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.