A few weeks ago Jonathan Green had a thump think-tanks session on his Sunday show. Pitting state-sponsored advocacy and nanny-staters against Australia’s only two actual think tanks. Spot the guests:
- Terry Moran – former secretary to PM&C under Kevin Rudd
- Bob Burton – this cyber-stalker very kindly maintains my page at Sourcewatch
- Damien Cahill – a senior lecturer at Sydney University
Hardly the kind of informed sensible and balanced panel that we have come to expect from the ABC.
Anyway – Greg Lindsay was annoyed enough to hit back.
On the ABC’s Sunday Extra a few weeks ago, presenter Jonathon Green chaired a discussion on Australian think tanks. The entire discussion centred on a spurious distinction between what he and his guests called “advocacy” and “evidence-based” organisations.
We heard from the speakers that “evidence-based” think tanks do “good solid work”. They provide “reasoned thought”. They offer “pragmatic solutions to problems”. They do “proper research”.
In contrast, the think tanks they labelled “advocacy groups” (in which category they included the Institute of Public Affairs and my own organisation, the Centre for Independent Studies) don’t do “proper research.”
When they are not preparing “the groundwork on fairly toxic ideas”, they are doing “far-out stuff”.
Two members of the panel have been obsessed for years with private organisations occupying part of the public policy discussion space and the third was a former senior public servant who was a key figure in the establishment of the Grattan Institute, nominally private, but with $30 million of taxpayer start-up funds.
Apparently, while “evidence-based” think tanks have no regard to the source of their funds, “advocacy groups” are in the pay of mysterious moneyed interests and have been deliberately “designed to conceal their source of funding”. They pretend to do research, but really they just provide a conduit for rich individuals and corporations to exert hidden influence on government. Listeners were advised to “follow the money trail”. No money trail applies to taxpayer funds apparently.
As Jonah Goldberg notes in his book The Tyranny of Clichés, it is a common tactic of the left to portray themselves as honest pragmatists while their opponents are dismissed as devious ideologues.
The distinction the ABC programme drew between “advocacy” and “research-based” think tanks is entirely spurious. Anyone interested in shaping policy ideas must pay attention to evidence. Any organisation that simply ignored evidence and sounded off in an uninformed way would soon lose all credibility.
You will never influence governments to do anything without marshalling a battery of facts. (One of the finest discussions of this was in a 2009 speech by then chair of the Productivity Commission, Gary Banks.)
Conversely, those in the think tank world who claim to be mere pragmatists with no ideological axe to grind are fooling themselves as well as misleading the rest of us. In the social sciences, there is no such thing as evidence-based research, free of any contaminating values or biases.
The German sociologist Max Weber wrote about all this a century ago. He pointed out that the simple decision of what is worth researching itself reflects one’s political and moral concerns. The way chosen to research it – the way we define our concepts, measure our variables, select some facts as relevant while disregarding others – is similarly inevitably guided by our political concerns and biases.
This is true no matter where you are on the political spectrum.
Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal famously said: “Chaos does not organise itself into cosmos. We need viewpoints.”
But if political values and biases inevitably infiltrate social policy research, does this reduce such research to the status of mere polemic? Are all policy research outfits just advocacy groups?
Do they never deal in objective evidence?
Of course they do!
All think tanks have to respect the evidence. We cannot manufacture facts out of thin air. Any think tank knows that any claim it makes will be scrutinised by those in opposing camps, and that they will quickly jump on the tiniest error. No organisation can afford to get its factual claims wrong.
But if all think tanks have to respect evidence, yet all are also in the business of presenting factual research in such a way that best articulates the kinds of concerns they hold dear, where does this leave the distinction between “evidence-based” researchers and mere “advocacy groups”?
Answer: the distinction makes no sense. These are labels that are used to promote one side in a debate and put down the other. We are pragmatic; you are ideological. We do evidence-based research so government should listen to us; you do advocacy, so you are biased. There’s a level of arrogance in this that’s poisoning the public discussion of important ideas and policies and assumes that some things are beyond debate or should be left to the experts.
In the spirit of that, I urge readers to go to our website www.cis.org.au and make up their own minds.