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Think Tanks and Groupthink

Megan McArdle has written a series of posts (here, here, and here) arguing that reports published by ideologically driven think tanks are necessarily biased, in that scholars are selected for conformity to the heterodoxy, funding is subject to continuing to agree with said worldview, and the gathering of so many like-minded people into a single building will necessarily yield groupthink. As such, she concludes, one may not adduce studies produced by said institutions as evidence.

(Full disclosure: I’m employed by a think tank, albeit a non-partisan one that would be difficult to characterize as “ideological” in any but the most expansive sense of the term.)

While I share most of Megan’s concerns, I think she carries them too far.

I, too, hesitate to link to studies by Heritage and Cato, not because I think they’re necessarily weak but because their brands create a barrier to discussion. It’s far more productive to cite government data or studies by more neutral groups, not because they’re necessarily better, but because they generate less ad hominem.

Still, on any issue worthy of public discussion, simply linking a publication and resting one’s case is unlikely to be of much value, anyway. Increasingly, we’re in a no-trust environment and even once exalted brands can’t carry the day on their own. Assertions that a report in the New England Journal of Medicine or the Harvard Law Review or the Quarterly Journal of Economics “proves” something will be greeted with mockery, not submission. One still has to make the argument in a compelling manner. The study merely provides facts and an outline for said argument.

Further, surely one can site a study from an institution typically thought of as being against your position? Indeed, for reasons Megan gives, an argument of the form “Even a report by the conservative Heritage Foundation concedes … ” can be quite powerful.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He earned a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. mannning says:

    Increasingly, we’re in a no-trust environment and even once exalted brands can’t carry the day on their own.

    Citations are demanded by some (“links please!”)because personal opinions are not accepted as valid. Thus, this no-trust environment forces links to sources that are in themselves no-trust, so one has to attempt to make the entire argument stand on its own, and then have it be derided as a mere personal opinion. Are there really neutral sources that make sense on a full range of topics (present site excepted)?

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  2. Michael says:

    Are there really neutral sources that make sense on a full range of topics (present site excepted)?

    Reality is always a reliable, neutral source. If you can prove that something logically must be, can prove that is historically has been, or provide a repeatable test to prove that is, then you don’t need anything else.

    Science. It works.

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  3. Steve Plunk says:

    There is no neutral. Everything, everywhere, every time has at least a hint of bias or error to make the search for truth difficult. Even calling a group “non-partisan” misleads readers into thinking there must be unbiased truth emanating from within it.

    The more appropriate way is to let each side of the debate frame the argument in the way they see most fit and battle it out like a court of law with the public being the jury. Not a perfect way of getting the truth but the best we have.

    No disrespect to Michael but science is no panacea. From blood letting to phrenology science has misled us in the past and has the ability to do it in the future.

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  4. Sounds like a variant on the appeal to authority logic error to me, as it still relies on who said or wrote something.

    James, I understand your reluctance to link to studies by Heritage and Cato because they are, as Megan puts it, ideologically driven, but do you have any similar qualms when linking to Yglesias, Drum, et alius, or are they not also ideologically driven?

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  5. Micheal – proof is a lot harder to come by than you imagine. There’s a reason we speak of theories in science (inlcuding relativity and evolution — there, that ought get some people going!) and don’t declare every discovery or repeatable experiment as a law of nature.

    Newtonian mechanics worked very well for a long time, and still does for repeatable experiments at velocities, energy levels and scales you are likely to ever run into, but it turns out it was wrong. For a very long time, I guess Al Gore would have considered the debate over and shouted down that pesky Einstein when he showed up to challenge the accepted science of the day.

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  6. James Joyner says:

    do you have any similar qualms when linking to Yglesias, Drum, et alius, or are they not also ideologically driven?

    No, since I’m not quoting them as authorities on anything but their own opinion. And I’ll quite individual Heritage or Cato authors on the same basis. I haven’t cited Jim Carafano much lately but I respect his work tremendously.

