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This is part of my work-in-progress lecture series for my freshman-level Library and Information Science class on global warming.  If you have suggestions please feel free to drop me a comment.

In understanding the complicated media and political landscape in any policy debate—global warming being a big one--it is important to understand the competing sides of the debate as well as the biases of the policy experts that politicians consult to inform or justify their decisions.  We will pay particular attention to the role of think tanks and their role in American political debate.

Politicians in America mostly have backgrounds in law, and that makes sense, since those are the people in charge of drafting laws, but they are not experts in many of the subjects they are required to make laws about, so it would make sense that they would ask for the input of experts. Often these experts are culled from think tanks, or organizations comprised of the policy experts.

There are three main arrangements that stem from this interaction:

1)    Politicians seek guidance on an issue and seek out the experts in think tanks who can provide research and knowledge to inform their decisions.

2)    Think tanks seek out politicians who will be voting on a particular piece of legislation and offer him the research they have done.  Often a component of this is that the think tanks are actively trying to advocate for or against some policy and seek to influence lawmakers.

3)    Think tanks draft model legislation and give it to politicians and influence them to submit it.

I will leave it to you to decide which arrangement seems least democratic.

The history of think tanks is a pretty boring affair, which is probably how they have come to have so much influence.  Nothing discourages active oversight more than a boring subject.  But as in as short a time as I can, I can say that there has been an idea floating around in America for a couple hundred years or so that policy experts, social scientists, economists, and other people trained in the study of society are uniquely qualified to shape civilization.

According to James Allen Smith’s THE IDEA BROKERS, think tanks first made a big splash in America in the first quarter of the 20th century.  There was, at the time, not a lot of intellectual capital in Washington, so there was a real desire to bring in the so-called experts.  This also kind of stemmed from the efficiency craze of the late 1800s.  That has always been an American fetish, but recent discoveries in thermodynamics of all things had made some people realize (or at least SUSPECT) that efficiency could be quantifiably, scientifically measured.  There was a guy named Frederick W Taylor who made quite a name for himself with books and articles with titles such as “The Science of Shoveling” and “The Law of heavy Laboring.”  His influence seemed to pave the way for other people who could practically apply book learning to the world around them.  In the 1920s and 30s academics who had previously been passive observers of industry, government, and policy were beginning to take a more active role in advocating for policies.

But then,because this is America, there are differing opinions on exactly how these policies should shape civilization. There is a sliding scale of beliefs about how much of a role government should play in everyday life.  The typical spread in America ranges from socialism to libertarianism like so:

Socialist                   Democratic                 Republican         Libertarian                


Government plays     Government plays       Government Plays   Government  Plays
A large role in          a significant role in      a small role in         almost no role at all
Determining how       Determining how         Determining how     in determining how
Society functions      Society functions       Society functions    Society functions

To be sure,there are beliefs outside the margins of American thought, such as communism or anarchism, and there are shades and variations at each level.  Some people believe, for instance, that healthcare should be socialized but not other things.  Then there are people who don’t really fit on the scale in any clear cut way. And I don’t mean to get bogged down in this, but it is kind of important to know the different angles people will come at a problem from. The liberal side of the spectrum tends to want the government to fix global warming, while the conservative side wants what they call a “free market”solution to the problem.  More or less,that means, when someone figures out a way to make a profit from solving global warming, he or she will.

The think tanks after WWII became even more active in their advocacy of ideas such as the Great Society, which was LBJ’s anti-poverty plan, and the Vietnam War.  The net effect for liberals was pretty catastrophic. Knowledge, social science, and social planning had, in the case of Vietnam, utterly failed, and in the case of the Great Society, not worked as promised.  The fallout seemed to cede intellectualism to conservatives for the next generation.  

By the time  the 80s rolled around and we first started hearing the distant rumblings about global warming—though to be fair the science behind it had been acknowledged and studied for several decades by then—conservative politicians were in power and their think tanks played a very active role in confounding the science. We will look at the specific arguments they make next class, but for now we will focus on only one:  the suggestion that the science is not there yet, or, more clearly, that we don’t understand the problem enough to do anything about it.  The phrase we will look at is “sound science.”  By that they meant science with a firm, factual foundation.  When think tanks call for “sound science,” the implicit critique is of course that extant science is somehow unsound.  The great thing about the language is that it is virtually unassailable.  I mean, who wants to go on the record against the notion of sound science?  Not me.

