Arnold Kling  

How I Feel About Think Tanks

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Among many posts, Virginia Postrel writes,


Think tanks, unlike universities, are supposed to influence public policy, not to produce knowledge for its own sake.

This discussion started with Daniel Drezner, and continued in other places. You might catch up by reading Tyler's post and working backward.

Let me start with an emotional reaction. I am sure that Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong would like to see think tanks shut down. It would mean less dissent from their version of intellectual virtue and purity.

I'm also not convinced that university research is all it's cracked up to be. I see an increasing trend toward important books being written by non-academics, including Postrel. See this list, which I chose based on their importance and relevance. It includes some books by academics, but also some books by others.

I think that in the case of economics, the academy has been more or less hijacked by mathematicians who want economics to masquerade as engineering. There are signs that their influence is waning--recent recipients of the Clark medals might be an encouraging indicator--but they still control the curriculum at the top Ph.D programs.

At a personal level, I believe very strongly that the many years I spent out of academia do not make me a weaker economist. On the contrary, I believe that I have acquired a ground-level perspective that has enhanced my understanding of the economy.

My bottom line is that I believe that research, policy papers, and op-eds can be judged on their merits. I take strong exception to any attempt to automatically qualify a piece of work as superior just because it came from a university. If I come across an interesting finding on a topic outside of my area of expertise, I want to see other experts discuss the research behind the finding--not give me ad hominem arguments about the author and his or her institutional affiliation.


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TRACKBACKS (15 to date)
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The author at Daniel W. Drezner in a related article titled Think tanks and the media writes:
    A week ago I posted some (half-formed) thoughts on think tanks. There have been a few responses. Virginia Postrel has been all over this -- triggering responses from Fabio Rojas, Tim Kane, and Will Wilkinson. All three observe that think... [Tracked on September 19, 2005 4:13 PM]
The author at Juan Freire in a related article titled ¿Acabarán los blogs con los think tanks? writes:
    EEUU es la tierra prometida de los think tanks. Los hay de todo tipo y condición. Ahora, algunos bloggers de referencia americanos han discutido la relevancia y necesidad de los think tanks. Por hacer una síntesis rápida, las opiniones oscilan [Tracked on September 19, 2005 7:31 PM]
The author at De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum in a related article titled ONGs podem melhorar a qualidade de suas críticas writes:
    Think Tanks (ONGs) e Academia são diferentes. Certamente que o são. Mas isto não impede que publicações das primeiras sejam tão boas quanto as acadêmicas. Claro, isto é o que diz Arnold Kling para sua realidade norte-americana. Agora, no Brasil... [Tracked on September 20, 2005 5:53 AM]
The author at Dynamist Blog in a related article titled Think Tanks Cont'd writes:
    Dan Drezner has more, including an on-target comment about TV booking from Bruce Bartlett. Arnold Kling weighs in here, with numerous reader comments. Tim Sandefur, like other readers, defends think tanks on the grounds that they're no worse, and perha... [Tracked on September 20, 2005 8:40 AM]
The author at Blog: The (e)State of Tim in a related article titled What value wonkery? US think tanks writes:
    TITLE: What value wonkery? US think tanks URL: http://tim.hicks.me.uk/blog/archive/2005/10/13/what-value-wonkery-us-think-tanks IP: 217.172.33.58 BLOG NAME: Blog: The (e)State of Tim DATE: 10/13/2005 11:18:36 AM [Tracked on October 13, 2005 11:18 AM]
COMMENTS (15 to date)
GT writes:

I see no evidence Krugman or DeLong want think tanks shut down.

I think what they want is that people understand that much of think tank 'research' is pretty crappy and has never (and probably will never) be peer reviewed

Brookings is a very good think tank that publishes well-regarded research. Others are not so good.

I've met some of the researchers at Heritage. To say they are lacking is quite the understatement.