    For that matter, I don’t have any issue with linking to studies by any of these reputable think tanks as a means of launching a discussion or even citing their studies among others in making an argument. It’s just that when I say, “according to the Heritage Foundation…” there’s a large group of readers who automatically — and generally unfairly — dismiss what follows.

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  7. Michael says:

    No disrespect to Michael but science is no panacea. From blood letting to phrenology science has misled us in the past and has the ability to do it in the future.

    Science only misleads people who don’t understand science, or don’t bother to verify what they are told is science. Neither of your examples followed the scientific method, and therefore neither of them were science.

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  8. mannning says:

    Reality is always a reliable, neutral source. If you can prove that something logically must be, can prove that is historically has been, or provide a repeatable test to prove that is, then you don’t need anything else.

    Whose reality, Michael? Everything, every decision, cannot be reduced to mere science and logic, thus your reality is most probably not all that close to anyone else’s.

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  9. Michael says:

    Micheal – proof is a lot harder to come by than you imagine. There’s a reason we speak of theories in science (inlcuding relativity and evolution — there, that ought get some people going!) and don’t declare every discovery or repeatable experiment as a law of nature.

    Yes, because theories and laws are completely different in nature, not varying degrees of the same thing. It is much easier to determine a law of nature than it is to create a theory to explain it.

    Newtonian mechanics worked very well for a long time, and still does for repeatable experiments at velocities, energy levels and scales you are likely to ever run into, but it turns out it was wrong.

    Newton wasn’t wrong! Jesus, why does everybody who wants to dismiss science use this tired old line? Being inaccurate at the extremes means his equations were incomplete, not wrong. Guess what, Einstein’s equations incorporate Newton’s equations, it doesn’t replace them. Einstein no more replaced Newton than our current United States replaced the original 13.

    For a very long time, I guess Al Gore would have considered the debate over and shouted down that pesky Einstein when he showed up to challenge the accepted science of the day.

    A lot of people did shout down Einstein, not because Relativity wasn’t compatible with Newton, but because it wasn’t compatible with Quantum Theory. But then a funny thing happened, they tested Einstein’s theories, and they always came out right. Science, it works bitches.

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  10. mannning says:

    Science only misleads people who don’t understand science, or don’t bother to verify what they are told is science.

    This means that nine-tenths of the people–the majority of the voting public–tend to be mislead by scientists. Something like the Global Warming fiasco, or my favorite example of science gone mad, eugenics.

    It is one thing to be in possession of the right answers, and it is quite another to be able to put them in action via the public or their elected representatives, or, especially, their political parties. So, for example, we still have no solution to the Social Security or Medicare financial problems.

    Politics trumps science!

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  11. Michael, oh never mind.

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  12. Michael says:

    Whose reality, Michael?

    There’s only one, manning.

    This means that nine-tenths of the people–the majority of the voting public–tend to be mislead by scientists.

    Not just by scientists, but also by politicians, religious leaders, superiors as work, spouses, etc. But the actual science, the reality, doesn’t lie.

    Something like the Global Warming fiasco, or my favorite example of science gone mad, eugenics.

    Parts of global warming are pure science, but most of the predictions of doom are not. Eugenics isn’t science at all, it’s policy.

    It is one thing to be in possession of the right answers, and it is quite another to be able to put them in action

    Action is easy, it’s getting people to take the correct actions that is virtually impossible.

    Politics trumps science!

    Far too often.

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  13. mannning says:

    There may be one Reality, but no one to my knowledge has found it! We each perceive our own reality, and can share it only minimally, IMO.
    Ask a Hindu.

    Think tanks are groupie attempts to make sense of a (sub)system of Reality based on their common and basic tenets. They, too, can fail to perceive any Reality writ large, and obviously fail to convince a majority of their grasp of even this (sub)system they propose.

    The concept of neutrality must apply to the political arena in particular, so I find it hard to see how a neutral think tank could penetrate to the core of Reality. You see, many if not most scientists and “thinkers” black out transcendentalism entirely, thereby confining their reality to matter, space and time. It would seem that your reality is of this kind.

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