Saturday, July 19, 2008

Bias and public scholarship

Interesting piece by David Dodenhoff on what it means to do scholarship within the auspices of a think tank devoted to a particular perspective, in his case, the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute. (By way of disclosure, I have written for WPRI in the past and am doing so as we speak and, yes, I have gotten paid for my work. No one ever tells me what to say.)

Dave criticizes the notion that you can dismiss scholarship on the basis of its provenance and I think he's right. We all have our reputations and respect for professional integrity. Lots of times people who do work for think tanks have, like me, other institutional affiliations that tend to provide whatever required additional discipline that can't be summoned from our own sense of integrity and struggles to be objective.

Of course, "conservative" think tanks look for conservatives in the same way that liberal ones seek scholars with a liberal bent. But the fact that you have an ideological predisposition does not mean that your work is slanted. We all have ideological predispositions (including predispositions to split the baby). My own view is that it is better to acknowledge them than to pretend they don't exist.

Dave admits quite candidly that a conservative scholar at a conservative think tank (and I suspect it works that way on the other side as well) often pick fat targets and low hanging fruit. I have done it myself. I was fairly certain, for example, that I would conclude that Healthy Wisconsin's residency requirements were constitutionally problematic before I wrote this piece. I wasn't writing on a blank slate.

But I think (and I'd suspect he'd agree)that conservatives and liberals need to challenge their ideological predispositions. A small example. I am struggling with a piece that addresses the asymmetrical manner in which the Supreme Court treats government speech bearing on religion. The rule - with a few exceptions largely based in history or pragmatism - is that the government as speaker ought not to endorse religion or irreligion.

The problem - noted by many - is that the government actually says quite a bit that amounts to a repudiation of people's religious perspectives and is quite free to do so as long as its statements are not expressly theological. The government can't, for example, say the Bible is wrong but it can promote things - like the normative status of homosexuality or, for you liberation theologists, the supremacy of markets - that, in the view of some, contradict the Bible.

This asymmetry violates most - if not all - of the rationales offered for nonendorsement, i.e., the avoidance of division, the promotion of political equality and the idea that no one should feel like a second class citizen based upon religion, and the protection of religion from the heavy hand of government.

What it does do is foster - or at least privilege - a certain type of religiosity associated with the Protestant mainline, i.e., faith is private and whatever implications it has for public life ought to be left out of discussion in the larger society.

One way to resolve this would be to get government out of the business of pronouncing upon matters with which religion is concerned. Part of me likes the idea because I am all about limited government, subsidiarity and the promotion of vibrant voluntary institutions.

But I have to acknowledge that this won't work. Its impractical to think that government will get out of the business of promoting values and religious diversity precludes limiting it to values that all of us can agree on.

So, I think, to remedy the asymmetry, we have to abandon nonendorsement. If government is to involve itself with things on which religion wishes to speak, then it has to allow religion into the conversation even if that means acknowledging the religious perspective of its citizens in a way that someone might construe as endorsing them. Its not the limited government solution but I suspect that it may the best one.


Anonymous said...

the fact that you have an ideological predisposition does not mean that your work is slanted.

I agree. But the fact that the think tank is slanted towards your (i.e., one's) predispositions means that it's inherently less credible than it otherwise would be.

That is, your ideological predispositions may be more or less pronounced in any piece of work you do. Some of your work might not be identifiable as proceeding from any particular perspective; some of it might even be mistakable for the work of someone generally ideologically opposed to you; and some of it will be quite clearly partisan in its methods and presumptions. The think tank, however, is by its nature likeliest to publish (and you are likeliest to submit to it) work of the latter variety.

That's its filtering effect. And because the think tank is at least looking for, and usually open only to, pieces that support its predispositions, it is less reasonable to treat its output as tracking truth or tracking warrant. Its aims in publishing overlap only partially -- at most -- with the norms like accuracy and direct problem-solving.

Dad29 said...

Yah, Anony, but even with that caveat (that the thinktank publishes what it likes) what difference does it make to the intelligent reader?

There ARE other thinktanks, and they are inclined to publish what THEY like. So the reader may compare evidences, logic, etc....

As to 'religion' of State, Rick, one could attempt settlement with "common good," or received natural law.

By the way, I think you meant to reference "libertarian" rather than "liberation" theologists. Liberation theo has a decidedly utopian/socialist flair, as practiced in the Catholic Church, anyway.

Anonymous said...

Yah, Anony, but even with that caveat (that the thinktank publishes what it likes) what difference does it make to the intelligent reader?

The intelligent reader realizes that what the think-tank likes is partisanship -- more than it likes full relevant disclosure, more than it likes good methodology, and perhaps even more than it likes honesty. (It may regard those things as good or useful, just not as good or as useful as supporting the team.) Hence the intelligent reader assigns relatively little initial credibility to the data, assessments, and conclusions of such 'tanks.

There ARE other thinktanks, and they are inclined to publish what THEY like. So the reader may compare evidences, logic, etc....

Yes. The reader can do her own primary research, for that matter. The question is what default credibility should be assigned to 'tank whorefare. The existence of opposing equally unreliable venues doesn't make one think-tank any more reliable. The bottom line is that the word "think-tank" ought to raise huge red flags.

Rick Esenberg said...


You are right in that think tanks tend to have a view of the way in which the world works. But that doesn't mean that the work they sponsor - most often done by going to folks who they know share the same view of the world - is bad work or ought not to be considered on the merits. I don't have cites at hand but I know that WPRI has sponsored empirical work that has not confirmed everything I suspect the authors - and WPRI - expected that it would. The only thing that WPRI ever asked me about my piece on Healthy Wisconsin, is whether it was right.


No, I did mean liberation, precisely for the reasons that you identify.

Dad29 said...

RE: Uhhmmnnnhhh....doh. Read your analogy 'backwards.' You're right.

Anony, the intelligent reader ALSO has a "BS detector" which should come from experience seasoned with a grain or two of skepticism.

Just because Heritage (e.g.) publishes something does not make the article wrong. Facts are facts.

The intelligent reader makes it a point to balance Administration economic yappaflappa with (e.g., MBG Information); or Paul Kasriel at Northern Trust vs. the Fed-speak; or Norm Matloff's takes vs. those of Bill Gates on H1-B visas.

One would hope that you think a bit more of readers than you display in these posts, Anony.

Or don't you like the concept of representative democracy?

John Foust said...

Remedy whose asymmetry? Yours? Those in power at the moment?

Dad29 said...

Remedy whose asymmetry? Yours?

I warned my kids not to associate with people who talk like that.