Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Academia and Think Tanks

I've been chewing on Tom Medvetz's critique of Charles Murray at The Monkey Cage. Not because of Charles Murray per se, but because my own experience with think tanks doesn't jibe well with Medvetz's. His take is highly dismissive, using the word "policy experts" very consciously in quotes.

For Murray and other “policy experts,” media visibility, fundraising power, and political recognition all amplify and strengthen one another. But maintaining the veneer of intellectual detachment requires a delicate relationship with the academic social sciences. This is why being an “outsider” in this arena suits him well. Murray connects his work loosely to academic debates, earning a smattering of social scientific recognition and elevating himself above mere ideological bluster. But that connection must remain superficial. Were Murray to submit to the usual checks on social scientific rigor—especially peer review—or get bogged down in the fine-grained details of academic debate, he would undermine his standing with donors, politicians and journalists. More broadly, he would undermine his position in the peculiar game that determines who counts as a relevant expert in American public debate, which is more responsive to the preferences of donors, politicians and media gatekeepers than to the rules of scientific judgment.

The clear implication here is that people at think tanks who do not engage in peer-reviewed work are--by definition--not rigorous and therefore need quotations around them. I am really uncomfortable with the generalization.

Thinking of Latin American politics, in the U.S. I've read and even gotten to know people at the Center for International Policy, the Washington Office on Latin America, the Americas Society and Council of the Americas, and the Council on Foreign Relations, among others. For my dissertation work in the late 1990s, I spent a year at the Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Socialas (FLACSO) in Santiago, Chile. Without FLACSO, I couldn't have done my dissertation research on the Chilean military, because the high level of respect they earned opened doors for me. What I've found collectively over the past two decades is a really impressive group of people who do incredible research, some of it more interesting, and often more widely read, than academic work in peer-reviewed publications.

Many of the people working at those think tanks are experts, not "experts." I read and cite their stuff even though it's not in Journal of Politics. There are people in think tanks who do crappy work, but same goes for academia. It's the quality of the work that matters, not the institution of the individual doing the work.


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