On “think tanks”

RAND is a think tank.
Heritage is a PR operation.
Is it so hard to tell the difference?

A question, in the wake of the latest Heritage Foundation scandal (part of a pattern unearthed by Tom Edsall more than a year ago):

Is there any hope of getting the press to distinguish between (1) the original “think tank” &#8212 the RAND Corporation &#8212 and comparably respectable universities-without-students (Brookings, the Urban Institute) where real social scientists (and real natural scientists, engineers, mathematicians, historians, and policy analysts) do real research and analysis looking for real answers to real questions and (2) faux “think tanks” (Heritage, Cato, the Institute for Policy Studies, the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse) set up for the purpose of providing “studies” in support of pre-determined ideological points?

The distinction isn’t hard to make. If you have to read the report to know the conclusion, it’s a real think tank. If you know the conclusion as soon as you know the topic and where it was written, you’re dealing with a phony. (And yes, that’s precisely like the distinction between an actual news outlet and Fox News or the Washington Times.)

So is there any hope of getting to the press to stop calling Heritage and its ilk “think tanks”?

No, I didn’t think so. But it never hurts to ask.

Hat tips: Matt Yglesias, via Atrios.

Update Kevin Drum thinks the press won’t stop calling phony think tanks “think tanks” until someone comes up with a non-derogratory phrase to describe such organizations. I’d propose “advocacy organization” or even “advocacy research organization,” usually with a word picking out the focus of the advocacy: e.g., “the Heritage Foundation, a conservative advocacy organization,” or “Friends of the Earth, an environtmental advocacy organization.”

Second update Max Sawicky points out that there are competent people doing good work for advocacy groups, and accuses me of confusing centrism with objectivity. Of course he’s right that not all product coming out of advocacy groups is tainted: Doug Besharov does terrific work at AEI, even though John Lott is also allowed to hang his hat there. But AEI didn’t hire Besharov as the best welfare thinker around &#8212 though he may be precisely that &#8212 but as the best conservative welfare thinker around. If Besharov became an advocate of massive income redistribution, he’d have to find another place to work, because advocating massive income redistribution is not what AEI does.

That’s the distinction I was trying to make. A real think tank such as RAND or the Urban Institute, just like a university, would be delighted to have a scholar of Besharov’s quality around, no matter what conclusions he reached. A phony think tank will tolerate a real scholar, but only if his conclusions fit the organization’s preconceptions.

Centrism has nothing to do with it. The Progressive Policy Institute, the DLC’s “research” arm, is about as “centrist” as it could be, and puts out some stuff I agree with, but no one should confuse it with a genuine research enterprise. George Mason University is a center of conservative thought, but no professor there is going to get fired for expressing inappropriately liberal ideas.

Max is right that “everyone has an ideology.” But not everyone gives preference to ideology over analysis when the two clash. No one succeeds in being perfectly objective. But there’s a difference between trying and not trying.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com