In understanding the complicated media and political landscape in any policy debate, it is important to understand the competing sides of the debate as well as the biases of the policy experts that politicians consult to inform or justify their decisions. It is useful to understand the role of think tanks and other influence brokers. As one might expect, people who have a political, professional, or economic interest in the information that societies draw upon to form policies may be highly motivated to trumpet the upsides and squelch the downsides of their research and findings.

What is a think tank?

Politicians in America mostly have backgrounds in law, and that makes sense, since those are the people in charge of drafting laws. But the corollary to that is that they are rarely also experts in the subjects they are required to make laws about. Thus, it would make sense that the lawmakers bring in subject matter experts to educate them on how their decisions might ultimately effect the world. Often these experts are culled from think tanks, which are typically privately financed research groups that study government, laws, business, and other specialized subjects and use their research to influence public policy.

There are three main arrangements that stem from this influence:

1) Politicians seek guidance on an issue and seek out the experts in think tanks who can provide research and knowledge to inform their decisions.

2) Think tanks seek out politicians who will be voting on a particular piece of legislation and offer them the research they have done. Often a component of this is that the think tanks are actively trying to advocate for or against some policy and seek to influence lawmakers.

3) Think tanks draft model legislation and give it to politicians and influence them to submit it.

This range of activities suggest a sliding scale of industry influence in the nation’s laws, and the reader can decide for herself which seems more or less compatible with the idea of democratic governance.

The history of think tanks is a pretty boring affair, which is probably how they have come to have so much influence. Nothing discourages active oversight more than a boring subject. But they have existed for over a hundred years, which is about how long it has been in vogue in America to think that policy experts, social scientists, economists, and other people trained in the study of society are uniquely qualified to shape civilization.

According to James Allen Smith’s The Idea Brokers, think tanks first made a big splash in America in the first quarter of the 20th century. At the time, there was not a lot of intellectual capital in Washington, so leaders sought to bring in experts to help shape policy. Smith opined that this desire stemmed partly from the efficiency craze of the late 1800s. Recent scientific breakthroughs had led some to suspect that efficiency could be quantifiably, scientifically measured (46-48). Thus, in the 1920s and 30s academics who had previously been passive observers of industry, government, and policy were beginning to take a more active role in advocating for policies (49-51). As one might anticipate, this advocacy spanned the political spectrum and influenced policy, social messaging, marketing, framing, and news in every conceivable area of social and/or economic concern.

Sound Science : an example of Think Tank and Industry Influence

To understand the reach of industry public relations and think tank advocacy in modern times, one need only trace the use of the phrase “sound science” from its inception to its broader use in society. Anyone familiar with the discourse surrounding climate change has heard the phrase sound science bandied about. The leg work for this was done by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway in Merchants of Doubt, Chris Mooney in The Republican War on Science, and Riley Dunlap and Peter Jacques in “Climate Change Denial Books and Conservative Think Tanks: Exploring the Connection.”

As Chris Mooney (2005) pointed out, the roots of sound science go back to the tobacco companies who, in the 60s, were having to find ever-more inventive ways to deny that smoking caused cancer. In 1964 the surgeon general released a report that tied cigarette smoking to a variety of serious illnesses, and the tobacco companies mobilized to do something they dubbed “manufacturing uncertainty.” Their lawyers would direct teams of researchers and scientists to undermine the facts however they could (67-68).

Old Smoking Ad

This ad uses a doctor’s authority to suggest that smoking is safe.

It was revealed in 1979 that a 1969 internal memo from Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company titled, “Smoking and Health Proposal” purposefully sought to confuse the public’s understanding of the link between cancer and its product (Kenyon 2016). The memo stated its goals in the kind of blunt language it would never want to be part of the public record. In part it read, “Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy” (qtd in Kenyon Par. 2).Though they did not use the phrase “sound science,” the seeds of manufacturing doubt in science were sown.

Mooney (2005) documented that the American Industrial Health Council in 1981 described their mission as ensuring the “adequacy and quality” of science used in the industry. They likewise praised President Reagan’s pursuit of “sound science” in the creation of federal health policies (qtd. In Mooney 66). Later, the George C Marshall institute included similar language in its mission statement (65).

An ad stating that climate science is junk science.

An advertisement found on a libertarian website claims that scientists who contest ‘junk science’ are shamed by their peers.

According to Oreskes (2011), in 1990, S Fred Singer, who was one of the “experts” who testified to congress that there was no link between smoking and cancer, created his “Science and Environmental Policy Project” to “promote sound science in environmental policy” (143)

In 1993 the phrase moved from mission statements into the very name of one think tank: The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition. They described themselves as “a grassroots-based, not-for-profit watchdog group of scientists and representatives from universities, independent organizations, and industry that advocates the use of sound science in public policy” (qtd. in Mooney 67). That same year, internal documents of Phillip H Morris had called for the creation of just such a think tank (67); however, there is no concrete evidence of a link between the two events.

In 1999, ExxonMobil’s stated environmental science policy, according to Skjaerseth and Skodvin’s Climate Change and the Oil Industry, was to, “Work with government and industry groups to develop environmental laws and regulations that are based on “sound science” (45-46).

By 2001, President George W. Bush, formerly the founder of Arbusto Oil, made sure to include in his speeches his insistence that US climate change policy be informed by, wait for it, sound science.

