Truth as a disadvantage

The Brookings InstitutionIf you’re reading this blog, you’re likely to be someone who’s interested in ‘truth’ – finding out the evidence on inequalities, and using this as a platform for action.  You might have protested about the way that politicians and the media perpetuate inequalities by peddling ‘myths’. You may even have dedicated your whole life to finding out truths and spreading them far and wide – however uncomfortable for people in power, or even yourself.

But what if all this actually makes it less likely that inequalities will be tackled?

That’s the possibility raised by an intriguing book chapter by Andrew Rich, which studies US think tanks to try and understand why conservative ideas have been dominant over liberal ideas in the US in recent decades. 

‘Think Tanks as an Infrastructure for Ideas’

Why look at think tanks? Rich starts by making the case that “Think tanks have been a driving force in what is often called a war of ideas in American politics, a war that conservatives are winning. They are a key organizational vehicle for promoting ideas. They offer a way for ideas to gain adherents and to inform the substantive underpinnings of policy debates. And think tanks are not just an engine for ideas. They are also a reflection of ideas.”  Rich’s study looks at these think tanks in two ways – a survey of 78 think-tanks from 2003 (representing a response rate of 68%, and with 34 conservative, 19 liberal, and 25 that present themselves as disinterested), together with a few qualitative interviews.

You might expect all think tanks to use the same tactics in the service of different ideals – but Rich points out that these ideals actually influence the way that think tanks go about their business (p196). Liberal think tanks – according to Rich – typically see themselves as ‘disinterested experts’, using objective research to try and solve social problems. Conservatives, however, typically see themselves as salesmen for ideas; research is felt to be inherently ideological, and to be used in the service of promoting their core beliefs.  It’s not that conservatives see themselves as ‘anti-truth’, but instead that their truth is a deeper, philosophical truth about the nature of the world. And as a result of their lesser concern to objective evidence, Rich suggests, they are more effective at selling their ideas to politicians and the public.

The evidence for this claim is not overwhelming – but I was somewhat convinced, partly because it seems to ring true, and partly because there is some suggestive evidence in the chapter. In the survey, conservative think tanks report that ideological orientation is the most important criteria for hiring staff, while liberal think tanks primarily emphasise about advanced degrees and experience in government (p199).  Similarly, liberal think tanks tended to see think tanks as places for policy researchers and issue activists, whereas conservatives saw them more as places for public intellectuals (with its undertones of shaping the public worldview).

Logo of the Heritage FoundationPerhaps more interesting, though, are the results from the interviews.  Take the conservative Heritage Foundation:

“Our belief is that when the research has been printed, then the job is only half done. That is when we start marketing it to the media.… We have as part of our charge the selling of ideas, the selling of policy proposals. We are out there actively selling these things, day after day. It’s our mission” – Herb Berkowitz, the Heritage Foundation’s former vice president for communication

We can explicitly contrast this to a liberal think tank talking about how they work differently:

“The important thing for us, and it’s not true—and I don’t say this purely out of a spirit of rivalry and competitiveness—but it’s not true, for example, for the Heritage Foundation. They don’t really care whether their numbers meet academic standards. For us, it’s a question of survival. We know that we can’t make it unless we continue to be credible to places with our numbers. So we try to be bold politically, but we spend a lot of energy making sure our numbers are right” – president of liberal think tank, 2005

Advocacy without truth?

Rich’s claim is that “ideas are really not important to liberals—pragmatists or activists—in the ways that they are to conservatives” (p206), and that therefore liberal think tanks “are not organized to be effective counterweights to conservative think tanks in the war of ideas” (p203). So does this mean liberals we ditch the ideal of truth, and get down and play dirty instead?  Well, I have two worries about this.

