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Think Tanks Don't

Entry 1369, on 2012-03-16 at 19:32:06 (Rating 4, Politics)

What's the purpose of think tanks? Some of them claim to be places where research is done on important subjects. Others say they distribute critical information on political, economic, and scientific issues. And others claim to be a place where ideas can be examined and debated.

In my experience none of these are true. Who knows, maybe there are real think tanks out there which do fulfil a genuine role of the type they purport to have, but in most cases think tanks are propaganda sources, usually with a right wing conservative or neo-liberal agenda.

That's not to say they are necessarily wrong, although they usually are. It's more that despite their names and stated missions they are really involved with quite the opposite of doing genuine research, distributing factual information, or encouraging reasoned debate. In fact they are more likely to spend most of their time and money on lobbying and pushing propaganda rather than doing research, to ensuring that a single opinion or pure misinformation is distributed, and to creating unnecessary debates which present only one side in a positive way.

This is nothing new. In the past where there has been scientific evidence against the best interests of powerful groups in society these "think tanks" have appeared and tried to disguise the truth through their standard political trickery. A classic example would be the organisations supporting the tobacco industry. They systematically disguised the facts and tried to discredit the science which showed how dangerous smoking is. And they indirectly caused more deaths than any terrorist organisation.

Today the tobacco industry supporters have moved on to trying to discredit the harm of second hand smoke rather than the direct effects of smoking. Again they are obfuscating the truth to support rich tobacco companies who support them through donations.

Of course there are also other areas where these organisations are active. Religiously motivated organisations are common. These distribute lies and misinformation about evolution and try to prevent science they disapprove of being taught in schools. Conservative political organisations try to stop liberalisation of laws and other social changes. And organisations representing big corporations try to disguise the reality of science such as global warming.

Now I will mention some specific examples. The first is an organisation known as the "Heartland Institute" which describes its purpose like this: "The mission of the Heartland Institute is to discover, develop, and promote free-market solutions to social and economic problems." So at least they are up front and say that they support a free-market neo-liberal agenda. So their credibility is gone already because of that blatant political bias.

It's almost inevitable that an organisation of this type will reject the scientific facts which disagree with their warped political ideology. They seem to think that the tobacco industry should have the freedom to deliberately increase levels of addictive substances, that the oil industry should have the freedom to make more profit while destroying the environment for future generations, and that business should have the freedom to treat workers like its personal slaves.

That's the sort of freedom libertarians want. It's just the illusion of freedom for the majority. Sure their agenda includes less government control but that control is simply transferred to an even less scrupulous place: big business.

Recent events have shown that the Heartland Institute is funded by large corporations, including an oil conglomerate, and has been given free software (which is effectively a donation) by Microsoft even though Microsoft's official line on global warming is that it is real and almost certainly caused by human activity. Of course that is just the way large corporations work: lying is just second nature to them.

So Heartland is just a propaganda source although I should give them credit for at least stating that they only consider free-market solutions. At least we know what type of solutions they will offer and that it won't matter whether they work or not as long as they are "free market".

Another "think tank" which I occasionally visit is a New Zealand one called the New Zealand Centre for Political Research. They state their mission as: "The New Zealand Centre for Political Research is a web-based think tank that takes a research-based approach to public policy matters and encourages the free and open debate of political issues."

This really isn't quite true. The NZCPR does no real research, it just picks up news items and distorts them to its own political biases. And yes, this is another right-wing organisation although it is more conservative than neo-liberal. In my opinion NZCPR would better stand for "New Zealand conservative propaganda rants".

Again, I'm not saying everything they believe is wrong and I occasionally find myself agreeing with some of their points, but the vast majority of their material is very biased and therefore hardly worth even looking at.

There are some left-leaning think tanks as well, but they tend to work a bit differently because they don't generally have a lot of rich corporate sponsorship. You could put organisations like Greenpeace in this category, I think. As I have said in the past, I agree with quite a lot of what Greenpeace says but I do think it has a biased and unscientific dogmatic opinion on some subjects, such as genetic engineering, so I certainly can't fully support it.

But the problem with most of these think tanks is that they don't (think). They also don't do any real research, they don't distribute fair and unbiased information, and they don't encourage reasoned and fair debate. As soon as you see the label "think tank" be skeptical, because there's probably not a lot of thinking going on there!

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