Saturday, May 1, 2010

Think Tanks

What is a "think tank"?  We've heard a lot about these. The usual image is that a think tank is an organization of scholarly researchers, giving deep and impartial study to important problems. Some are that, and do that.

But not many.

Really, there is no clear definition of a think tank. Two office clerks chatting around the water cooler about the boss are a think tank.  A meeting of a church committee is a think tank. A circle of lunatics screaming at each other in an asylum is a think tank. There is no firm definition of what a think tank is, what it does, what its qualifications have to be. That's because there are no qualifications. Not even an A for toilet training in kindergarten. Any two or more people can become a think tank simply by saying they are.

But news media and governments pay close attention to think tank reports. Often, those reports will be prominently displayed in a newspaper, with an edtorial facing them than can barely control its slobbering. A think tank needn't cost much; But media attention makes it a dynamite way to get a message across. In New Brunswick, as in other provinces and in the US, the opinion of  a think tank is enough to to make governments ignore a century and a half of public school reseach, and follow adivice that is deliberately false and self-interested.
In Montreal about a dozen years ago, a "think tank" wrote a report "proving" there was no global climate change. It was published opposite the editorial page of a leading newspaper, discussed on talk shows, and even made the supermarket tabloids.  The report, whose findings disputed those of thousands of scientists all over the world, was by one man. And he wasn't a scientist. And he had no lab equipment. And he took no samples. His total research to dispute all those highly trained scientists and all those thousands of studies? He had read two books. Count them. Two. (One was a recent book by a scientist who said there was no global warming. The other was a book on something else published over a century ago.)  As a university teacher, I would have failed any first year student who handed in a paper based on so little research. I think most university teachers would. But it passed through the news media with flying colours.

Now, I have no desire to argue over whether climate change is a reality. That's off the point. The point is that most news media take reports like that seriously. Why? Are editors really, really stupid?

 Nope. They aren't stupid at all. I wish they were. Then we wouldn't have to raise the ugly possibility that they might be unethical.

Coroporations and wealthy individuals discovered the value of think tanks in the 1950s.  It was so easy. You gather together a few people willing to write up propaganda disguised as serious research. Then you tart them up with fancy titles like "Senior Research Fellow" or "Director of Analysis". If you need someone with more credentials, you go to a university for a "rent-a-prof".  You can even find some who believe in the nonsense they will have to put their names to.

From that point, the rules are siimple. The think tank will produce "scholarly" studies which peddle the sorts of ideas corporations and wealthy individuals want us to believe. You can make up the list of those interests from just a casual glance over the records of The C.D.Howe Institute, the The Fraser, or The Atlantic Institute of Marketing. Almost without exception, the following are bad:
1. Medicare (best to leave it to private insurance companies.)
2. Taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals. (It makes them feel bad.)
3. Mnimum wage increases. Very bad.
4. Any social programmes. Private business is better to solve all social programmes.
5. Government regulation of business - very bad. It's, well,'s awkward.

These think tanks have had an eye on education for a good twenty years. There are huge sums of money spent on education. The problem is that most of it has been going to teachers and students; and private business would like to see some of that money come its way in profits. That's why the think tanks have been big on proposals to privatize universities, privatize or partially privatize public schools, and to force schools to contract out for some needs such as tutoring.

More recently, they have moved to propaganizing for an ideology that until recently has lurked only in the darker corners of the business world. It is the extreme ideology that opposes any social role for government at all, and that advocates the privatization of pretty well everything - including schools.

Standardization is a part of that ideology. The idea behind it has nothing to do with learning. It has to do with making private business the model for everything in society. That would certainly be in the interest of large corporations and wealthy individuals; and, in any case, it's the  only sort of organization they understand. That's why schools have to be standardized. It's because that's the way private business operates an assembly line.

Why do civil servants in a department of education even listen to a concept so damaging to both students and teachers? Well, if you want to advance in the department, you had better appear to the Minister of Education to be a cooperative sort of person.

Why does the Minister of Education go to a private think tank for advice when he lives on a continent full of experts on education? Well, he's a politician and a member of a party. Both he and the party need money to operate.  Education professors are not big contributors. Corporations and wealthy people are.

Why do most of the news media publicize the research of these think tanks? Why do they publish kiss-up editorials, even when they know nothing about education? 

Well, I'm don't want to point any figures. But I would guess that very few news media are owned by poor people or even average ones.

Now, all the children of New Brunswick and all the taxpayers are going to pay the price for pure greed.


  1. Hi Graeme:

    I agree with your comments however, in my opinion, the media only respect and promote right-wing think tanks. When it comes to the crucial kind of information studied and distributed through the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, it is either ignored or brushed-off as being a "left-wing" think tank.

  2. That has certainly been my experience, too.