Fazal Majid writes:
Let me start with an emotional reaction. I am sure that Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong would like to see think tanks shut down. It would mean less dissent from their version of intellectual virtue and purity.

Tsk, tsk, tsk, Arnold, isn't that a type M argument?

I would say the main problem with economics today is a lack of intellectual honesty, sometimes verging towards the mercenary. Think tanks are of course not the only ones exhibiting this problem, as most of them are created to further a specific agenda, and will "fix" the research to support the agenda. This does not mean, of course, that liberal cliques within the safe confines of academia are devoid of agenda. As economics touches on public policy and private interests, this conflict is unavoidable.

In comparison, mathematical formalists, while obfuscating rather than illuminating the issues, seem positively innocuous.

Robert Schwartz writes:

I don't know why anybody in the universities is so proud of themselves. As near as I can tell all they turn out is doctrinal gibberish with lots of footnotes. A lot of taxpayers would be happy to hear about a paln to cut them loose.

David Thomson writes:

“I'm also not convinced that university research is all it's cracked up to be.”

It is very difficult not to be an intellectual slut in the university milieu. The Ph.D. is sometimes nothing more than proof that the recipient is a whore. This should not surprise anyone. And it gets even worse if someone is trying to “earn” a tenured position. Conformity is normally rewarded and non-deliberate iconoclasm punished. When has this not been the case?

David Thomson writes:

“I'm also not convinced that university research is all it's cracked up to be.”

It is very difficult not to be an intellectual slut in the university milieu. The Ph.D. is sometimes nothing more than proof that the recipient is a whore. This should not surprise anyone. And it gets even worse if someone is trying to “earn” a tenured position. Conformity is normally rewarded and non-deliberate iconoclasm punished. When has this not been the case?

spencer writes:

It is so easy to "bias" economic research to get the results you want that to me the difference between think tanks, business economists and academic economists is to look for the bias.
MY initial reaction to the three types of research is to assume the think tank reserch has been designed to produce the desired results. Consequently, the first time I look at it I seek what they did or omitted to achieve the desired results. While with business and academic research I am more inclined to take the results at face value and think about how it may change how I approach a subject.

I'm sure more and more people look at think tank research in this way and so the ability of it to influence policy, their objective, is self limited by the bias inherent in the process.

Adam writes:

Spencer: I think it would be best to assume that all forms of research are tainted in some way by bias. I believe that every argument should be taken on its merits--but that doesn't mean you have to agree with it or assume that it is objective. Your counterargument can be made on the merits and still poke at the weak points in the arguments where facts may have been slanted or given without proper context in order to fit them into the point being made.

I believe it's important to not allow any sort of prejudice against the person or group making an argument to hinder our ability to have a discussion as equals.

Anon writes:

As a former think tanker, I'm sad to say that much of Postrel's comments are correct. There are problems with think tanks on both ends of the spectrium. but the problem on the right is that they're overtly ideological as a response to the leftist bias of existing think tanks (say, Brookings). In other words, ideology is clearly the subtext at liberal think tanks, but it's right on the masthead at conservative ones. When you say "We are the conservative/libertarian alternative to Brookings" it's very unlikely you'll come out with non-conservative/libertarian findings, even if the evidence points that way. Despite the clear liberal bias at a place like Brookings, you're more likely to find one of their analysts endorsing school vouchers, welfare reform, Social Security accounts, etc. than you are to find a conservative think tank analyst opposing them. When you wear your ideology on your sleeve it's too often the thing that directs your pen as you write. It's my hope that as conservative think tanks mature they'll be more open to conflicting research rather than simply promoting a "brand name."

Bernard Yomtov writes:

Postrel nails it. Many think tanks simply turn out ideological crap to satisfy their sponsors. Even if they do occasionally produce something worthwhile, it will be discounted because the organization lacks credibility.

The big advantage of university research, to the extent I am familiar with the process, is not that the researchrs are free of biases, but that the work is subject to a long sequence of review and criticism, including presentation at seminars, etc., even before the journal submissions and peer reviews. This makes it much less likely that the sort of incompetent ideological "research" that think tanks churn out will find its way into print.

