy.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

How Gay Men Feel About Aging

Coming to terms with growing old can be difficult in the gay community. But middle-aged men are inventing new strategies to cope.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.