Battles Among the Policy Wonks

10/19/2007 05:47 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Name a liberal think tank. OK, the Economic Policy Institute. How about a second? The Center for American Progress is supposed to be liberal or progressive, to use today's favored word, but at least in education its agenda only shows how far to the right the definition of liberalism has slid.

Nine years ago, Alex Molnar, then at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, sought to establish a group of education policy analysts who might provide some counter-weight to the Right--the Heritage Institute, American Enterprise Institute, Hudson Institute, etc. At the first meeting, I looked around at the 25 or so people in attendance and thought "This will never work." The people recruited already had very full lives at their own institutions.

But, Alex's Education Policy Research Unit (EPRU), now at Arizona State University, has grown and joined forces with the Education and the Public Interest Center (EPIC) at the University of Colorado at Boulder. On October 13, the Fellows of the two groups met at CU, about 45 strong (there are nearly 100 Fellows in all).

Two days earlier, Christopher Demuth, president of AEI announced in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that he was stepping down (the WSJ is the only publication of any repute that publishes these guys, but a writer for Slate some years ago described the op-ed page of the WSJ as "a viper's nest of right-wing vitriol"). It is interesting, I think, to hold up Demuth's essay against the goals of EPRU-EPIC.

Demuth writes "To be sure, think tanks--at least those on the right--do not attempt to disguise their political affinities in the manner of the (invariably left-leaning) universities." Unfortunately, those political affinities control the conclusions. From AEI and their ilk we get Stephen Colbert's "truthiness," not truth.

Demuth continues, "We are 'schools' in the old sense of the term: groups of scholars who share a set of philosophical premises and take them as far as we can in empirical research, persuasive writing, and arguments among ourselves and with those of other schools." The problem is, this taking of premises as far as they can often leads them to conclusions which are consistent with the philosophical premises but not justified by the data. Data is made to serve ideology; ideology is not bent in the service of data. The "persuasive writing" often leads to a highly selective review of existing research literature--if there is any review at all. And the methods of the "empirical research" are not adequately described--a reader can't really tell what they did with the data.

Thus, one of the programs created by EPRU-EPIC is the "Think Tank Review Project." We review and critique the reports from the Right-wing groups. This project has not been well received by its targets. On seeing one review, the head of the Goldwater Institute contacted the president of Arizona State University and demanded to know if any taxpayer dollars had been spent in producing it (none had). Of the 13 reports the project reviewed in its first year, only one met even minimal professional standards. This led the project to create the Bunkum Awards.

Demuth calls the think tanks more efficient than universities because the administrative duties that professors must perform are handled by management. "Management promotes the scholars' output with an alacrity that would make many university administrators uncomfortable." Well, it certainly makes the EPRU-EPIC Fellows uncomfortable. It's not the alacrity per se but the fact that the speed of publication excludes the critical process of peer review.

Those on the Right often make fun of peer review as friends approving research by friends. Not so. The friends usually get involved in reviewing a first draft as a favor to the author--then the revised paper goes to a journal which sends it out to 3 or 4 reviewers. The authors are unknown to the reviewers, the reviewers unknown to the authors. I do a fair amount of such review for the journals of the American Educational Research Association and can attest that it is a much more rigorous and objective process than the Right would have you believe.

Curiously, Demuth who early characterizes think tanks as groups of like-minded thinkers, closes by calling them "intellectual sanctuaries in a world where Harvard University forbids a discussion of certain important issues and Columbia University welcomes the contributions of a master terrorist." I do believe Mr. Demuth's ideology clouds his conception of intellectual freedom here. Referring to someone as a "master terrorist" strikes me as analogous to the red-baiting of yore. And neither Columbia president, Lee Bollinger's statement prior to Ahmadenijad's arrival nor his introduction of the Iranian President could be characterized as "welcoming." Give me Columbia over AEI.