Firstly, this is clearly not the full explanation for the dominance of neoliberal ideas in the US, the UK and elsewhere.  The evidence in the chapter is interesting but hardly definitive, and the idea that all liberals have a firm commitment to truth is, to put it mildly, an exaggeration – I’ve seen plenty of gross misuses of statistics that are done in the service of tackling inequalities.  Fewer than I’ve seen conservatives use, perhaps, but it does happen. And more importantly, the power of think tanks is easy to over-state; there are sweeping tides of social change that have brought neoliberalism along with them in their wake, with think tanks bobbing along on the surface.

Secondly, truth can be a valuable public currency, even if advocates themselves don’t believe it.  From informal conversations with think-tankers and civil servants, any idea that is clearly wrong has the risk of being shot down in public debate – or if not in public debate, then at least in the elite policymaking circles that many operate in.  Conservatives have to pay some attention to truth (or at least pay lip service to it), and any clumsy attempt by liberals to lie their way into a winning argument is likely to backfire.

Yet despite my misgivings about a simple form of this argument – the simplicity, I should add, in part due to my blog post rather than Rich himself – there does seem to be something important here. And indeed, there are substantial overlaps here with the work of people like Drew Westen, arguing that Democrats excessive reliance on rational argument over emotional appeal has disadvantaged them in the battle for votes; as I’ve written recently, putting the truth in front of people doesn’t necessarily change their minds. Which all raises much bigger questions about the role of evidence and truth, questions which I’ll return to over the coming months…

About Ben Baumberg Geiger

I am a Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy at the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research (SSPSSR) at the University of Kent. I also helped set up the collaborative research blog Inequalities, where (after a long break) I am again blogging about inequality-related policy & research. I have a wide range of research interests, at the moment focusing on the role of social science, disability, inequality, deservingness, and the future of the benefits system, and I co-lead the Welfare at a (Social) Distance project (on the benefits system during Covid-19). You can find out more about me at
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15 Responses to Truth as a disadvantage

  1. Do you think that neo-liberalism (as opposed to a more generic conservatism) is intrinsically and in all relevant ways opposed to equality? Neo-liberal policies seem to work and be implemented best in relatively equal societies:

    And if you think neo-liberalism has indeed been the ascendant ideology of globalisation (I think that depends on which definition of neo-liberalism you want to use) then it hasn’t been responsible for an increase in global inequality, and on some metrics, has presided over a substantial decrease in inequality:

    • Ben Baumberg says:

      Thanks for the really interesting response Tony, and I guess I should start with an apology – I usually hate the word ‘neoliberalism’, which is often shorthand among leftwingers for ‘things that I don’t really agree with but lots of people annoyingly seem to believe’…

      In terms of the relationship between neoliberal ideas (as I understand them) and equality, I would say that neoliberalism in general is antagonistic to many types of equality within a given country – indeed, the general increases in inequality we see in many countries I would argue are due to neoliberal reforms.

      The point about the relationship of globalisation and global inequality is really interesting and challenging though, and something I’ve written about before – both on Branko Milanovic’s work that you link to, and also elsewhere. I think it depends on what you mean by ‘neoliberalism’ here – a decrease in protectionism in high-income countries is a good thing as far as I’m concerned, and you can argue that this is a neoliberal policy, although personally I wouldn’t completely agree.

      Sorry not to be able to go into all this in more detail, anyway, but I will keep thinking about it!

      • I appreciate your posiiton. I would say that attributing specific inequalities to a highly dominant neo-liberalism but not many of the increased equalities (between men and women, between ethnic groups and between countries, for example) risks becoming a sort of “sharp shooter” fallacy.

        I see an equivalent and probably more fallacious argument on the right, where countries with good institutions and good economies are said to be “Western” (“Because West is best!”) before hastily adding various countries in East Asia as “honourary Western” states, indeed oddly as paradigmatically Western, while excluding any states with failed economies but relevantly similar institutions from the argument.

        Basically, I am suspicious of any model which splits the good from the bad in this world in such a wonderfully neat and satisfying way. I think ‘neoliberalism’ risks doing that on occasions.

