Authors: Aaron Swartz
June 8, 2006
If you have any doubt about the power of the think tanks, look no further than the story of
The Bell Curve
. Written by Charles Murray, who received over $1.2 million from right-wing foundations for his work, the book claimed that IQ tests revealed black people to be genetically less intelligent than whites, thus explaining their low place in society. Murray published the 845-page book without showing it to any other scientists, leading the
Wall Street Journal
to say he pursued “a strategy that provided book galleys to likely supporters while withholding them from likely critics” in an attempt “to fix the fight . . . contrary to usual publishing protocol.” Murray's think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, flew key members of the media to Washington for a weekend of briefings on the book's content (
What Liberal Media?
And the media lapped it up. In what Eric Alterman has termed “a kind of Rorschach test for pundits” (WLM?, 96), every major media outlet reviewed the book without questioning the accuracy of its contents. Instead, they merely quibbled about its proposed recommendations that the dumb blacks, with their dangerously high reproductive rates, might have to be kept in “a high-tech and more lavish version of an Indian reservation” without such luxuries as “individualism, equal rights before the law,” and so on. Reviewers proposed more moderate solutions, like just taking away their welfare checks (
But such quibbles aside, the amount of coverage alone was incredible.
The book received cover stories in
(“the science behind [it] is overwhelmingly mainstream”), the
(which dedicated an entire issue to discussion of the book), and the
New York Times Book Review
(which suggested critics disliked its “appeal to sweet reason” and are “inclined to hang the defendants without a trial”). Detailed articles appeared in
New York Times
(“makes a strong case”), the
New York Times Magazine, Forbes
(praising the book's “Jeffersonian vision”), the
Wall Street Journal
, and the
. It received a respectful airing on such shows as ABC's
McLaughlin Group, Think Tank
(which dedicated a special two-part series to the book), ABC's
, and NPR's
All Things Considered
. With fifteen weeks on the bestseller list, it ended up selling over 300,000 copies in hardcover.
This wasn't just a media debate about the existence of global warming or the merits of internment, this was a full-on media endorsement of racism, which the
American Heritage Dictionary
defines as “the belief that race accounts for differences in human character or ability and that a particular race is superior to others.” Nor did the media mention the work's political intentions. On the contrary, they presented it as the sober work of social scientists:
Ted Koppel lamented to Murray about how his “great deal of work and research” had become “a political football.”
Of course, this was almost certainly Murray's intention all along. In the book proposal for his previous book (
, an attack on government welfare programs) he had explained: “Why can a publisher sell this book? Because a huge number of well-meaning whites fear that they are closet racists, and this book tells them they are not. It's going to make them feel better about things they already think but do not know how to say.”
That's certainly what
The Bell Curve
did, replacing a debate over how to improve black achievement with one about whether such improvement was even possible.
There was just one problem: none of this stuff was accurate. As
Professor Michael Nunley wrote in a special issue of the
American Behavioral Scientist
The Bell Curve
, after a series of scientific articles debunked all the book's major claims: “I believe this book is a fraud, that its authors must have known it was a fraud when they were writing it, and that Charles Murray must still know it's a fraud as he goes around defending it. . . . After careful reading, I cannot believe its authors were not acutely aware of . . . how they were distorting the material they did include” (
June 9, 2006
But do the right-wing think tanks even care about the facts? In his autobiography,
Blinded by the Right
, David Brock describes his experience being recruited for one right out of college: “Though I had no advanced degrees, I assumed the grandiose title of John M. Olin Fellow in Congressional Studies, which, if nothing else, certainly impressed my parents. . . . My assignment was to write a monograph, which I hoped to publish as a book, challenging the conservative orthodoxy on the proper relationship between the executive and legislative branches of government.” This topic was chosen, Brock explains, because with “a squish like Bush in the White House . . . the political reality [was] that the conservative agenda could be best advanced by renegade conservatives on Capitol Hill” (79f).
