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“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Think Tank is Usually a Misnomer

So you're watching cable news and the studio correspondent introduces an issue, any old issue. After going over the basics and delineating the two sides (too briefly to be of much educational use, and why make it so confrontational by splitting it between two conflicting viewpoints? Ahh, so it'll be more entertaining). You've got "experts" arguing "both" sides of the issue so the network can claim it's not biased, a la Fox News's slogan "Fair and Balanced." Now if you look down at the graphics when the "experts" get their chance to take up the entire scene--except of course for the ticker--you can read their names as well as the supposed source of their expertise. Often the "expert" is affiliated with a university, a magazine, or has some first-hand experience with the issue. But more and more lately the "experts" are listed as members of this or that Think Tank.

Even Pen & Teller give their show "Bullshit" over to Think Tank members, as in their global warming episode in which they interview a guy from The Cato Institute. So what are these Think Tanks, and why should we believe anything their members claim?

The first important thing to know about Think Tanks is that they're founded on one or another ideology. The Cato Institute, for instance, is libertarian. The Heritage Foundation is straight down the line conservative. And so is The American Enterprise Institute. There are some liberal Think Tanks too, mainly environmental, but by far the most prominent examples serve the right. Not surprisingly they are privately funded. (The ACLU is a liberal example.)

What happens all too often is that a bunch of businesses get together and try to come up with a way to deal with pesky scientific findings, like that second hand smoke can be dangerous, or that pumping CO2 into the air is melting Arctic Ice, findings which many may believe justify government regulation of private industry. So you stack a so-called Think Tank with researchers and analysts who share your ideology, let them reevaluate the science, declare it "junk science" or even an outright hoax, and then send them to the cable news studio to sit across from an actual epidemiologist or a climate scientist, and viola, we have a shoppers paradise of ideas--and who wants to believe we're responsible for ruining the environment? Bummer man, change the channel. What is this PBS?

But what's so different about university or private sector scientists? Aren't they just as likely to be ideologically driven? In a word, no. Scientists are trained to avoid what's called confirmation bias. This bias manifests itself in myriad subtle ways so it isn't easily--or ever completely--rooted out. It is the tendency to find what we expect to find, and miss what we expect not to be there. Another way to put it is that confirmation bias has you reasoning backwards: you start with your conclusion and construct your argument (or distort your evidence) to fit with it. Now whereas scientists do their best to avoid confirmation bias--think double blind clinical trials for drugs--Think Tanks call it, well, thinking. Cato is for deregulation, so they come up with ways to cast doubt on the science behind global warming concerns--simple.

Not all Think Tanks are completely in the pocket of big businesses. But if you have a Think Tank "expert" telling you something different from any large group of scientists, you can be pretty sure the only real expertise is in corporate shilling.

"Bullshit," incidentally, could have been another good show on critical thinking and the scientific method. Instead, the values it promulgates are cynicism and anti-scientific libertarianism.


caynazzo said...

Penn somewhat recanted at TAM7 on his climate change denialism, opting for the "I just don't know" defense. Cowardly yes, but I'll take it over undiluted libertarian wingnuttery, for it shows signs of progress, which is more than can be said of Bill Maher's insane flailings against western medicine.

Maher's lament that one cannot be rational seven days out of the week does not excuse a failure to come to reason.

Dennis said...

Yes, as much as I like Maher, and as often as I agree with him, he is of course just another talk show clown, and talk show clowns who get away with saying anything they want because they can rely on our ignorance are detrimental to democracy. I would like to cop out and say Maher offers balance, with clowns like Beck and Limbaugh on the other side, but no, if he has the ear of so many citizens, he needs to do whatever research is necessary to get his comments right--or at least rational.

caynazzo said...

A lot of it boils down to "believe what makes you feel better, or what's socially convenient."

IMO, the implicit message behind today's branding, framing and advertising is reason is malleable, reason isn't important, or reason, if useful at all, is just to be used as a means to justify what you've already decided to do or believe anyway. Turn it off, if it doesn't give you the answers you like, or just ignore it altogether--it's not that important.