Greg Lindsay on think tanks

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.

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20 Responses to Greg Lindsay on think tanks

  1. H B Bear

    I’ve said it before – why would anyone take Moose Knuckles seriously?

  2. Peter from SA

    This is good. The likes of Jonathan Green are unable to debate credible doctrine. They’re just not used to it. Play on …

  3. incoherent rambler

    Evidence based er.. anything is good. Unfortunately “evidence based” is one of those terms that has been stolen by the left for other uses.

  4. Peter from SA

    Gee wiz Sinc I actually read that page at “sourceWatch” … “Davidson and Novak’s report was dismissed by as “a very poor quality report” by Saul Eslake … Eslake argued that the report was “based on very few facts and many of the things that are presented as facts are simply wrong”

    as a guy who enjoys this site I forget what s*** you must have to live with. Hope it is water off a duck’s back?

  5. Sinclair Davidson

    Peter – It gets worse; the TCCI never released the report that Julie and I wrote – so Eslake could never have read it. What Eslake read and SourceWatch links to was the preface that the TCCI published to get debate going.

  6. Peter from SA

    Sinc – astounding. Being involved 100% in business for several years my interests in such things lapsed – but I am now “re-energised” if that is a word.. And those idiots are routinely pushed by the ABC as “expert commentators”? Madness … but if I get “re-energised” in this I guess others might too. hope that provides a slim positive …

  7. Peter from SA

    and Eslake always seems tagged as a “Bank of America” commentator to give him private sector cred, unless my gin-addled mind is playing tricks on me which is possible …

  8. Des Deskperson

    Terry Moran is a Labor bureaucrat maate who used to move around Australia as Labor governments in various jurisdictions lost office or came into power.

    As head of PM&C under Rudd, Moran was responsible for the March 2010 Report: ‘Ahead of the Game: Blueprint for the Reform of Australian Government Administration’

    This was a thin and unoriginal, err, review of the management of the Australian Public Service by a guy who may have been a competent administrator but who never seems to have had a new idea in his life. Its main contribution was the imposition of a new layer of woolly manageobable. ‘Human capital’ seems to be a phrase that Moran was particularly fond of, borrowed, of course from the US. What it meant and what ‘value it added’ was beyond most of us.

  9. coz

    yeah, you and crazy Julie know nothing about Tasmania, but hey that’s the nicest photo I’ve seen of you at source watch.

  10. wreckage

    yeah, you and crazy Julie know nothing about Tasmania, but hey that’s the nicest photo I’ve seen of you at source watch.

    Wasn’t that a line from Jabberwocky? Right after

    “Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
    Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
    All mimsy were the borogoves,
    And the mome raths outgrabe.”

  11. His Omniscience

    CIS promote some silly things – the Target 30 campaign, for instance – but Lindsay is right to call our Green on this one.

  12. coz

    yeah, you and crazy Julie know nothing about Tasmania, but hey that’s the nicest photo I’ve seen of you at source watch.

    Wreckage – Wasn’t that a line from Jabberwocky? Right after

    “Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
    Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
    All mimsy were the borogoves,
    And the mome raths outgrabe.”

    Heavens man, I wouldn’t put myself in the same league as ‘Lewis Carroll’. I’m on a slow bane anyway, so this won’t show up until 10 hours later or whatever slowbanning involves. Sinkers must be having a bad night or something. sowwy. vewwy vewwy sowwy.

  13. coz

    no, have to correct myself there, I’m not on slowban, musta hit the wrong button and presumed wrongly.

  14. Rafe

    What is crazy about the CIS Target 30 campaign?

    It is easy to talk about the need to reduce the size of government but the hard thing is to formulate plans that can conceivably be implemented and political parties find that very hard to do, even when they are out of office for long terms.

    On a nerdish point of detail, Max Weber made a big deal out of “value-free” or “wertfrie” knowledge, while accepting the role of values in our choice of research topics and our selection of policies, the way the world works does not depend on our values and we need to minimize the amount of bias in our work.

