Why think tanks attract sycophantic opportunists

Benjamin H. Friedman lists the reasons think tank analysts lack intellectual independence. Think tanks are shaped by five forces creating political bias:

The first is institutional funding. If you take government or industry money, you will hesitate to undertake research that offends your sponsors. Many people see foundations as somehow cleaner money, but they too have agendas. Even those of us that rely on donations from many individuals of an ideological persuasion get selected to advance that ideology and thus cannot much violate it.

Second, personal profit biases ideas. Many defense and homeland security experts, especially the most prominent ones, work for defense contractors or investment companies in that industry.

Third is ambition. Those concerned with defense analysts’ independence tend to focus on money, but as Hans Morgenthau tells us, power matters more. Analysts tend to reflect the views of one party because they hope to serve it or because their employer does. Those pining for jobs in the Obama or Thune administration are not going to tell you exactly what they think about Afghanistan without considering how their would-be bosses would react.

A fourth bias in defense analysis is what academics call a selection bias. Just as people that go into the international development business are likely to support increased foreign aid, defense analysts are more likely than most to be hawkish people.

Fifth is social convention. When these pressures point in a particular direction, it seems impolite and for many people uncomfortable to swim against the tide. And we unconsciously adjust our political views to fit in with those around us.

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2 thoughts on “Why think tanks attract sycophantic opportunists

  1. rick

    An important and enlightening excerpt, totally distorted by a misleading title!

    The whole point of Benjamin Friedman’s article is to understand the social dynamics that produce intellectual “Group-think” behavior that benefits a particular set of interests, institutions, and individuals.
    The vast majority of what you call “sycophantic opportunists” are _MADE_, not born. People unconsciously adapt to their own Institution’s BIASED WORLDVIEW. “Facts” and “Values” interact.

    This is similar to what Bacevich terms, “the Washington consensus”.
    In his book, “Washington Rules”, Bacevich does not simplistically stereotype the Military-Industrial Complex as a bunch of “sycophantic opportunists”.
    Instead, he describes collective social worldview-norms, and individual psychological dynamics. On page 12, he describes these factors as,

    “so deeply embedded in the American collective consciousness as to have all but disappeared from view”.

    You will find SELF-CENSORSHIP bias-dynamics similar to those Benjamin Friedman describes in (“evil”) Big Pharma researchers, in (“good”) Left-wing/Progressive Bloggers, in (“good”) Human Rights organizations, and in the (“unbiased, objective”) Mainstream Media.

    Here’s some useful data about the dynamics of MSM Intitutionalized Bias:
    “Editor & Publisher” reported (Jan 16, 1993) that
    93% of editors said advertisers tried to influence the content of their newspaper articles.
    71% of editors said advertisers tried to kill certain stories outright.
    And 37% of editors were HONEST ENOUGH to admit that they actually had succumbed to this advertiser pressure.
    More than half (55%) said there was pressure from WITHIN THEIR OWN NEWSPAPER to write or tailor news stories to please advertisers.

    If you don’t understand that these SELF_CENSORSHIP dynamics influence
    ALL individuals, in ALL human institutions,
    then you will never be able to influence the Military-Industrial Complex.

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