Greece resurrects blasphemy laws »« Gay scientists isolate gene for Christianity

The difference between think tanks and research universities

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.

Comments

  1. slc1 says

    As I attempted to point out to the somewhat dense olivercrangle on the previous thread, there are vast differences between think tanks. The differences relate to the question as to whether there is a particular political or ideological agenda. Thus, outfits such as the Rand Corporation and the Center for Naval Analysis do not have such an agenda and thus are able to attract a wide range of individuals, some of whom have academic appointments at respectable universities. Others, such as the Heartland Foundation do have such an agenda, such as denying the relationship between cigarette smoking and lung cancer or denying global warming.

    Obviously, the AEI has the agenda of supporting conservative ideology and the agenda of the Rethuglican Party. When David Frum had the temerity to point out that occasionally the emperor had no clothes, he was given the heave ho for not following the company line.

    As for academic agenda enablers, some egregious examples include Richard Lindzen of MIT, and Fred Singer and Pat Michaels of UVA, all of whom push a global warming denial agenda.

  2. smrnda says

    I think a good question anyone should ask of any institution is what sort of agenda it holds; think tanks are often pretty blatant about their bias, and the scholarship I’ve seen from them (mostly my look into pro-deregulated capitalism think tanks) is that their ‘scholarship’ seems like bad undergraduate work – the terms of discussion are set so that the weak points of the position will be less obvious and harder to articulate, and metrics are chosen or excluded to the case that the numbers will make a case.

    I’ve been an academic and a difference is that I did see a plurality of viewpoints (my field was psychology) and there was no top-down agenda (though every university has certain areas of research which they tend to promote more strongly.)

    I think another issue is that even if a person in academia appears to be making a correct conclusion, if their evidence is weak it will be criticized and seriously vetted. In the ‘think tank world,’ the important thing seems to be to flood the world with pieces of paper that promote the agenda, and a weak argument with inadequate facts is better if it’s very-pro-ideology than a better researched but less enthusiastic piece of research.

  3. says

    Ya know SLC1, go fuck yourself. You misread almost everything I wrote, and then you interpreted with extremely partisan blinders. And when this was pointed out, you doubled down on derp. So jump in a lake and fuckoff.

  4. says

    Professor Singham,

    You are clearly more knowledgeable about this than I, but still I have some questions.

    “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. ”

    But that seems belied when I read Paul Krugman, Brad DeLong, and so many others describe the Freshwater Economists versus the Saltwater Economists.

    It seems belied when I heard tenured academic AGW proponents scream about tenured academic AGW skeptics.

    It is also not clear to me that the process of choosing a candidate for a physics position is similar to the process for choosing an economist, or political scientist. Again, I refer to Krugman, et. al., who have aptly described the breakdown and fundamental ignorance of Freshwater Econ Departments.

    I appreciate your post here, and I bet you describe the process fairly at the classical level, but I am not sure that what you write holds true at the quantum level.

    “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. ”

    And it seems you are worried about that yourself.

  5. Mano Singham says

    There is some difference between those disciplines that work within consensus paradigms (usually in the sciences) and those that do not (usually in the humanities and social sciences). The lack of a paradigm can lead to strong disagreements over fundamentals. But even these disagreements are fundamentally based on data and scholarly criteria and played out in the journals and academic conferences, with ideology playing a secondary role. I am not familiar with the Saltwater and Freshwater Economists issue (though the labels are intriguing!) but suspect that they disagree on the appropriate models that are applicable to a given situation.

    I have also long been concerned with the corrupting influence of money in academia, starting with medical research. This is why strong government funding for research (as well as foundations if they award on a peer-reviewed basis) is important if we do not want to risk losing the scholarly independence that has proven so valuable.

  6. Mal Adapted says

    olivercrangle:

    It seems belied when I heard tenured academic AGW proponents scream about tenured academic AGW skeptics.

    Are you revealing your own agenda here?

  7. says

    “I am not familiar with the Saltwater and Freshwater Economists issue (though the labels are intriguing!) but suspect that they disagree on the appropriate models that are applicable to a given situation”

    To hear Krugman and DeLong tell the story, it’s not just a question of differing models, it’s a question of being so blinded, so taken over by ideology, that the famous Ph.Ds of the Freshwater schools have forgotten the basics.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/06/magazine/06Economic-t.html

    “comments from Chicago economists are the product of a Dark Age of macroeconomics in which hard-won knowledge has been forgotten.”

    (Both Krugman and DeLong are Saltwater Economists (Princeton, Berkeley (Go Bears!)), “The Chicago School” is the primary source of Freshwater Economists.)

    It’s possible, and I honestly don’t know how likely, that Paul Krugman might say, well, though I am happy to toss a lot of crap on Freshwater Economists, they are still way better than Thinktank Economists.

    I don’t believe that’s true though, he is very harsh on Freshwater Economists, and yet, there are some highly regarded economists associated with the Economic Policy Institute and at Center for Economic Policy Research that he does work with (I think). Namely, Dean Baker.

