A code of ethics for think tanks?

There are certainly a number of careful, ethical think tanks who produce thoughtful, useful reports. But in recent years, there has been an explosion of junk think tanks whose purpose seems to produce reports solely to justify previously determined positions. The explosion of the latter threatens to undermine the credibility of the former, just as push polls are a threat to legitimate polls. How is the nonexpert reader not acquainted with the research on a topic to distinguish between a fair analysis and propaganda.

I suggest that the legitimate think tanks should get together and develop a set of ethical standards. Some points that might be included:

  1. Reports should clearly reference all sources of information and wherever possible supply links to the data. If the data or report referenced is not already on the web, the organization should place it on the web, as long as copyright law allows. In other words, it should be easy for the reader to check primary sources, including their context.
  2. Address alternative explanations.
  3. Fully disclose counter evidence.
  4. Disclose potential conflict of interest among authors, the organization or funders.

If such a code were widely adopted, its absence would serve as a red flag to the reader: these people may be trying to pull something over on you. Also it might be used by the IRS as evidence about whether an organization deserves 501(c)(3) status or is asking taxpayers to subsidize advocacy.

These thought were triggered by a recent report attacking a proposal for a street car in Milwaukee, which violates all these points. But I have seen many, many education reports which also could not pass them.

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