February 18, 2013 2:23PM

Farcical Concept of the Day

The tip‐​off that this item from the LSE review of books was not going to go well was in the introductory matter:

But what are think tanks? Who funds them?

The book under review is Think Tanks In America, by Thomas Medvetz. I don’t know that it shares the flaws of its LSE review.

It would be preferable, I suppose, for people to look into the funding of think tanks, given the commonly exercised alternative: assuming wrongly how many think tanks are funded. But whatever the case, funding information is only useful in ad hominem, that is, the illogical argumentation practice of attacking the speaker rather than the speaker’s point. It works adequately well in popular media.

But I found comedy gold in the write‐​up where it observed how think tanks have “helped undermine the relevance of autonomously produced social scientific knowledge.” That’s right. Social scientific knowledge not developed in think tanks produces itself! Universities, apparently, are empty vessels into which social science pours itself the way a rain gauge catches water.

Of course, there is no such neutrality in universities or any other source of social science research and commentary. If a person in such an institution believes him‐ or herself to be on terra firma, that is fine. But if you think the university, or any other single type of institution, has things locked up—well, Ptolemy, meet Copernicus. We all circle the truth in different orbits.

I have this in mind because I spoke with students this weekend at the International Students for Liberty Conference about the role of think tanks, including my own. Unlike universities, which often falsely claim neutrality, we have an ideology that we apply to the problems of the day. It’s important to examine and re‐​examine whether your ideology is valid and whether you are applying it well. But people who deny using ideology are unclear about their premises and underlying philosophy–or hiding them.

At least I thought so until I learned about the existence of “autonomously produced social scientific knowledge”!

Addendum: After I’d written, but prior to publication of, this post, Professor Medvetz emailed me responding to the Tweet I expanded on here.

“Please understand that the term autonomy has a precise and specific technical meaning in this context (one that I did not invent), and that it’s quite distinct from the everyday meaning you’re attributing to it. Next time, consider looking up the term’s meaning.”

For good measure, he counseled me, “if you ever hear a mathematician refer to an irrational number, be aware that he’s not suggesting that the number in question is lacking in good sense or sound judgment.”

I have looked for a meaning of “autonomously” that makes the phrase non‐​farcical and haven’t found one, even in sources that cite the distinct meaning of “irrational” in mathematics. But clearly Professor Medvetz intends something different than what the word means in plain English. Take this post as “Farcical Expression of the Day” rather than “Farcical Concept of the Day.” Perhaps this illustrates another dimension of the academy’s insularity–in language instead of ideology.