    Assigning moral values to social phenomena is an inescapable result of being part of society. This inevitably renders truly value-free research inconceivable; however despite this, sociologists should strive for value neutrality. According to Max Weber, a German sociologist and philosopher who profoundly influenced social theory, value neutrality is the duty of sociologists to strive to be impartial and overcome their biases as they conduct their research, analyze their data, and publish their findings . Weber understood that personal values could distort the framework for disclosing study results. While he accepted that some aspects of research design might be influenced by personal values, he declared that it was entirely inappropriate to allow them to shape the interpretation of the responses

    .

  15. Tom

    Well, well, well. What a hatchet job. For a start, it’s not declared that Terry Moran is a board member of the IPA’s giant rival, the Grattan Institute, the 1000-pound gorilla in the room, started by the Rudd and Bracks federal/state ALP governments with $30 million of taxpayers’ money to provide advocacy for the left’s favourite causes. The Grattan Institute’s $8.6 million in revenue in 2013 dwarfed the IPA’s $3.2 million (only 29% of which was corporate donations). In fact, the IPA and the CIS ($2.6 million) together are only two-thirds the size of Grattan. And, if you listen to Moose Knuckles’ stitch-up, it was one big dog whistle: rightwing thinktanks do the groundwork for “toxic” political ideas, according to Green. The Grattan Institute was set up to be an antidote “to the far-out stuff”, we are told. Oh, and then there’s the gibberish about non-left thinktanks — the enemy — being “advocates” whereas Grattan provides “evidence”. An expert Alinskyist insult.
    The session should have been about why the left can’t organise a chook raffle: it was gifted a huge amount money to set up and run the fat-arsed Grattan Institute, yet it it’s hardly ever heard from and it’s having rings run around it by a comparatively tiny organisation that’s run on the smell of an oily rag.
    Once again, the ABC’s charter is breached with a one-sided stitch-up that set out to be neither fair nor balanced. And the minister Lord Wentworth refuses to act because he needs the ABC megaphone to project his current and future political interests. The system is like something out of central America in the 1970s: totally corrupt.

    http://grattan.edu.au/static/files/assets/c5b94d6d/Grattan_Institute_Annual_Financial_Report_2013.pdf
    http://www.ipa.org.au/images/ipa_2013_annual_report_web.pdf

  16. Tel

    Any organisation that simply ignored evidence and sounded off in an uninformed way would soon lose all credibility.

    All evidence I’ve seen says the above statement is wishful thinking.

  17. Re Tel I agree. As also in Lindsay’s

    ” … You will never influence governments to do anything without marshalling a battery of facts…”

    Bollocks. If that were anywhere near the case, how come factless AGW captured governments everywhere?

    This is elitist thinking in itself, to which the tanks for thinking are prone to. The same type of thinking that put Tim Wilson so smoothly into the human rights bureaucracy.

    Governments are only influenced by people. The people are influenced by arguments, and by their own interests. When your arguments augment their interests, they’ll support you — and change governments.
    Much more than that is wishful thinking.

  18. Rafe

    If you want to get better policies you have to explore every avenue to get some good results, and even when it happens it might be a result of some other factor entirely, like a rich buffoon, elected by idiots and allied with [insert apt term] who gets into an influential situation and finds that a good policy happens to coincide with some of his interests.

    Given the many avenues there is something for everyone to do. There is a role for Mannkal, for the IPA, for Quadrant, for the Sydney Institute, for the CIS, for Catallaxy, for good journalists, (possibly) for the Liberal Party, for Steve Kates (Says Law), for the Australian School of economics, and for others who promote even more obscure figures (Hutt, Barzun). Just as long as we are having fun.

  19. private organisations occupying part of the public policy discussion space

    Heavens to Murgatroyd. What next?

    After all, public policy discussion think tanks never occupy any part of the discussion about private industry.

  20. Once again, the ABC’s charter is breached with a one-sided stitch-up that set out to be neither fair nor balanced. And the minister Lord Wentworth refuses to act because he needs the ABC megaphone to project his current and future political interests.

    Liberty Quote.

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