But I will.

In order to see how think tanks influence a discussion, it may be useful to trace an idea from its inception in a think tank to its broader use in society.  The leg work for this was done by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway in Merchants of Doubt, Chris Mooney in The Republican War on Science, and Riley Dunlap and Peter Jacques in “Climate Change Denial Books and Conservative Think Tanks:  Exploring the Connection.”

As an aside,it bothers me a bit that this seems so partisan--republican this, conservative that.  It troubles me because I am more liberal than conservative, and I hate to seem like I am just peddling my biases.  But it would be silly to ignore the pattern instead of just coming out and saying, “Hi, I’m basically ananarcho-syndicalist who votes democratic in elections because it seems like the less self-destructive option.”  There, disclosure done.

As Chris Mooney points out, the roots of sound science go back to the tobacco companies who, in the 60s, were having to find ever-more inventive ways to deny that smoking caused cancer.  In 1964 the surgeon general released a pretty damning report that tied cigarette smoking to all sorts of nasty illnesses, and the tobacco companies mobilized to do something they dubbed “manufacturing uncertainty.”  Their lawyers would direct teams of researchers and scientists to undermine the facts however they could.

A1969 internal memo from Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company stated: Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public.  It is also the means of establishing a controversy.”  Though they did not use the phrase “sound science,” the seeds of manufacturing doubt in science were sown.

In the 1981 mission statement of the American Industrial Health Council they described themselves as “a broad-based industry trade association whose mission is to promote the sound use of scientific principles and procedures in public policy for the assessment and regulation of risks associated with human health effects and ecological effects.”

Later, the George C Marshall institute included similar language in its mission statement.

According to Oreskes, in 1990, S Fred Singer, who was one of the “experts” who testified to congress that there was no link between smoking and cancer, created his“Science and Environmental Policy Project” to “promote sound science in environmental policy.”

In 1993 the phrase moved from mission statements into the very name of one think tank:  The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition.  According to Mooney, they described themselves as “a grassroots-based, not-for-profit watchdog group of scientists and representatives from universities, independent organizations, and industry that advocates the use of sound science in public policy.”  Perhaps coincidentally, the same year,internal documents of Phillip H Morris had called for the creation of just such a think tank.  There is no evidence of a link between the two, but I suspect it is not a coincidence.  The tobacco industry had long been in the think tank game.

In 1999,ExxonMobil’s stated environmental science policy, according to Skjaerseth and Skodvin’s Climate Change and the Oil Industry, was to, “Work with government and industry groups to develop environmental laws and regulations that are based on “sound science.’

By 2001,George W. Bush’s speeches insisted on the use of sound science.

For all this talk of wanting sound science, are these think tanks actually pursuing the truth?  Dunlap and Jacques studied 108 climate change denial books written before the year 2011 and found that 1)  most have very strong ties to right wing think tanks, with the relationship decreasing among self-published books and 2)that 90% are not peer-reviewed.

Since peer review is a central tenet of scientific writing, it seems unlikely that the aim of these organizations was as pure and noble as stated.

In 2006,according to James Hoggard’s Climate Cover-Up, the American Enterprise Institute was offering cash to scientists who would “agree to write a critique of the anticipated Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC."  It is interesting to note that the American Enterprise Institute receives the majority of its funding from Exxon-Mobil.  It is also interesting to note that ExxonMobil spent close to $80 mil lobbying Washington during the Bush and Obama presidencies.  It is also interesting to note that one of the American Enterprise Institute's complaints about climate scientists is that they are only doing it for the grant money.  Just sayin.

Over the last century, think tanks seems to have shifted from being researchers to being advocates.  While the research they do is real research, one of the inherent features of information is that the person who owns it or produces it gets to determine what is studied, how it is studied, how the findings are presented, and to whom they are presented.  When people quote think tank findings,research their partisan slant, uncover their biases, and investigate if parts of the stories are being left out.  These think tanks are well-funded, well-connected, and almost always have an interest in the outcome of what they are researching.

Originally posted to NearlySomebody on Wed Jul 10, 2013 at 01:57 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.


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