How to avoid coming across as some kind of crackpot

There has been a lot of huffing and puffing on Twitter about think tanks, the funding of think tanks and whether this is transparent enough. Policy Exchange has come in for particular scrutiny.

I maintain my broad position that such discussions are largely pointless. It matters far more whether a position is right and can be supported with evidence than it matters who funded the research behind the idea. If you disagree with Policy Exchange’s views on Grammar schools, for instance, it is far better to explain why you disagree than it is to rave on about their sources of revenue.

Firstly, ad hominem attacks of this kind are highly polarising. If you are part of the leftish Twitter subculture that fills my timeline then it can seem extremely damning to suggest that a think tank might be funded by shadowy business people. But this is because you already have a prejudice against shadowy business people. It plays to the gallery. Suggest to an ordinary member of the public that a piece of research has been funded by big business and they are likely to declare, “So what?”

To imagine why, flip it around. Picture someone criticising a think tank for being funded by… the unions! You probably find this to be an unconvincing line of attack because, to you, unions are the good guys who stand up for workers’ rights. Their mission is entirely benign. Yet if you went to a conference full of right-wing political activists then the anti-union argument would play well. They see unions as bureaucracies that milk workers of their hard-earned cash in order to run pet projects or, worse, fund lavish perks for union officials.

And that same conference would probably look quite favorably on big business, with delegates viewing it as a creator of jobs and wealth. Nothing sinister at all.

It’s not that political positioning doesn’t matter. It clearly affects what think tanks choose to research and publicise. But if it leads them into error then it is far better to point out the error because that way you might just convince somebody who doesn’t already agree with you.

But perhaps I’ve missed the point. Perhaps the issue is not that Policy Exchange is probably funded by wealthy business people who have an interest in education and politics. Perhaps the issue is transparency of funding. Can’t we all at least agree that think tanks should be transparent?

Not really, no.

People can donate money to whatever legal organisation they like. Think tanks have no actual power, only influence. If a politician decides to follow a policy formulated in a think tank then we can still vote that politician out of office. The politician is accountable. Yes, politicians are at risk of being corrupted and so we should know their financial interests. They have put themselves in the public space. But why should we know that a particular individual has contributed to funding a think tank? Wouldn’t this just result in the funds drying up as those individuals and companies are subjected to wide-scale tinfoil-hattery from their political opponents?

Sadly, there are a lot of crackpots out there. Even humble bloggers like me have been subjected to abuse – the worst dirt that could be found was that I work in an independent school; something I had already written about on this blog. But I digress.

And maybe that’s the point. By forcing everyone out into the public sphere we will shut down those think tanks funded by large donations from private individuals – the ones we don’t like – and that will leave only those funded by mass movements like the unions – the ones we do like.

I am not arguing that funding positions or lack of openness shouldn’t be mentioned. I’m not calling for censorship. A little context is useful and can help you orientate yourself to the debate. I just don’t think it makes a good basis for an argument. If all you can criticise about an organisation is that it doesn’t publish a list of donors on its website then you have a pretty thin case.

The ideas are far more interesting. And it is in discussion of these ideas that the future direction of education will be won or lost.

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3 thoughts on “How to avoid coming across as some kind of crackpot

  1. Tara Houle says:

    to me it all comes down to credible evidence. Which is also a loaded question I suppose. However I am far more interested in the information, and results, rather than the vehicle from whence it appeared.

    • Dodging the issue by attacking the source of the information (a variation of the ad hominem argument) has no doubt been happening as long as people have had thoughts to disagree about. However, it does seem to have got worse in recent years — and in my view this is no accident. It coincides with the triumph in our educational institutions of “critical theory”, which enjoins students to “deconstruct” a piece of work by identifying the author’s socio-political status. All they need do, in other words, is ask themselves if this is the work of the devil or the angels. Everything — even fiction — is treated as a polemical device in support of or opposed to one ideological position or another. Teaching “deconstruction” panders to the natural human tendency to be “aligned”. It’s less lonely that way, and it saves the effort of dealing with the evidence or (in the case of fiction) expanding one’s sympathies beyond the reflex.

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