The Double Opacity of Think Tanks

Guest blogger Thomas Medvetz asks whether the growing role of think tanks as providers of policy expertise may have serious drawbacks. Transparify does not edit the content of guest blogs; the views expressed in this blog are those of the author alone, and may not reflect the views of Transparify.

What role do think tanks play in advanced democratic societies? Among observers of contemporary politics, few questions have generated a more polarized set of responses. On the one side are the many journalists, scholars, and other commentators who have described think tanks in celebratory terms—often by portraying them as emissaries of scientific reason in political affairs. On this view, think tanks should be applauded for their role in offering sound advice to policy-makers, and more broadly, for spanning the divide between intellectual and political institutions.

Of course, not everyone agrees with this assessment. Over the last four decades, a large body of critical research and writing has depicted think tanks not as advocates of science or reason, but as weapons in a political struggle dominated by moneyed sponsors. Those who have advanced this view have argued that think tanks operate as the organizational machinery of elites, a cluster of “mercenary” groups engaged in “deep lobbying” practices on behalf of their sponsors. If think tanks project the image of intellectualism, these critics argue, then it is only as a veneer for a new kind of political claims-making that tends to reinforce and mask inequalities of power.

Stepping back from this polarized debate, we can see that it is based on a false choice: either think tanks are “truly” intellectual organizations, or they are “really” agents of anti-intellectualism, and possibly anti-democratic in character. Yet neither hypothesis must be true in any general sense. There is nothing built into the form of a think tank that determines what kind of social, political, or intellectual role it will play. In fact, the organizations that currently exist under this moniker are so varied in their aims, affiliations, and intellectual products that they are better thought of as a nebulous array of groups, not as members of a distinct category. (On this note, it is enough to point out that more than three decades of academic research on the topic has failed to yield even a clear or agreed-upon definition of a think tank.)

Only by recasting the discussion, then, can we shed new light on the question of the think tank’s social role. Rather than search in vain for a fixed think tank “essence,” we are better off examining the institutional ecology in which they are embedded along with all those who seek to contribute knowledge and ideas to policy debate. What are the “rules” of this system? What determines who wins or loses in the competition to supply “relevant” policy-oriented knowledge? The prominence of think tanks in this competition has led to growing calls for greater financial transparency among them—including those of Transparify and the recent statements by Senator Elizabeth Warren. These are welcome calls because they speak to one of the central questions about the workings of the knowledge-policy nexus in the U.S.: does money direct the production of ideas, or are the idea-producers free to direct their own thought?

Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that the focus on financial transparency is incomplete in two ways. First, money is not the only form of power that can undermine a think tank’s ability or desire to promote rigorous scientific knowledge. Another impediment is the growing professional power of “policy experts”—the new breed of specialists in rhetoric and advice, of which think tanks are the main incubators. To the degree that policy experts have developed a professional identity of their own, distinct from other intellectuals, it is an identity based on skill and savvy in “selling” arguments to politicians, journalists, and funders. To excel in the world of think tanks, after all, typically means supplying “useful” rhetoric and advice to politicians and journalists—by adhering to the distinctive rhythms, languages, norms, and boundaries of policy battles; anticipating which issues will become “hot” months in advance; and always being ready with a quotable “sound bite.” Even in the absence of financial constraint, then, the need to serve one’s clients can push scientific rigor to the backseat.

This point leads to the second reason why calls for financial transparency among think tanks are good—but not good enough. Financial transparency relates to the production of intellectual goods by think tanks. But we should also seek greater transparency regarding their consumption. Ezra Klein’s recent Bloomberg View article, “The Real Reason Nobody Reads Academics”—written in response to the outcry over Nicolas Kristof’s February 15 New York Times column on the public irrelevance of American professors—speaks to this concern. Klein argues that the “real problem” with the relationship between scholars and journalists “is that the primary system for disseminating academic research”—especially academic journals—“doesn’t work for anyone but academics.”

Klein’s piece is a useful entry into what I hope will become a more robust dialog about the criteria journalists and politicians use to decide which forms of knowledge are “relevant” to political debate, and which are irrelevant. However, in placing the blame squarely on the system of academic publishing, he overlooks what is actually the more significant recent development shaping the relationship between scholars and journalists: the growth of a cottage industry in professional “policy expertise” centered in the world of think tanks.

Shifting the focus to think tanks and their rapid-fire production of talking points, policy memoranda, and punditry raises a new set of questions:

  • Has the growth of think tanks led to an over-valorization of “timely” proclamations, irrespective of their scientific validity, and of polished sound bites and legislative testimony, regardless of how rigorous their claims may be?
  • How do journalists and politicians assess the value of the policy-oriented knowledge available to them?
  • Has convenience displaced credibility in this process?

More broadly, in a public sphere saturated with knowledge-producers of various kinds, who is the dominant “policy expert” in America today? Is it the bearer of scientific knowledge, or the expert whose forte is lending the stamp of scientific credence to policy ideas that originate in the minds of political and economic decision-makers?

Thomas Medvetz is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of California, San Diego. He has published widely on think tanks and is the author of the 2012 book “Think Tanks in America”.