Needless to say, paying fresh-faced former college students lots of money to write articles that serve political needs is not the best way to get accurate information. But is accurate information the goal? Look at John Lott, a “resident scholar” at the American Enterprise Instituteâthe same right-wing think tank that promoted
The Bell Curve
. Lott's book
More Guns, Less Crime
claimed that his scientific studies had found that passing laws to allow people to carry concealed weapons actually lowered crime rates. As usual, the evidence melted away upon investigation, but Lott's errors were more serious than most.
Not content to simply distort the data, Lott fabricated an entire study which he claimed showed that in 97% of cases, simply brandishing a gun would cause an attacker to flee. When Internet critics
began to point out his inconsistencies on this claim, Lott posted responses under the name “Mary Rosh” to defend himself. “I have to say that he was the best professor I ever had,” Lott gushed about himself in one Internet posting. “There were a group of us students who would try to take any class that he taught. Lott finally had to tell us that it was best for us to try and take classes from other professors.”
Confronted about his alternate identity, Lott told the
” I probably shouldn't have done itâI know I shouldn't have done it.” And yet, the very next day he again attacked his critics, this time under the new pseudonym “Washingtonian.” (It later got so bad that one of Lott's pseudonyms would start talking about posts from another Lott pseudonym.)
Lott, of course, is not the only scholar to make things up to bolster his case. For comparison, look at Michael Bellesiles, author of the anti-gun book
, which argued guns were uncommon in early America. Other scholars investigated and found that Bellesiles had probably fabricated evidence. Emory University, where Bellesiles was a professor of history, began an investigation into the accuracy of his work, eventually forcing him to resign. His publisher, Knopf, pulled the book out of print. Libraries pulled the book off their shelves. Columbia University revoked the Bancroft Prize the book had been awarded. The scandal was widely covered in academic circles. Bellesiles was firmly disgraced and has not shown his face in public since.
And what happened to Lott? Nothing. Lott remains a “resident scholar” at the American Enterprise Institute, his book continues to sell well, his op-ed pieces are still published in major papers, and he gives talks around the country. For the right-wing scholar, even outright fraud is no serious obstacle.
June 10, 2006
Since the goal of these think tanks clearly isn't to advance knowledge, what are they for? To understand their real goals, we have to look at why they were created. After the tumultuous 1960s led a generation of students to start questioning authority, business decided something had to be done. “The American economic system,” explained Lewis Powell in a 1971 memo for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, “is under broad attack” from “perfectly respectable elements of society: from the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians.”
And business has no one to blame but itself for not getting these things under control: the colleges are funded by “contributions from capital funds controlled or generated by American business. The boards of trustees . . . overwhelmingly are composed of men and women who are leaders in the system.” And the media “are owned and theoretically controlled by corporations which depend upon profits, and the enterprise system to survive.” So business must “conduct guerilla warfare” by “establishing a staff of highly qualified scholars” who can be paid to publish a “steady flow of scholarly articles” in magazines and journals as well as books and pamphlets to be published “at airports, drugstores, and elsewhere.”
William Simon, president of the right-wing Olin Foundation (the same one that later funded Brock), was more blunt: “The only thing that can save the Republican Party . . . is a counter-intelligentsia. . . . [Conservative scholars] must be given grants, grants, and more
grants in exchange for books, books, and more books” (
Blinded by the Right
The Powell memo was incredibly influential. Soon after it was written, business began following its advice, building up its network of think tanks, news outlets, and media pressure groups. These organizations began to dot the landscape, hiding behind respectable names like the Manhattan Institute or the Heartland Foundation. While these institutions were all funded by partisan conservatives, news accounts rarely noted this fact. (Another FAIR study finds the Heritage Foundation's political orientationâlet alone its fundingâwas only identified in 24% of news citations.)
As the conservative message machine grew stronger, political debate and electoral results began to shift further and further to the right, eventually allowing extreme conservatives to be elected, first with Ronald Reagan and now with George W. Bush. More recently, conservatives have managed to finally win not only the White House but both houses of Congress. While their policy proposals, when understood, are just as unpopular as ever, conservatives are able to use their media power to twist the debate.