      • Ben Baumberg says:

        Interestingly I just saw this post by John Holwood on the idea of neoliberalism, which seems relevant.

  2. Matthew says:

    I think the lack of veracity among right-wing think tanks is more likely to be a symptom than a cause. Simon Wren-Lewis has a post here discussing the lack of facts in the GOP:

    He cites research suggesting that conservatism is essentially the dominant culture, from which liberalism represents unusual deviation. If that’s true, then the fact that the public is predisposed to believe conservative-sounding claims means that less evidence is needed to persuade them. In terms of Bayesian theory, the priors are always conservative beliefs, so liberals will always need to be more scientific, objective, and rigorous to be able to persuade.

    • Ben Baumberg says:

      This is a great observation (and a link to a great discussion), which I pretty much agree with – I think Bayesian reasoning (in a loose sense) is always really helpful in understanding the role of evidence and beliefs.

      On the other hand, think tanks spend a lot of time talking to their core constituencies, who are already disposed to agree with them (i.e. their priors are similar). And it seems to me that leftwingers are more concerned with social science evidence than rightwingers even when talking to themselves. Which perhaps comes from the wider climate and the greater need to buttress their beliefs against the prevailing wisdom – I’m not sure.

      One thing that might be interesting here though is the extent to which this has changed over time – in the early postwar period we had a very different dominant system of beliefs. I’ve heard someone say that at that time, leftwingers (communists / state socialists) were the ones who were more likely to ignore evidence, while rightwingers were more concerned about social science. I’ve got no idea if this is actually the case or not (even if it has a grain of truth I’m sure it’s more complex than this), but would be interesting to know more…

  3. metatone says:

    I think we need to be careful about the “sweeping tides of social change that have brought neoliberalism.” It’s a particular prejudice in political science to bundle up cultural and social attitude changes as “changes in the prevailing winds” and fail to inquire how the wind came to change. Many aspects of social change related to neoliberalism have been deliberately (if ineptly) propelled by years of propaganda movements. The book “The Right Nation” by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge has some good outlines of this.

    • Ben Baumberg says:

      The point here is well-taken – I guess there are two dangers here. One of them is that we assume that everything is due to impersonal forces we can’t control, so we might as well as do nothing (as you point out). The other is to assume that everything is due to a particular force (e.g. think tanks, but often in the work I do it’s the media), and to ignore these wider factors – and it was this that I was reacting against in this post. The truth to me seems to be in-between; think tanks and the media have some influence, but they are also constrained by the circumstances they find themselves in. Apologies if I seem to have gone too much the other way!

  4. PAL says:

    Its an interesting question: “When attempting to persuade the public, how much energy should be spent on listing the facts of the case, and how much energy should be spent on provoking the emotional response of the audience?” I’d say that, from the perspective of the think tank, if your objective is to get your candidate elected, then it makes sense to lean heavily on the provoking-emotional-response side. That seems to be what gets people to the polls. I don’t mean to disparage “the truth”. I support the truth. (That was kind of a funny thing to say.) My point is that, if the truth is going to make it to the finish line, then, given what we know about human nature and voter apathy, it makes sense to add in a good dose of marketing.

  5. Brad F says:

    I am a centrist who leans left or right of center contingent on issues.

    I am interested in hearing your thoughts on Jonathon Haidt’s work and how his ideas relate to what you touched on above (how our takes on the world shape our worldview)

    Even more recently and in a similar vein, Kling along same lines:

    –Liberals use a oppression axis to view the world – oppressed vs oppressor

    –Conservatives use a civilization vs barbarism axis

    –Libertarians use a coercion vs freedom axis

    What spurred my comment was your sentence below:
    “So does this mean liberals we ditch the ideal of truth, and get down and play dirty instead?”

    The operative word “dirty” implies the other side, in this case conservative think tanks, use an unsavory tactic. Maybe sometimes or more than progressives, but I thought the word choice conveyed an interesting, and perhaps subtle bias.


