Friday, August 27, 2010

Grading Think Tanks and Public Policy Institutes

The New Yorker article described in an earlier post set me off a bit.  Throughout the article every conservative entity described in the article has an adjective attached to it to help the reader understand the bias of the author.   So "conservative" is used to help guide the reader.  Those entities from the left are characterized differently - most common is "public interest" or "watchdog."

That gets me to a distinction which should apply to journalists and other habitants of the public policy world.   There are two kinds of public policy research.  The first group might be called traditional public policy research.  There are a lot of contributors to the public policy debate that start with a world view. Groups as widely disparate as the "public interest" Center for the Study of American Progress or the "conservative" Cato Institute have something to contribute.   I realize that the Brookings Institution has some pretty good information about a lot of subjects - but it rarely varies from a world view with which I disagree.  At the same time the Heritage Foundation produces some good research on a variety of topics.  I tend to agree with their initial premises more often.  But with both ranges of groups, I try to look for the underlying assumptions to make sure that the interpretations are not clouded.

The second type of research in public policy comes from what might be called advocacy research.  Here the conclusions are drawn before the research is begun.  A lot of those groups want to advance their particular pet notion and use policy papers, research reports and other devices as a tool in that quest.  But as you look at their evidence, it is pretty flimsy.   Ideally, journalists would use the first groups a lot more than the second.  But because many are lazy they weight the output of both types of groups equally.  That degrades the public discourse.

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