Twilight of the Experts

Imagine a political future in which nobody has any reason to believe anybody else.

By Nathan Pippenger

Sunday’s New York Times included a big front-pager on foreign governments funding research at supposedly independent American think tanks, “transforming the once-staid think-tank world into a muscular arm of foreign governments’ lobbying in Washington.” Daniel Drezner says not to worry:

Before we cry havoc and let slip the dogs of hypocrisy charges, it’s worth considering that think tanks have to get their funding from somewhere. One can argue for greater transparency in revealing their sources, but the important point is that the sources are pretty narrow: foreign governments, the U.S. government, foundations, large corporations, or really wealthy individuals. I suspect that exactly none of these actors are funding think tanks out of the goodness of their heart — they all have policy agendas that they want to further.

As a point about the probably quixotic search for a totally independent source of knowledge, this seems correct. And the point doesn’t just apply to think tanks: it’s true of magazines and newspapers as well, many of which are now backed by wealthy individuals who presumably have interests of their own. Sometimes those interests already align with the work of the institution, and in those cases, backers may be happy to let editors and writers (or scholars, as the case may be) carry on with their normal work. In principle, this is no more corrupting than funding by a government, and Drezner estimates that “the systemic effect of this trend on American foreign policy is very likely nil.”

But I will confess concern about a larger trend: the decline of institutions—like think tanks and official government agencies—that enjoy (and deserve) a reputation for reliability and independence. Given the previous admission that no source of knowledge is totally independent, this might seem a silly concern. It’s not. These institutions exist on a spectrum: There are more-or-less partisan organizations whose research is more-or-less reliable, and whose independence is more-or-less recognized. (Drezner says his preference “would be for a think tank that’s transparent and diverse about its funding, rather than beholden to any one particular source,” which is a worthy goal, but as I’ve noted before, scrutiny of donors sometimes has the perverse effect of driving foundation-funders even further into the shadows.)

That leaves us with the task of making fuzzy-but-important distinctions among dozens of high-profile organizations, none of which are entirely free of donor influence. Still, there are meaningful tests we can apply. Does the organization purge affiliates for their political views, suppress dissenting research produced by its own scholars, publish work with obvious errors of fact, or produce reports that are blatantly one-sided? A number of prominent D.C. think tanks could not pass these tests. But a few do, and when they weigh in on debates, their findings carry special weight. (Incidentally, Brookings is the gold standard here.)

But what happens when even these relatively reliable sources of knowledge are pulled into a morass of skepticism? It’s not an idle question. I still think that one of the more disturbing incidents of the 2012 presidential campaign was Jack Welch’s groundless, irresponsible allegation that the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) was cooking the books with fake jobs numbers to help reelect President Obama. It was an absurd charge, but (as usual) that didn’t prevent it from being endlessly and credulously repeated across conservative media. Obviously a real political scandal at BLS would have been far worse—but since there was no scandal, and not even the faintest evidence of one, the charge did a lot of damage by needlessly eroding public trust in the reliability of official jobs numbers. That is alarming. Shared foundations in fact are a precondition for democratic debate to occur at all. Imagine the effect that FOX News has had on the news spreading even into the realm of expert opinion and official statistics. To some extent, that’s already begun, and it’s one of the more worrying (and under-reported) developments of modern American politics. I don’t think that’s what the Times story was doing—far from it!—but I do think it can be seen as one more example of declining trust in experts and the (imperfect but important) ideal of objectivity. If foreign governments are corrupting the independence of American think tanks, that’s a disturbing and newsworthy story. But even if these kinds of institutions aren’t corrupt, the appearance or belief that they are can have a disturbing effect in its own way.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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