Assertions without Fact

Eric Schmidt made an interesting point about Washington, DC think tanks recently:

“I spend so much time in Washington now because of the work that I’ve been doing, I deal with all these people who make assertions without fact,” he said. Policy people “will hand me some report that they wrote or they’ll make some assertion, and I’ll say, ‘Well, is that true?’ — and they can’t prove it.”

Perhaps that could change some day, he suggested. Technology could help.

With Google’s vast power for capturing and remembering data, Schmidt painted a picture in which technology could help quantify and verify the assertions made in policy documents. “Government is highly measurable, most of it,” he said. “We can actually see how many people got this shot or read this report or so forth. A government — a transparent government — should be able to [measure] that.”

He’s absolutely right, of course. Policy has a number of sacred cows because it’s a political process, and the last thing Congress ever does is follow-up on the measures it enacts to see whether they produce the desired results. So I challenge my colleagues in the think tank business to support assertions with evidence, and to cite longitudinal studies when they exist. This is the road to good policy.

7 thoughts on “Assertions without Fact

  1. Schmidt should start by checking out some of the wild assertions made by the “think tank” which he himself chairs in DC. The New America Foundation has made some wildly incorrect assertions regarding spectrum policy, and is also involved in the creation of broadband “speed testing” software which does a very poor job of testing actual broadband performance.

  2. Now, now, you know better, and he does, too. This is nothing but hype for Google’s techno-mysticism.

    What think-tank will ever come out with research that contradicts the policy advocated by its funders? Many of them exist for the sole reason of coming up with nonsense to support their paymasters.

    A more cynical take on his comments would be that Google can provide a patina of plausibility for whatever conclusion the propagandist wants to support. “It’s Science!”.

  3. Think tanks have multiple sponsors, and keeping them happy depends in part on credibility; that’s the motivation for keeping it real. Most think tanks employ a number of people who aren’t very bright, and it’s their ignorance rather than malice that makes their assertions so lame.

  4. A big reason that they employ a number of people who aren’t very bright is that being very bright is not an essential qualification for the job of think-tanker, compared to being able to argue vociferously that black is white and up is down. That’s a different skillset. “Credibility” depends on arguing within conventional wisdom and frameworks, not in being factually accurate.

  5. Brett, the problem with your theory that everyone for net neutrality is only doing it because of Google’s interest, is that it could equally be argued that everyone against it is doing it for AT&T.

    You’re like the anti-Tim Karr (who’s just as ridiculous with his complaints). Companies pay money to people they agree with, in order to advance those views. If there’s any corruption it’s systemic, not deliberate, so maybe you should go support Larry Lessig’s latest crusade.

    Richard, you’ve already decided that only engineers count as “smart,” or at least should weigh in on policy debates about the internet, and you think that, because engineers are smart, they can dismiss arguments founding in the law, history, and economics with engineering jargon. After all, all that matters are “practical realities,” not these mumbo-jumbo theories offering by these not-very-smart think tanks.

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