How Think Tanks Use “Sound Science” – Neither Soundly Nor Scientifically

August 30th, 2008

Posted by: admin

Besides an emphasis on climate science policy, Prometheus posts have often wrangled with the common practice of appealing to science (sometimes referred to as “sound science”) as a means to close a policy debate.  There are many problems with such a rhetorical and political strategy, not the least of which is the hiding of debate and differences within this closed box of ‘expertise’ – an area Science and Technology Studies has mined well, and Science and Technology Policy Research could do well to visit that foundry more often.

Think tanks are no stranger to this appeal to authority.  Of course, those with more ideological purposes (Heritage, Center for American Progress, Cato) are easier to spot when they make these appeals as a way to advance their particular agendas.  Those with no apparent ideological axe to grind are harder to sniff out.

Let me present today’s example, from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation – a small think tank that usually does fine with their various economic analyses of IT and innovation related topics.  They have announced an event on September 10 in Washington titled: Is the U.S. Falling Behind in Science and Technology or Not?  The associated press release explains why they ask the question:

Over the last several years a number of reports – headlined by Ris­ing Above the Gathering Storm have raised alarm over the deteriorating state of U.S. science and technology (S&T) competitiveness and documented how the country is falling behind in key building blocks of the S&T base.

Now bursting onto the scene is a new report from the RAND Corporation, U.S. Competitiveness in Science and Technology, that calls into question what appeared to be settled assessments of slipping U.S. S&T competitiveness. Covered widely in magazines like The Economist (What Crisis? June 12, 2008 issue), RAND’s report has been interpreted by many to suggest that worries about the United States losing its edge in S&T are actually overblown: everything’s just fine

But RAND’s report contains se­rious structural and analytic flaws that misread the fundamental position of U.S. science and technology competitiveness. In a new report, RAND’s Rose-Colored Glasses: How RAND’s Report on U.S. Competitiveness in Science and Technology Gets it Wrong, ITIF will offer a detailed critique of the RAND report showing that in contrast to RAND’s rosy assessment, America’s lead on a number of key S&T indicators is eroding rapidly, where not vanishing entirely.

I want to be careful here.  The event hasn’t happened yet, but the framing of the discussion is a great example of how a policy debate can easily be hidden away by appeals to sound science, or in the case of this particular event “settled assessments.”

And in the interest of noting where Prometheus stands, we have criticized Rising Above the Gathering Storm (RAGS) to the point where it has its own category.  Both Roger and I have noted the RAND report targeted by ITIF in a favorable light.  It lacks the heated rhetoric and dubious calculations of RAGS, and makes the point that action is necessary, regardless of the state of U.S. competitiveness (something ITIF conveniently ignores).  The notion of steady-state equilibrium in science and technology support should have been discredited once technology was incorporated into economic growth models, but that’s a post for another day, if not another blog.

Scientific consensus does not dictate particular policy actions.  Look at the climate change debates to see proof of this.  The press release is framed in such a way that this ‘bad’ RAND report must be fought, or the policy consensus over improving U.S. competitiveness (such as it is) will fail.  But ITIF won’t fight the report on it’s tone (which appears to be the main source of disagreement), but on supposed flaws in its science.  All the while, flaws in the science of reports supportive of ITIF’s position (the sky is falling, we’re doomed unless science gets more money, you know the drill) is ignored (ITIF isn’t the only one to ignore the flaws, or the related criticism).

There’s a fine line between rhetoric and, well, I’ll call it delusion (Henry Frankfurt has another name for it), and I think this falls on the wrong side.  Instead of picking apart reports read by very few people that matter in competitiveness decisions, political action is better spent persuading the right people that certain programs need full funding.

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