Think Tanks

How Think Tanks Became Engines of Royal Propaganda By Jacob Soll

Think tanks are odd institutions. Experts solemnly line up, often to defend a specific political or economic cause, and whether they represent the Heritage Foundation or the Brookings Institution, and no matter how fine the expert, his or her findings will, most likely, be in line with the ideological leanings of the institution. From the Carnegie Foundation’s mission to “hasten the abolition of international war,” to the Brookings Institution’s focus on studying the federal government, each was founded with the idea that serious and focused research groups could solve the world’s wicked problems. Recent exposés by The New York Times and other publications of think tanks involved in questions of finance, energy regulation, environmental issues, and, of course, the cigarette companies, have shown direct think-tank involvement in twisting data, as well as the use of think-tank experts to attack scientific findings and whistleblowers or to retail government echo-chamber propaganda. It is not entirely surprising that many voters, reporters, and analysts are highly suspicious of these so-called experts, whose once-prestigious institutions have become synonymous with partisan warfare and servile analysis-for-hire.

Historically, groupings of experts to create data and reports for propaganda purposes have been powerful political tools, but these groupings also have a history of both taking cash to produce results while turning into independent forces of free thought. In Europe, the origins of think tanks go back to the 800s, when emperors and kings began arguing with the Catholic Church about taxes. A tradition of hiring teams of independent lawyers to advise monarchs about their financial and political prerogatives against the church spans from Charlemagne all the way to the 17th century, when the kings of France were still arguing about whether they had the right to appoint bishops and receive a cut of their income. During this long tradition of ecclesiastical and feudal legal wrangling, popes and monarchs turned to lawyers—often independent nobles or clerics in their own right—who gave advice while retaining a certain amount of intellectual independence. Between 1500 and 1800, during the Protestant and Catholic Reformations, teams of ecclesiastical and legal historians worked in groups to scour archives and libraries to write histories defending their princes’ religion (and, often by association, their tax rights). The Centuriators of Magdeburg were Protestant ecclesiastical historians who, between 1559 and 1574, produced a massive history, The Magdebourg Centuries, to defend their religious claims. This group of experts was seen as a threat by the Catholic Church, and, in turn, were countered by the great historian Caesar Baronius, in his later associated research team that produced Annales Ecclesiastici (1588-1607). These independently formed teams of scholars could rightly claim to be direct ancestors of today’s think tanks.

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Despre Claudiu Degeratu
Expert in securitate nationala, internationala, NATO, UE, aparare si studii strategice

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