    • Ben Baumberg says:

      Thanks for the comment Brad – yes, Haidt’s work is also interesting here, and there are clear links to Rich’s argument (I didn’t know about Kling though – I’ll look this up, thanks).

      In terms of the word choice, that sentence wasn’t really meant to capture my point of view – as the following line says, I have various worries with any argument that goes like this! (This is part of the risk of blogging, where I don’t take long enough to be exactly clear what I think…). I do think there’s something to consider here in terms of left-right uses of evidence, but as I tried to make clear in the post, I don’t want to suggest that conservatives are all deeply immoral and consciously lie the whole time – hence the comment about how conservatives often see themselves as pursuing a ‘deeper truth’.

      Apologies if I seemed to be suggesting this though. Obviously I do have my biases (I try to be open about what I believe!), but I don’t want to say that conservatives are all stupid or immoral, or anything like that, which I think is both slightly offensive and obviously untrue.

  6. Robert de Vries says:

    Hey Ben – this is really interesting. It does seem that there’s something about liberalism that places a high value on truth and evidence – or maybe it’s that people who value truth and evidence also tend towards liberal political views.

    A statement you hear a lot within liberal circles is “I agree with your intentions but your evidence is flawed”. I feel like this happens less within conservative groups, but I don’t know – I’d need to see some more solid evidence first…

  7. Kat Smith says:

    Another post I really enjoyed reading, Ben, thanks (albeit I am reading it super-late in the day). I’d also read this book chapter with interest. I agree it’s an interesting idea that has a ring of truth to it which it would be good to explore more through research. I did wonder whether your post sometimes unfairly conflates ‘truth’ with ‘evidence’ – I think it’s important to keep the two distinct and Rich’s chapter largely focuses on liberal think tank’s interest in using evidence to support claims, rather than an interest in ‘finding out the truth’. Then there’s another important distinction, which crops up a bit in some of the comments above, between how a think tank might come to take a particular position on a policy issue (whether or not this position is evidence-informed and, if so, what kinds of evidence are drawn upon and how good the quality of that evidence is) and then how they seek to promote that position (whether or not they think claims about evidence are useful or whether they prefer appealing to emotive frames, etc). As you know, I also think it’s important to acknowledge that ‘truth’ and ‘evidence’ rarely provide clear policy answers to the question ‘what should we do?’ There’s usually lots of different kinds of evidence available about different aspects of a policy issue, multiple legitimate interests involved, a range of policy goals, and some important ethical and democratic factors to consider. For all those reasons, I’m not sure a greater commitment to using evidence necessarily equates to having a greater interest in, or commitment to, ‘truth’.

    • Ben Baumberg says:

      Thanks for the typically thoughtful reply Kat! Re “I’m not sure a greater commitment to using evidence necessarily equates to having a greater interest in, or commitment to, ‘truth’”, I think the difference between ‘truth’ and ‘evidence’ is interesting – to my mind, there are two reasons to use evidence:
      1. Out of a commitment to truth itself.
      2. Without a commitment to truth, but seeing this as a necessary part of playing the game given political realities.

      It might well be that evidence is a necessary form of legitimation in leftist circles even without a commitment to truth (at least among the think-tank world) – although at some level, I think this would arise because of someone’s commitment to truth. I’d still like to do a project speaking to people in (Right and Left) think-tanks about their ideas of truth, I think it would be really interesting to explore.

      I’d be interested to hear if you think there’s a third reason to use evidence. Perhaps from a think-tank perspective, international evidence is a source of ideas rather than truths? I think this happens, but it still raises issues about why anyone would bother to refer to the evidence once they’ve got the idea.

      (It goes without saying btw that there’s a lot more to policy work than evidence – I was getting in a lengthy discussion in the policy world the other day about frames vs. mythbusting, and it’s clear how limited the power of the latter is. But that said, it would be useful to know why people bother with evidence at all – something I’m sure your interviews shed light on. I still think it’s a matter of either truth or legitimation, at the core!).

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