What Good Are Think Tanks If Only Partisans Will Believe Them?

Better to be blind than to be proven wrong?

Better to be blind than to be proven wrong?

As you probably have heard, the conservative Heritage Foundation, one of the most venerable think tanks, now overseen by former GOP Senator Jim DeMint, has released a report showing that the proposed immigration reform will cost over 6 trillion dollars. Naturally, no non-conservatives are treating it as anything other than a partisan document and a biased study. The same thing happens regularly when the Urban Institute or Brookings puts out a study, though the press, being tilted the same way, tends to treat these with more deference.

This is one more horrible way that bias makes truth-seeking difficult if not impossible. Ideally and logically, all think tanks and research institutions, not to mention the researchers themselves, should be objective. But donors, as they say in professional fundraising, give for their reasons, not yours, and when enough of your funding comes from  those with allied interests, their reasons inevitably become your interests. An American Enterprise Institute study that supported a liberal policy objective, like eliminating the capital gains discount, would have immediate credibility. It would also probably be suicidal. Thus the only think tank likely to examine the issue and show that capital gains should be taxed at regular rates would be one supported by George Soros or others like him…and for that reason, capable of influencing nobody.

If a Heritage study was regarded as reliable and objective on the topic of immigration, a conclusion like the one its current study reaches would have to be taken into consideration. The U.S. is already in dangerously deep debt, and can’t seem to stop the red ink bleeding. An additional 6 trillion dollars…in addition to essential infrastructure repairs and unforeseen exigencies …might have the U.S. gorging on moussaka before we could shout, “Opa!” But those who believe the Heritage study are the same partisans who don’t want immigration reform anyway, and those who see Heritage as the opposition’s bought and paid stooge won’t pay attention to the study’s conclusions even if it was a superb piece of objective research. Maybe it is. With so much distrust and presumption of bias, it doesn’t matter if it is or not.

When nobody is trusted to be capable of putting aside self-interest and bias, then objective truth is going to be elusive, and without objective truth, all that is left is blind and biased opponents, fighting over which flawed “facts” and the equally flawed opinions they bolster will carry the day. This means that all decision-makers are operating without the best possible  information, because there is no way to determine what the best information is.

That’s what bias and the presumption of bias is doing to the United States. One would think that the consequences are sufficiently obvious that wealthy partisans on both sides would band together and donate their money to research institutions that are pledged to objectivity, and whose studies show it. That, however, would require being willing to be proven wrong.

Everyone is biased against that.


Source: Politico

15 thoughts on “What Good Are Think Tanks If Only Partisans Will Believe Them?

  1. jack, please excuse my request as it might be a bit off topic. As a former social studies teacher, with a wandering mind, I’ve asked myself why political ideology creates such conflict among people. Where is the truth? Is it the blind men feeling different parts of the elephant? Is it asking the wrong questions? My own liberal, university professor parents are icons of tolerance and love…they only hate conservatives.:) the biggest (rarely mentioned) reason I have for this discord goes back to the ego and the investment politically minded folks put into their ideology. If you’ve started to see a pattern in a complex, multidimensional topic, it is simply our nature to continue to refine and process and associate with those who see it “your way.”

    I see some of this as rooted in clannish, primitive instincts and is anything but open minded. My questions are how can you ask someone to emotionally divest themselves from this paradigm if they’ve put in such an investment of time? Seems like doing so is akin to asking someone to give up their heartfelt religion of fifty years (and explains zealotry to some degree). Do you have a recommendation for any reading on the topics I’ve touched on? I’d like to know more about this.

    • “Liberals love everybody, except conservatives.” It’s a line from a poem of mine. Unpublished, of course. Hah! I love it.

      The conept of “think tanks” always puzzled me. You get paid to sit around and think once you’ve gotten an Ivy League Ph.D? And the idea of either a “conservative think tank” or a “liberal think tank” is even more preposterous. Why not call them “paid political consultants with graduate degrees in something other than ‘political science,'” (Whatever “political science” means, other than “how to get elected.”)

      But, to answer your question Jack, the two party system has nothing to do with establishing the truth. It’s just “you say tomato, I’ll say tomahto.” Works better than using AK-47s to decide who takes charge every time the warlord dies. And besides, congressmen haven’t taken canes to eachother on the floor of the House since before the Civil War, have they?

