How The Think Tank “Big Lie” Works

December 26th, 2011

You begin with a hypothesis that has a certain surface plausibility. You find an ally whose background suggests that he’s an “expert”; out of thin air, he devises “data.” You write articles in sympathetic publications, repeating the data endlessly; in time, some of these publications make your cause their own. Like-minded congressmen pick up your mantra and invite you to testify at hearings.

You’re chosen for an investigative panel related to your topic. When other panel members, after inspecting your evidence, reject your thesis, you claim that they did so for ideological reasons. This, too, is repeated by your allies. Soon, the echo chamber you created drowns out dissenting views; even presidential candidates begin repeating the Big Lie.

I often worry about this echo chamber. Joe Nocera in the Time uses this image to rip apart an AIE scholar, though the same criticism applies to someone on the left. And does this only apply to think-tankers? What about professors? The recent debate over Dick Fallon’s argument that professors shouldn’t sign briefs in cases, as they lend their scholarly imprimatur to pitched advocacy, seems on point.

I want to write something about popular constitutionalism and the fight against the mandate along the same lines.