This is not to say that non-university affiliated individuals have nothing worthwhile to contribute, But when they begin with the explicit objective of promoting a specific ideology, like Cato, and have little in the way of a review process, then it is foolish to expect much more than dressed up propaganda.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

I think the problem is that economists in academia often do not want to suggest political strategies to achieve economic reforms because they feel it is to "unpure" or "dirty." Equations rarely break up friendships.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of sociologists, physicists, political scientists, pharmacists, doctors, and just plain idiots who, unburdened by a knowledge of economics, feel free to suggest political strategies to wreck economies.

Barkley Rosser writes:

I doubt that either DeLong or Krugman want all think tanks dumped as I think both have published in Brookings Papers on Economic Activity. There are also think tanks to the left of Brookings, such as the Economic Policy Institute and the Institute for Policy Studies, although I don't think this latter one does much economics. However, these days it is clearly the case that the ones on the right have a lot more money than the ones on the left, either moderate or less so,
and certainly much more access to and influence with people currently in power.

Chris Bolts writes:

The problem with economics is that everyone seems to think they know a little bit about the field when in reality they don't know much. Economics is one of the few fields that can be corrupted and bent to meet someone's ideological ends and it is hard to decipher what is truth and what is not (after all, there is no physical way to test an economic hypothesis).

Another thing to remember about think tanks is that most were created to offset the overtly liberal bias that exists on college campuses. So although the think tanks on the right have much more money than think tanks on the left, the left has an entire establishment where they get to pander their views and ideologies on thousands of youth. There's no way that conservative think tanks can compete with that.

[quote]It's my hope that as conservative think tanks mature they'll be more open to conflicting research rather than simply promoting a "brand name."[/quote]

The left has had almost 100 years to see whether any of their ideas from public schooling all the way to eradicating poverty yield any fruit. Since the right is coming up with new ideas to counteract the left's influence, it is the left I hope will become more open to conflicting ideas.

Alex Roberts writes:
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A think tank is an organization that invents disinterested intellectual justifications for the policies of the corporate groups that fund it. - John Ralston Saul
Robert Schwartz writes:

"A think tank is an organization that invents disinterested intellectual justifications for the policies of the corporate groups that fund it. - John Ralston Saul"

And a university is an organization that invents disinterested intellectual justifications for the policies of the tenured faculty, who would otherwise be asking the important questions in life -- like: "Do you want fries with that?"

Mark writes:

My bottom line is that I believe that research, policy papers, and op-eds can be judged on their merits. I take strong exception to any attempt to automatically qualify a piece of work as superior just because it came from a university.

My bottom line is that I know that the peer-review process acts as a fairly reliable filter to ensure that research in academic journals or published by university presses--at least in the social sciences--can be counted on to meet a certain standard of quality. There are sometimes slip-up's, like Feldstein's famously flawed Social Security paper from the 1970's, but history tells me that the academic research process will uncover them pretty quickly (as the Bellesiles and Lott cases also prove).

On the other hand, I have read enough of the research put out by the likes of Cato/AEI/Heritage/etc. to know that a great deal of it is so sloppy that it would never, ever pass muster via the peer review process (names like Charles Murray and Robert Rector come instantly to mind). The evident inference to be drawn is that the bar for getting things published at these institutions is set far, far lower than the bar for peer-reviewed publications.

It may be the case that there are isolated individuals at these institutions who have sufficiently high personal standards that, even though they face no institutional pressure to produce good-quality work, their internal standards drive them to do so. But I am a very busy person, with only a finite amount of time to keep up on academic research, and I cannot afford the time it would take to wade through mounds of junk social science to find the rare piece of valid research.

So, I have a rational decision rule to ignore any claims made by Cato/AEI/Heritage and their ilk until and unless such claims are published in peer-reviewed publications.

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