March 31, 2008
The propaganda machine-7: The rise of think tanks
(For previous posts in this series, see here.)
As I said in the previous post, a key development in the growth of the propaganda machine over the last three decades has been the growth in the number of so-called 'think tanks'.
So what exactly is a 'think tank' and what does it do? If you look at how they are portrayed in the major media, you will get the impression that they are non-university based organizations that perform the same kinds of study and research functions that universities do. But that is misleading. Think tanks are essentially propaganda operations disguised as academic ones, which allows propagandists and ideologues to pretend that they are disinterested academics. They are far closer to Madison Avenue advertising firms than they are to university departments. As the website SourceWatch says:
A Think Tank is an organization that claims to serve as a center for research and/or analysis of important public issues. In reality, many think tanks are little more than public relations fronts, usually headquartered in state or national seats of government and generating self-serving scholarship that serves the advocacy goals of their industry sponsors.
. . .
Of course, some think tanks are more legitimate than that. Private funding does not necessarily make a researcher a shill, and some think-tanks produce worthwhile public policy research. In general, however, research from think tanks is ideologically driven in accordance with the interests of its funders.
Think tanks are funded primarily by large businesses and major foundations. They devise and promote policies that shape the lives of everyday Americans: Social Security privatization, tax and investment laws, regulation of everything from oil to the Internet. They supply experts to testify on Capitol Hill, write articles for the op-ed pages of newspapers, and appear as TV commentators. They advise presidential aspirants and lead orientation seminars to train incoming members of Congress.
Think tanks have a decided political leaning. There are twice as many conservative think tanks as liberal ones, and the conservative ones generally have more money. This is no accident, as one of the important functions of think tanks is to provide a backdoor way for wealthy business interests to promote their ideas or to support economic and sociological research not taking place elsewhere that they feel may turn out in their favor. Conservative think tanks also offer donors an opportunity to support conservative policies outside academia, which during the 1960s and 1970s was accused of having a strong "collectivist" bias.
The goal of many of these think-tanks is to provide a right-wing alternative to what they assert is a left-wing bias in academia, but their larger goal is to dominate the media and shift it rightward by alleging that the media and academic has a left-wing bias and flooding the market with their point of view.
The think tanks work hard to make themselves look and sound like academia, so that they can exploit the reputation for careful study and scholarly objectivity that universities have accumulated over the centuries. They create job titles like Senior Research Scholars and Fellows and even give them names that sound like endowed chairs. In universities, endowed chairs are usually awarded to highly distinguished scholars who have an exemplary research and publishing history. But such titles are intellectually cheap at think tanks. For example, Charles Murray at the AEI, who co-authored The Bell Curve has the title of 'W. H. Brady Scholar', which makes him sound like he has earned academic credibility the same way that the holder of an endowed chair in a university has. But he does not have to have done anything of the sort. One does not have to earn those titles by publishing in academic journals and meet the scholarly criteria set by one's peers. All one has to do is to please one's bosses which means having the willingness and ability to say well whatever they want you to say.
Politicians and businesses find think tanks to be useful since they can get pseudo-scholarly support from them for almost any policy they wish to implement. As Plain Dealer reporter Tom Brazaitis said: "Modern think tanks are nonprofit, tax-exempt, political idea factories where donations can be as big as the donor's checkbook and are seldom publicized. . .Technology companies give to think tanks that promote open access to the internet. Wall Street firms donate to think tanks that espouse private investment of retirement funds." If a business or politician wants some scholarly-looking study to support some policy, think tanks are only too eager to oblige, as long as they get paid. Thus the universities, the usual source for at least somewhat dispassionate research and analysis, can be bypassed.
The American Enterprise Institute (AEI), one of the oldest right-wing think tanks, is a preferred choice since it is by now a well-known name. For example, during the time that the tobacco industry was disputing the scientific consensus that smoking was a killer, they commissioned AEI to produce a 'study' to try and discredit the strong scientific evidence of the link between smoking and death.
Global warming provides another example. There is an emerging scientific consensus (though not unanimous) that this is a serious problem requiring urgent action to reverse the trend. But businesses find this issue irksome because efforts to combat warming constrain their ability to maximize profits. So how can you discredit global warming? You get a sympathetic think tank to generate opposing views, to supposedly provide 'balance', by cherry-picking data to support your desired conclusions.So the AEI offered $10,000 to scientists to write against global warming. They have the money and the impetus to do such things because ExxonMobil CEO Lee Raymond is on the AEI board of trustees and the company gave AEI approximately $925,000 between 1998 and 2003.
The idea is to use the think tanks to create in the public's mind that there is disagreement and controversy over whatever the issue is and thus defer any action until a 'solution' is found. The real goal is to delay action for as long as possible.
These are classic examples of how businesses and politicians use these think tanks to advance specific agendas.
Next: The difference between academia and think tanks.
POST SCRIPT: Madness caused by religion
These are the kinds of news reports that make me furious.
An 11-year-old girl died from diabetes after her parents prayed for her recovery rather than calling for medical assistance.
Madeline Neumann died on Sunday in Wisconsin, from an undiagnosed but treatable ailment.
Dan Vergin, the local police chief, said she had been ill for a month, suffering symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, excessive thirst, loss of appetite and weakness.
"She just got sicker and sicker until she was dead," he said.
Even after her death, her parents, Dale and Leilani Neumann, who did not belong to any organised faith, prayed over her body in the hope that she might be resurrected.
This is what 'faith' does to people. It robs them of basic thought. And even after this appalling tragedy, the parents cannot draw the proper lesson. Blinded and brainwashed by religion, they reach exactly the wrong conclusion.
Mr Vergin said the couple, who run a coffee shop in Wausau, had blamed her death on their lack of faith. (my emphasis)
"They have a little Bible study of a few people," said Mr Vergin. "These are not bizarre people."
Police chief Vergin, sad to say, is probably right. The parents are not "bizarre" in the sense of being unusual in their beliefs. They are not even bad people. They are merely carrying out what religious leaders have always told them is a good thing: just put your faith in god and all will be well.
And as a result, their daughter, whom I am sure they loved dearly, is dead.