Saturday, June 12, 2010

Groupthink Tank

While reading a bit of commentary on education policy recently, I was directed by the author to view what was referred to as a "study" by a major think tank, which he cited to support his argument.  It occurred to me that the study was flawed in a number of ways, and that reason behind this was simple: the "study" was really just a polemical, ideological argument dressed up in academic clothes.  It had researchers who went out and collected real data, analyzed it, and then presented conclusions.  By coincidence(!), it fit perfectly into the ideological narrative of the think tank that funded it.  I wondered whether if the study had reached different conclusions, it would have ever been published.  Of course not.  That would be at cross-purposes to the mission of the think-tank, which is generally to advocate for a particular political philosophy.

I then became interested in how common this practice was among other think tanks.  We're all familiar with them as their representatives are frequently used by the media, generally to provide quotes for news articles or television pieces.  Frequently, reporters will even cite these so-called studies the tanks put out.  To the extent that they are thought of as anything more than propagandists, there is a serious ethical concern.  These "studies" are designed to present entirely one-sided arguments that fit perfectly with the tank's pre-conceived ideology.

I took a brief look at four major think tanks to see how prevalent this practice of publishing biased "research" papers is.  The Heritage Foundation, The Center for American Progress (CAP) , The Hoover Institute, and The Cato Institute, each had sections devoted to "publications".  Both Hoover and Heritage offer what they call "research", while Cato presents "studies" and CAP presents "reports".  Each publication presented an entirely predictable argument strictly in line with the organization's politics.  Want an article in favor of stricter regulation?  The liberal Center for American Progress has you covered.  Opposition?  The libertarian Cato Institute has everything you might need. 

Though they may resemble academic papers in appearance, they have an obvious agenda and a close examination bears this out.  No good scholar would cite any of this research.  For example, the original cited article I spoke of was a report issued by the Center for American Progress titled, Supporting Effective Teaching Through Teacher Evaluation: A Study of Teacher Evaluation in Five Charter Schools.  The article, supportive of stricter teacher evaluations and firing practices, a type of reform popularly touted as key to closing the achievement gap among schools, cited the "report" as evidence of the efficacy of this approach in fundamentally changing education. 

Politically, the neoliberal Center for American Progress (along with Obama's education secretary Arne Duncan) has embraced the notion that accountability, standards, charters and testing are the key reforms needed to close the achievement gap - which is universally agreed as being profound.  The implicit assumption behind this view is that what is standing in the way of progress is poor teachers and the unions that protect them.  One would expect then, that any CAP study would seek to provide evidence that reinforces this narrative.  If evidence is found that does not support the preconception, it is not allowed.  This is evident in the fact that 100% of think tank publications fall strictly in line with the organization's philosophy.  This means either that data is thrown out, or that so-called research is designed in such a way that unwanted results are never found to being with.

This was certainly the case in the report I looked at.  The goal of the study was to show how charter schools performed better effectively used teacher evaluation data to improve student performance, often by circumventing union protections.  But the study began by choosing charter schools that were already effective.  While the reported differences in evaluation procedures were assumed to be different than in public schools which, it was again assumed, were limited by union protections, there was no evidence offered to support or deny this claim.  It could very well be the case that most charter schools have ineffective evaluation systems, or that most public schools have just as effective evaluation systems.  I doubt this is the case, but you wouldn't know either way from the report.  It could also be the case that what these schools were doing to increase student achievement had little to do with their evaluations.  But again, you could not tell from the report. 

In a truly academic study, these variables would need to be be addressed for the study to be taken seriously.  But the purpose of academic study is to find objective, peer-reviewed truth.  The purpose of think tank studies is to support the organization's stated philosophical agenda.  The word for this is propaganda.  When representatives of think tanks are cited by the media, they need to be understood in these terms.  Just as studies from an oil company should not be cited in news reports, as their intent is entirely dubious, or industry spokespeople should be understood not as objective authorities but as in service to a particular agenda, so too must think tank resources. 

While their contribution to debate should be welcome - after all, their purpose is to make as good a case for their side as possible, they must under no circumstances be treated as objective, or necessarily intellectually honest.  When journalists are presenting them in this light, or citing their "research" as authoritative, they are not doing their job.  In these politically-charged, partisan and highly polarized times, it is more important than ever to get quality, objective information.  While words are relative, the truth is not.

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