    But Dean Baker’s bio at EPI, suggests a revolving door: “Dean Baker formerly was an assistant professor of economics at Bucknell University. He is currently a co-director of the Center for Economic Policy Research (CEPR) in Washington, D.C.”

    And that’s where I, layman, think it’s going, if only for Econ/Poli Sci/History, that is, precisely those fields where Ph.Ds of all stripes seem to love to assert themselves as experts and foist policy changes.

    One of the reasons I find this interesting is in the debate over academic tenure. One reason for tenure is that without tenure, a dissenting voice can be silenced through firing. And while that certainly seems to have been true prior to the web world, it doesn’t seem as true today given the rise of the Internet and the rise of these thinktanks.

    I think you do raise an interesting way to compare one thinktank to another, which might be the various h indicies of its individual authors.

    “I have also long been concerned with the corrupting influence of money in academia, starting with medical research. ”

    And Ioannidis and many others give us great reason to be concerned….

  8. says

    No, I am revealing parts of what I read on the net and how that can be applied.

    I suspect though that your insistence on outing the enemy, labeling, and speech policing does in fact reveal your own agenda, which is to ensure no one can ever safely utter anything you or other FTBers disagree with.

    What’s the hashtag? #FTBbullies

    Good Jorb!

  9. slc1 says

    Of course, the tenured AGW proponents outnumber the tenured AGW deniers by about 50 to 1. If one is going to go up against the consensus, one had better have some good evidence. As Carl Sagan put it, extraordinary claims (e.g. the consensus is all wrong) require extraordinary evidence.

  10. says

    I appreciate your post here, and I bet you describe the process fairly at the classical level, but I am not sure that what you write holds true at the quantum level.

    Well, that’s an interesting way to misuse the words “classical” and “quantum.” Anyway, yeah, he was generalizing, so of course there will be exceptions to such general rules.

    It seems belied when I heard tenured academic AGW proponents scream about tenured academic AGW skeptics.

    If the reputable scientists are protesting a gaggle of idiots, liars, and shameless corporate tools (and AGW denialists have shown themselves to be all three, while all their “science” has been shown to be bogus), then I don’t really see how it “belies” Singham’s overall thesis.

  11. Mal Adapted says

    olivercrangle:

    I suspect though that your insistence on outing the enemy, labeling, and speech policing does in fact reveal your own agenda, which is to ensure no one can ever safely utter anything you or other FTBers disagree with.

    Everyone is free to be wrong on the Internet, free to be called on it, and free to ignore the challenge, double down on their error, lash back in anger, or stick the flounce. Ain’t freedom grand?

  12. Mal Adapted says

    Look, olivercrangle, when you said “I heard tenured academic AGW proponents scream about tenured academic AGW skeptics”, you gave your agenda away. Our host made no mention of AGW until you did, “scream” is obviously a loaded word, and just which tenured academic AGW “proponents” have you heard screaming about tenured academic AGW “skeptics” anyway? Did you really expect not to be challenged?

    I’ll be upfront about my own agenda: I accept the overwhelming evidence (never mind the consensus of 97% of actively working and publishing climate scientists) that global warming is occurring, that human activities are the cause, and that the consequences will be severe for billions of people and most of the other species on earth. Anyone who doesn’t is either:

    Ignorant, of the evidence and usually of science as an institution;
    In active psychological denial, often because they’re afraid they’ll have to change the way they live if they acknowledge reality;
    Lying for ideological or mercenary reasons, like the people working for the think-tanks our host is talking about.

    In the first case, they should be willing to recognize their ignorance and refrain from offering ignorant opinions, or at least not be surprised if they get challenged when they do. In the second and third cases, climate realists have an obligation to challenge them, for the benefit of lurkers who may be ignorant but are at least humble about it.

    You appear to be in the first category, but you’re responsible for what you say regardless. It’s not like there aren’t abundant resources for you to educate yourself, if you look beyond the denier blogs. Meanwhile, the harm caused by AGW denial is already being felt, and the only practical way realists have to counter the deniers is with words. “Bullying”, “policing”, “outing”? Deniers deploy those tactics against honest climate scientists aggressively, as you’d know if you were paying attention. I’m trying to limit the harm your words may cause. Deal with it.

  13. Jay says

    Mano,

    I am not sure you will see this, but I hope you do.

    You may wish to look at

    http://blogs.cgdev.org/globaldevelopment/2013/01/an-index-of-think-tank-profile.php which includes “Scholarly citations” per $million of expenses.

    based on work done here

    Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program
    International Relations Program, University of Pennsylvania
    http://www.gotothinktank.com/

    It may give you new perspectives on think tanks. (I have not looked at it, I am busy netflixing this evening).

    I would find it interesting to hear a debate between you and someone from the U of P, or perhaps from Nick Rosenkranz who blogged a bit about it here: http://www.volokh.com/2013/01/20/ranking-think-tanks/

    I do find it interesting, and of value, that a university program studies think tanks, for better or worse, they are a huge force in society. I hope the research into think tanks is sound and I would love to know your perspective on it.

    Thanks!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>