        • Okay, maybe. But I think we too often fall into the Chicken Little trap of thinking “things are terrible and they’re getting worse fast and they didn’t used to be this way, oh my!” Which in itself can be very counter-productive and emotional without having much benefit. Isn’t all politics about allocating power in the society? And isn’t that, at heart, a sometimes ugly and brutal process, despite the glossy cover put on it by having terribly civilized institutions (at least in name) such as “think tanks?”

          • You asked “What good are think tanks?” In short, my answer was, and remains, “not much.” If you ask questions, why berate people for giving answers?

            • This is an ethics blog, and unethical answers will always be called out. (You weren’t “berated.”) I realize that Part #1 of your answer was serious, and Part #2 was tongue in cheek, but too many people use that logic (“Hey! At least nobody was killed!”) seriously and regularly. I am honor bound to flag it and deride it whenever and however it arises.

              • But during our lifetimes hasn’t the US become an un-alloyed democracy rather than a republic. When I was a kid, I thought people were elected to go to our respecitve capitals and then make the most sound decisions they could for the betterment of the people who elected them. A republic, I think. Now, with polls (themselves biased), elected officials simply do what the polls, the majority, tell them. There’s simply no interest in finding the best solution or real facts. All one needs to do is govern the way the polls say people want you to. This is ghastly, and the media think it is just peachy. But it’s terrible and will likely lead to catastrophe. But do you really see this trend being reversed? Even if it’s wrong? I think my AK-47 comment is indicative of despair but perhaps reflects current reality. Sure, it smacks of that great thinker Cedric the Entertainer’s “It ain’t so bad,” but isn’t this an intractible problem? Do you really think it can be addressed by simply calling attention to it?

                  • You’re a better man than I.

                    Question: Are “non-ethical considerations” out of bounds on this blog? I think they’re germain and often introduce them. But doing so seems to lead to me having the “This is an ethics blog!” flag thrown at me.

                    • Of course non-ethical considerations are relevant. I would not want to suggest otherwise. They are germane. On the previous exchange, I mistook irony for assertion, which was my mistake. I really, really dislike “it’s OK because it could have been worse” arguments.

    • I’m sure there are a thousand books on this topic, but I see it as simple human nature. The world and life in it is frighteningly unpredictable and complex, so as a matter of survival we gravitate to a system, a world view, a philosophy, a leader or a template to give us the illusion of order and control. Ideas, events, facts and powerful advocates who challenge the weaknesses, gaps and inadequacies in those tools create real threats, and our natural reaction is to fight them off rather than give them due respect. There are rare individuals who remain truly open to new data and ideas, and are willing and even eager to be proven wrong. It is incredibly difficult, but those are the few who we should try to emulate.

  2. One way to get to the truth is by doing a survey. If the data is reliable other studies should be able to replicate or verify it.

  3. Hmm, did they address or list the costs of the current system which has big flaws too? Wouldn’t making illegals taxpayers help? Aren’t there ways to fix it incrementally?

    Why are things all or nothing?

  4. “In God We Trust, All Others Must Show Data”

    If the press would just publish the math and the reasoning, and people could debate the flaws in the reasoning, correct them, recalculate, then we could get to an honest figure. This is how things (usually) work in science. You have to show your work, then give it to your adversary and let them critique it. You don’t get to publish until you have satisfactorily satisfied their complaints. It’s called peer-review.

    Here’s an example:

    At large schools, college professors may teach in classes of 600 students (with 1 class/semester).
    This also requires TA’s to teach sections of, say 20 in labs or recitations. Each TA teaches 2 sections. This requires a professor and 15 TA’s to teach such a class (4 credit hours). This is 4800 Student credit hours (SCH) a year (2 classes) and is equivalent to 150 students going to college full time (32 credits/year).

    If the professor is paid $100,000 and each of the TA’s is paid $25,000, this works out to $475,000 in employee costs. This works out to $3200/student a year in the actual cost of paying for faculty and other instructors at a large university. Between state subsidy, tuition, and fees, the average large state university is being funded at $25,000-$35,000/student each year. This means that paying the actual instructors accounts for only ~10% of the cost of college today. It therefore makes little sense to focus on reducing the number of instructors to cut college costs since the current state is 10% instruction costs/90% overhead. Perhaps we should start looking at the overhead.

    Open for critique.

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