The propaganda machine-8: The difference between academia and think tanks

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The right-wing think tanks are awash in money since there are many wealthy business people eager to portray themselves in a positive light. A lot of them channel their contributions to the think tanks through conservative foundations.

In the previous post in this series, I argued that one function of ‘think tanks’ is to serve specific business interests by muddying the waters about (say) whether tobacco smoking causes cancer or whether global warming is a problem. But over and above all these specific issues, one key goal is to persuade the public that the media and academia have a pervasive liberal bias, and the strategy for doing that is repeating that message over and over again.

And this strategy seems to be working. As Robert McChesney says in his book The Problem of the Media (2003), “One study of press coverage between 1992 and 2002 finds that references to the liberal bias of the news media outnumber references to a conservative bias by a factor of more than 17 to 1.” (p. 113) As a result, “a 2003 Gallup poll found that 45% of Americans thought the news media were “too liberal,” while only 15% found them “too conservative.” (p. 114) . . . Punditry and commentary provided by corporate-owned news media almost unfailingly ranges from center to right. According to Editor & Publisher, the four most widely syndicated political columnists in the United States speak from the Right. TV news runs from pro-business centrist to rabidly pro-business right, and most newspaper journalism is only a bit broader. Perhaps most important, the explicitly right-wing media are now strong enough and incessant enough to push stories until they are covered by more centrist mainstream media.” (p. 115). A survey in 2003 “showed that 22 percent of Americans considered talk radio their primary source for news, double the figure for 1998.” (p. 116)

It is in the creation of that kind of environment that the shoddy scholarship produced by the think tanks can survive scrutiny. For example, if one points out, as many academics did the travesty of scholarship that was Charles Murray’s and Richard Herrnstein’s The Bell Curve (see for example, The Bell Curve Wars: Race, Intelligence, and the Future of America, Steve Fraser, (Ed.), 1995), the substantive criticisms can be ignored by dismissing the critics as merely operating from a liberal bias.

There is a crucial difference between the papers and books produced by academic scholars and those produced by the people in think tanks. Scholars in universities have to publish papers in peer-reviewed journals. The academic presses that usually publish their books also send the manuscripts out for peer review. This imposes some major hurdles on getting one’s words into print. One has to do real research, get data, construct coherent theories, and make arguments that are reality-based and defensible. This does not mean that the research publications are always right. One can easily find any number of examples of peer-reviewed publications that have subsequently been shown to be wrong. But such papers, whatever their faults and even if they are wrong, have to be grounded in reality. One cannot simply shoot off one’s mouth or manufacture conclusions out of whole cloth.

When the accusation is made that universities are ‘liberally biased’, that is misleading. Contrary to the criticisms that university academics live in an ivory tower that is far removed from the real world, the research done in universities has to be based on reality and is thus more accurately described as ‘reality biased’. But, as Stephen Colbert said in his brilliant speech at the White House Correspondents Association dinner, “Reality has a well-known liberal bias.”

But while academic scholars are restricted by reality, the rules of operation of their disciplines, and their research protocols, they are not restricted in what their conclusions are. If I do good research and find a result that goes counter to the dominant ideas in my field, I am not banished or dismissed from my job for publishing it. In fact, if my results are replicated by others and seem to hold up, that could be my ticket to major advancement in my career.

But the pseudo-scholars in think tanks are under no such constraints as academic rigor in their methods. In fact, the situation for them is exactly reversed from that of academics. They are constrained by their conclusions but not by their methods. Their conclusions are largely pre-ordained because, since they work for institutions that (unlike universities) are pursuing a specific agenda, they have to say what their paymasters want them to say, but they are free to make any crackpot arguments they wish in support of their conclusions.

POST SCRIPT: Flying penguins?

I came across this item yesterday.


  1. Dan K says

    I can’t help but feel that penguin video is fake… If it is they still did a good job making it look real.

  2. Erin says

    Mano, I think the picture you draw of academia is a little rosier than the reality. Sure, if you’re a tenured professor you can say whatever the heck you want (as long as it does not too greatly contravene contemporary social mores). But people are people and regardless of who’s employing them, they want to get to the next carrot, whatever it is. Maybe you’re a PhD student or a postdoc in a lab led by a PI whose major theory is disconfirmed by your data. Do you publish? I doubt it, not until you get out of that lab anyway. Maybe you’re a faculty member who’s up for tenure soon, but you need grant funding and publications to have a shot at it, and your recent results are marginal, only looking interesting when you hide some of the dirty details. Do you decide you’re too pure for those potential pubs/grants and try to start up a new line of research, knowing that you won’t have time to make real progress before the P&T committee gets to you? Again, I doubt it.

    It may well be that your field is purer than mine because publishing null findings is at least theoretically possible in yours. In mine, there is an inherent conflict of interest: you can’t publish null results; the field is worse off if you publish flaky results; but you have to publish ~something~ if you want to eat. Taking away the ideologically-driven boss doesn’t automatically fix the problem inherent in paying people to think meaningful thoughts. If given the choice between dishonesty and unemployment… well, let’s just say I don’t know too many academics I’d expect to find on the dole.

  3. Peter LaFond says

    I always recall Rouseau’s Second Discourse when reading stuff like this: The hunger ( literal and figurative ) to be ” good ” or ” well-known” at something, can really distort ” right and wrong.” And when you think your opinion can influence at the macro level well- it takes a strong person to ” do the right thing.”

    In a sense this arguement is an arguement for progressive mores and values- BTW is anybody going to put a stop to Bill O’reilly’s propoganda? He has turned the words liberal and secular humanists into obscenities- he even once asked what a progressive is- what a ####

  4. says


    The problems you point out are very real. People, being human and driven by all kinds of emotions and passions and ambitions, will do things that go against the norm

    My point is that the system in academia is set up to produce good, reliable knowledge and one has to deliberately work to subvert it. In think tanks, the structure has no such bias towards good knowledge. The bias is towards agenda-driven knowledge.

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