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An honest attempt to heat up the debate

Marketplace Staff Feb 14, 2007

An honest attempt to heat up the debate

Marketplace Staff Feb 14, 2007

BOB MOON: You might have heard a story here on Marketplace a few days back. It was about a D.C. think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, and how it was offering money to scientists, to write critical reviews of a tough new United Nations report on global warming.

One of AEI’s many supporters is ExxonMobil. A connection that we and other major media took note of. Commentator and AEI fellow David Frum has some thoughts on think tanks, money and intellectual freedom.

DAVID FRUM: Two generations ago, a big idea gripped the nation’s educational leaders. If we spent equal amounts of money on every student, their achievements should be equal too.

Congress assigned social scientist James Coleman

to do the research. When he was done, he’d proven exactly the opposite. To his own dismay.

Coleman’s report still stands as a model of public policy research to all of us in the field. Today, of course, Washington is crowded with public policy institutes. Their influence depends on the quality of their evidence and the rigor of their analysis.

Rigorous analysis is not, however, always welcome. And sometimes, when an institution like AEI roughs up somebody’s pet idea, the unhappy target takes the lazy way out. They criticise motives, rather than methods.

That’s what happened to us. We approached eminent climate scientists, and asked them to write substantial essays about the U.N.’s latest climate change report. And we offered to pay them — at a rate, in this case, of about a dollar a word. What most magazines pay. Paying people for their work is pretty much standard practice at think tanks, at the United Nations . . . in fact, just about everywhere.

Now, ExxonMobil donated about 1 percent of AEI’s revenues over the past few years. So, some environmental activists suggested that we were trying to bribe the scientists in question.

Do they think that these prominent people would alter their well-known views to make not exactly an enormous amount of money? How obvious and pointless would that be?

Think tanks, like all nonprofit institutions, raise their money from foundations, corporations and individuals. The funding flows only if the work is rigorous, accurate, and useful.

Of course we have views. Strong ones. But it’s the evidence and integrity behind those views that gains audience.

The climate debate is a tribute to the power of ideas in politics. Evidence and argument have brought this debate this far. And you’d think that would be enough.

Instead, we see the emergence of an attempt to shut down the debate altogether.That’s not how you behave when you’re confident of your case. You know, it’s almost enough to make me question our critics’ motives.

MOON: David Frum is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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