My post yesterday on the rise of the ideological think tanks and their pernicious influence on high levels of government policy produced some interesting discussion in the comments, with some wondering if I was implying that academics were somehow smarter, wiser, more experienced, even nobler than the people in think tanks, and that discussion prompted this follow-up post.
It is usually a mistake to look first at the character of individuals when trying to understand how institutions operate. As Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman analyzed in their masterful 1988 book on the media Manufacturing Consent (which I reviewed here and here), an institution is best studied by looking at their goals, how they are structured, the kinds of filters that operate in recruitment and promotion, and the incentive structures they put in place. Those factors will largely determine the kinds of people who are drawn to them and who rise to positions of power within them.
While Roger Ailes attained his position as head of Fox News because of the kind of person he is, Fox News is not what it is because of Ailes’s personal attributes. If he left, someone with similar values would take his place though some superficial aspects would change. The same is true for the New York Times, CNN, and NPR. To understand them, one must understand their structure and how they operate.
So do think tanks and research universities differ in their structure? It turns out that they do in almost every important way, although their superficial similarities may fool the casual observer into thinking they are similar. This is because think tanks were carefully designed to precisely sow such confusion in the public mind, as I pointed out in my 2008 series on the rise of the propaganda machine.
When it comes to goals, those of a university are primarily to generate, store, and transmit reliable knowledge. When it comes to recruitment and promotion of their people, universities usually go through a roughly year-long process of evaluating candidates. It is a time-consuming process as committees seek to find those with the scholarly attributes that will enable them to make a mark in their field. Letters are sought from far and wide from people in their field. In this process, the person’s ideology plays almost no role. Surprisingly, their specific views within even their own field may be of marginal importance. A university physics department may decide that they want a theoretical cosmologist because they think that that field is going to be important in the future. The person they seek will be one whom they think will make the biggest impact on the field and they will usually not care as much about the particular cosmological theories that the person espouses.
The same somewhat tedious and time-consuming process recurs when academics seek promotion, with the added requirement that to become a full professor one has to show that one is a leader in the field with a national and international reputation. This has to be supported with evidence in the form of testimonials from recognized leaders in the field, extensive publications in highly-regarded journals, being invited speaker at major technical conferences, holding editorships in important journals, being invited to serve on major professional bodies, acquiring research grants from major funding agencies, and so on.
It may surprise outsiders that writing popular books, being on TV, writing op-eds and magazine articles and the like count for almost nothing. They may add a certain cachet to the candidate’s resume if all the other elements are in place, but if the basic elements are not there this will be seen as an actual negative, that the person is a dilettante who is neglecting serious scholarly work in order to pursue notoriety. Some academics, like Paul Krugman, may be able to parlay their serious academic reputation into media success as a public intellectual but the reverse, of a media celebrity being taken seriously as an academic, almost never occurs though some universities occasionally hire a ‘star’ in order to increase their visibility. Many of the faculty in those universities almost always detest that practice and vigorously protest it. Witness the faculty revolt when the Baylor University president unilaterally hired intelligent design advocate William Dembski.
The result of all these filters is that university academics prize their reputations as scholars among their peers more highly than anything else, and that reputation is achieved almost exclusively by serious scholarly work. This will inevitably color the kinds of people who are drawn to research universities and the kind of work they do.
This is in complete contrast to how most ideological think tanks have been designed and how they work. Their goal is the advancement of specific political objectives. The people they hire and promote will be those they think will promote their agenda most effectively. Gaining access to people in high levels of government and business is considered a huge plus. Becoming highly visible in the media is a great career move. But publishing in peer-reviewed scholarly journals is not required. Is it any surprise that the kinds of people drawn to such institutions and the kind of work they do is so different from that of a research university? Those differences have little to do with smartness or any other individual differences.
Not all think tanks are bad. Nor are all the people in them incompetent or hacks. There are some good institutions and some good people in some of them and they can produce good quality analyses on occasion. One needs to look at their structure and operational practices in order to make judgments. Conversely there are charlatans and ideologues in academia. But the difference is that their work in scholarly journals do get scrutinized at least somewhat by their peers before they get published and it takes some effort and ability and integrity to become respected by one’s peers.
The output of think tanks does not receive the same level of scrutiny as in academia and the basis of their hiring and promotion is nowhere near as rigorous. But more importantly, one is rarely hired in academia to push an agenda and one has considerable freedom to say what one thinks. And once they have tenure, academics are loathe to give up the intellectual independence that comes with it. They can take an unpopular academic position or even reverse their own position with no repercussions. Paul Krugman can tomorrow become a Tea Party supporter without fear of losing his job. In the case of a think tank, you are hired because they think you will advance their agenda and your position is always contingent on your performance and you stray at your peril. Witness how David Frum summarily lost his position at the AEI once he started criticizing some aspects of the Republican party.
One of the most pernicious aspects of the think tank phenomenon is that it has infected academia too, with some academics realizing that they can join the gravy train by emulating the think-tankers, and deciding that they want to be primarily media personalities pushing an agenda and neglecting their academic work. Historian Niall Ferguson is a case in point. Cornel West also has been criticized from spending more time appearing on TV and radio than doing scholarly work.
But even with those deviations, the fact remains that research universities and think tanks are vastly different organizations structurally, thus attracting different kinds of people and producing different kinds of research.