For all this talk of wanting sound science, are these think tanks actually pursuing the truth? Dunlap and Jacques (2013) studied 108 climate change denial books written before the year 2011 and found that 1) most evidence very strong ties to right wing think tanks, with the relationship decreasing among self-published books and 2) that 90% are not peer-reviewed (701-05). Since peer review is a central tenet of scientific writing, it seems unlikely that the aim of these organizations was as pure and noble as stated. In fact, according to James Hoggan’s Climate Cover-Up, (2009) in 2006 the American Enterprise Institute offered cash to scientists who would “agree to write a critique of the anticipated Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC” (74). 

Case Study: How Think Tanks Exert Influence

A colleague read my lecture notes on think tanks and told me that he has first-hand experience with the Heartland Institute. This piqued my interest because Heartland Institute is pretty big in the global warming denial game (though their interests include all laissez-faire/libertarian politics), and one will often find them releasing research in support of anything that keeps government small and taxes low.

My colleague—he asked for anonymity, so we will call him Elvis Jones—worked for Anonymous American Auto Manufacturer (let’s call it AAAM) in the Environmental Regulatory Legislative Support Group. He worked with scientists and lawyers as part of a team that made sure AAAM facilities met EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) standards, determined how meeting those standards would affect AAAM’s bottom line, and in some cases, investigated whether the standards were based on the best understanding of science.

During the process through which the EPA would make regulations, they would publish the proposed rules and regulations in the Federal Register, at which point anyone can go there and comment on the proposed regulations in hopes of influencing the final form of the regulations. For those who are policy minded and have knowledge of a field being regulated, this is a good opportunity to participate in government beyond voting. The documents that are posted there can then be used by people to make estimates about how the regulations, once they become official, will affect their businesses.

At AAAM, once the documents were posted, they would be circulated throughout the company, and everyone would have the chance to analyze the regulations to see how much it would cost them, to debate the science, and in general, to get everyone’s input on what it would ultimately mean to the company.

Just to be clear, one can’t view any given company as a monolith. There are people in the company who care only about profit, and there are people who care only about the environment, and there are people who constitute every shade in between those two poles. If some in upper management are concerned only about making money, others strike a more even-handed approach and realize that the environmental impact of a new plant is important. Others may be concerned about profit but also realize that the public backlash for doing something profitable but ALSO anti-environmental is not a winner in the long term. All of those different voices would be trying to influence Elvis’s team.

At the same time–and here is where the think tanks come in–it was not at all uncommon for the Heartland to take upper management out to lunch and say, “Hey fellows, enjoy your meals on us. By the way, we just released this newsletter that might interest you….” The newsletter would argue against the science or against the environmental impact or about how the regulations were too costly to implement, and so on. The common thread was that they were and are written to highlight the evidence FOR their libertarian, anti-government views, and to minimize or deny completely any evidence to the contrary.

In other words, they are meant to sway the opinions of people who are not informed enough to know the whole story, and after receiving the newsletters, management would take them back to the office and put them in everyone’s mailbox. Elvis states that the newsletters were usually accompanied by a roll sheet, on which employees had to sign to show that they had received and read them.

Elvis states that the majority of the scientists with whom he worked were dedicated to science and were unlikely to be persuaded to ignore science for the sake of cutting corners and saving money. But if the newsletters convinced management, that could mean policy decisions and proposals that would have to be repeatedly swatted down. Moreover, these same think tanks often present their research to lawmakers who do not have the scientific background to understand it for what it is.

I asked Elvis if he ever received newsletters meant to influence his group’s decision-making in the favor of the environment. He stated that there are advocacy groups for the environment and for science, but that they are not as well-funded or well-organized as the ones that are solely for profit.

Besides influencing companies and politicians directly, think tanks and other policy advocates try to influence public opinion in a variety of ways. Graham Wayne, a contributor to Skeptical Science and the Guardian, has uncovered that Heartland is also taking this approach with American schools. In 2013 they were the force behind the NIPCC or Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change, which was meant to challenge the findings of the IPCC.

To make sure they got the word out, they sent memos to school boards and science teachers encouraging them to present their findings. Needless to say, this is problematic because the NIPCC report is less objective, less credible, less authoritative, and less factual than the IPCC report by an order of magnitude. Yet, public school educators, with already busy schedules, are unlikely to have the time to research the NIPCC claims, so their arguments may be presented as reasonable alternatives to the vast consensus among experts in the field.

Another way that influence brokers attempt to influence public policy is through astroturfing. In politics, when common, everyday citizens organize themselves into a large group to persuade the general public of the merits of an issue or cause, it is known as agrassroots movement. These types of movements may spring up around any kind of issue, from any side of the political divide. Senator Lloyd Bentsen, the late Democratic Senator from Texas, once stated on the Senate floor that he could tell the difference between grassroots and astroturf. He was complaining about protests and letter-writing campaigns that were meant to appear spontaneous and organic, but which were actually a paid part of corporate marketing and public relations spin. There are many examples of astroturfing in the not-too-distant past. Researching Microsoft anti-trust lettersBrooks Brothers RiotAl Gore’s Penguin ArmyBroadband for America, or numerous other well-known incidents will perhaps prove eye-opening to the information literate student.

In 2015, investigative reporter Sharyl Attkisson gave an illustrative TED Talk about the reach of influence of astroturfing and gives some helpful tips on recognizing it.   

Given their reach, finances, and devotion to ideology over science, think tanks such as Heartland should be watched closely and their findings viewed with healthy skepticism. When research turns up a think tank paper or policy statement, it should not be automatically dismissed as wrong; however, being aware of different think tanks and their biases will allow researchers to better understand the slant of their thinking as well as what they might be leaving out or misrepresenting. It would only be wise to become familiar with some of the more prominent think tanks and their known political affiliations.