What can we call organizations like the Heartland Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Fraser Institute, and so many others?

Technically, they’re think tanks. But they don’t really fulfill the purposes of think tanks, which are supposed to provide independent research to advise the government on policy issues. These as-yet-unnamed organizations do provide some research about climate change, but it’s full of the most elementary mistakes, obviously designed to mislead the reader. It’s an insult to classical think tanks, like the Center for a New American Security, to label Heartland et al as think tanks.

No, their purpose isn’t research, but PR. Influencing the public opinion. But they don’t even use PR responsibly, as Jim Hoggan explains in his new book, Climate Cover-Up (review coming soon). It’s an insult to PR firms to label Heartland et al as PR firms.

I’m also unsure about the term “conservative think tanks”. It better describes their purpose, but it seems to imply that since these conservative think tanks are so despicable, there’s something wrong with conservatism in the first place. There’s nothing wrong with being conservative. It only becomes a problem when it leads to the denial of science. A similar problem is present with the term “free-market fundamentalists”.

A friend of mine suggested “anti-science advocacy groups”. I’m not sure if this is correct either. Their ultimate purpose is not to deny science, but to advance a certain political agenda. The former is simply a consequence of the latter, and is not present in all of their objectives, eg health care. Additionally, these groups are not completely anti-science. They’re very pro-selective-science, such as science from the 1700s when a link between CO2 and temperature hadn’t been established, or discredited science like the initial satellite readings.

Martin Vermeer suggested “dark Satanic mills”. I find that somewhat hilarious, but it requires a little back story. An audience of high school students wouldn’t grasp the character of Heartland et al simply by hearing that phrase.

I’m kind of at a loss. How can we sum up these organizations in two or three words, without denouncing conservatism or insulting the more responsible organizations that would fall into the same category? Any ideas?


21 thoughts on “Naming

  1. They are propaganda groups for vested interests that have most to lose (either ideologically, politically or financially) if anthropogenic climate change is accepted as an extremely serious issue, and if the solutions to this issue are accepted as requiring a significant overhaul of our social and economic institutions.

    propaganda groups for vested interests – in short

  2. If you want an analogy comprehensible to high school students, I’d suggest debating teams. These organizations are think tanks, and their job is to win debates about public policy. But in debating competitions, sometimes you get handed a hopeless topic and you simply cannot win on the facts alone.

  3. I like to call them lobby groups. They choose to deny science because their clientèle demands this attitude.
    Obviously, they’re engaged in sophisticated lobbying. Their research is presented as a product of rigorous scholarship, they work hard to maintain an image of independence and non-partisanship, etc.
    Understanding the phenomenon of think tanks (conservative and otherwise) requires extensive research and thoughtful analysis. You have to look at the political environment of the Cold War, the necessity of research into the area of policy, the foundations that provide financing, etc.

    [I like that one. However, we need to differentiate between them and more grassroots lobby groups – like PowerShift, for example. Perhaps we should call them “professional lobby groups”? -Kate]

  4. iain’s term seems the best so far. Propaganda groups for vested interests. Too bad that didn’t make a nifty acronym. ProGroVIs?

    Or maybe just ‘ganda groups, short for propaganda groups?

  5. “Propagandist” seems to be an accepted term in some places for an individual involved in this. I do quite enjoy Ken’s alliterative assertion as well, and will probably borrow it from now on, with the proverbial *yoink*.

    Alternatively, I’ve adopted the term “inactivist” to describe the people involved. (The name comes from climate/denialism blogger Frank Bi, who, if you aren’t reading, you should read.) It gets the point across by linking “inaction” and “activism”, and is meant to be invoked with the same scorn that the George C. Marshall Institute, say, uses “activists” or the synonym “advocacy group”.

  6. Scott’s LIARS & LOST has the advantage of being funny. Professional lobyists has the advantage of being true and immediately understandable. The down side of this term is that it fails to convey the insidious nature of their activities.

    Brian’s suggestion of “inactavist” is a favorite of mine. We could combine the two and call them Inactivist Lobbyists.

    Using stronger language (woefully wrong comes to mind) has its points, but I am not willing to use inflamatory language which would alienate those who can be persuaded.

    These organizations are indisputably servants of particular political ideologies. As such it might be best to simply call them Political Lobbyist Groups.

  7. “Perhaps we should call them “professional lobby groups”? -Kate”
    Have you read/seen Oreskes’ work on how climate science became a victim of the Cold War?
    I also recommend a recent blog post of Australian economist John Quiggin on the ideological blinders of most libertarians (there are exceptions) and specially those committed to extreme forms of libertarianism and economic thought (the Austrian school)

  8. I call them front groups, usually anti-regulation and/or market fundamentalist front groups. In the US among the relatively politically aware at least, people usually know immediately what I’m talking about.

  9. Mostly Off Truth -groups? Middlemen Of Tragedy? Meddlers Out of Target? Midden Orgies, Terminal? Maroons On Take? Sorry, just some vocabulary practise (not my native tongue).

  10. Calling them “front groups” may be troublesome, because front groups are supposed to front for, well, some other person or group of people, and the evidence that the groups are fronting for someone else is often either murky or hard to explain.

    But there’s no doubt that groups like HI and CEI are noise merchants, blaring out their talking points through their metaphorical megaphones at every opportunity. They’re also illusionists, trying their best to conjure up an apparition of large-scale opposition to ‘warmist science’ from the public / scientific community / industry etc. Noise, smoke, and mirrors.

    Personally, I use the term “inactivists” to describe those who argue religiously against climate regulation — including your climate crank next door. For more ‘professional’-looking groups, I’ve so far just called them “think-tanks”, but maybe I’ll start calling them “noise merchants”.


    Oreskes’s work on global warming denialism around the time of the Cold War is interesting, but I fear it may be a bit, well, dated.


  11. @bi — IJI ,
    I like Oreskes’ work for the following reasons:
    – it exposes a variant of the argument from authority (i.e., the halo of scholarship provided by Cold War scientists to the lobby groups). We know that conservatives like authority -the strict father morality- (1)
    – it shows how brilliant scientists can be duped by ideology. Consensus among experts from different disciplines and ideological backgrounds is important (2)
    – contrarianism for the sake of contrarianism is a slippery slope. When you take extreme positions against well-established facts, logic pushes you to the abyss of credibility: general denialism (there’s no ozone hole, smoking is good, asbestos is fine, etc), smears against your colleagues, conspiracy theories, etc. This is the path from scientific genius to plain kookiness (3).


  12. Lucas:

    That’s true, but as I said, much of Oreskes’s stuff is somewhat dated — which doesn’t make it irrelevant, but it does make it somewhat less relevant.

    You don’t hear much these days from the Marshall Institute, or the Global Climate Coalition, or Bob Jastrow, etc. Nowadays you have the Heartland Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, etc. (Well, maybe you still hear from S. Fred Singer…) Also, there are some recent developments, such as Web 2.0 — which naturally the merchants of noise have been trying to capitalize on.

    Anyway, Oreskes’s work may tell us where the inactivist movement came from, but it doesn’t say much about where it is now.


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