The Splendors and Miseries of Modern Think Tanks

An intellectual canary’s fate is to warn miners or rat on cellmates

The fate of modern think tanks is a graphic illustration of our world’s crisis, namely, the lack of a future plan or even a responsible discussion thereof. So, for all their diversity and intellectual refinement, the think tanks’ real role in decision-making is quite arguable, for many reasons.

On the one hand, think-tanking is a lucrative business. The number of more or less recognized think tanks alone is approaching 8,000. If we take into account various similar organizations, universities, and the like, which do not call themselves think tanks, we can safely add to the tally another few thousand. Anyway, this is a huge worldwide industry employing hundreds of thousands of experts, who, if brought together, could fill a city as big as Prague or Brussels. 

The world is abuzz with big and small conferences with a whole array of different kinds of agendas, which are attended by hundreds of thousands of people. Planes are conveying tribes of experts from one conference to another, with these individuals, often quite gifted, making speeches in hundreds of places as well as publishing articles (that often say quite sensible things) in thousands of media outlets. Despite an incredible repetition index and abundance of what is commonplace and banal, many speeches and articles, interviews and comments, or remarks in the social media are not entirely nonsensical and often merit a hearing, if only because mankind spends a lot of cash on this cerebral activity.

At the same time, we see that the practical management of world affairs in all areas is more like chaotic and purely reactive moves, while the corps of world-level decision-makers has no use for analytical reports issued by the leading think tanks and universities.

The think-tank phenomenon itself emerged at the turn of the 20th century and is grounded in positivist thinking.

We find an impressive figure of a think-tanker in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Mycroft Holmes, the elder brother of Sherlock Holmes the detective. The younger Holmes believes that his brother is much cleverer than he is and even says that the Foreign Office that employs Mycroft would have long perished without his ideas because occasionally he is the one shaping the foreign policy of the British Empire.  Conan Doyle actually compares Sherlock Holmes’ detective exploits with Mycroft’s work for the good of the Empire. However, the scale and complexity of Mycroft’s investigations are way above Sherlock’s private cases. Nevertheless, the world is knowable, the behavior of the world’s major actors can be predicted, allowing for a kind of a global, multidimensional chess game to be played.

Of course, there are deviations and accidents, but they are calculable. In fact, this is why Sherlock and Mycroft are so charming. This is the reason modern filmmakers are so mesmerized with the duo.

The charm of exceptional knowledge is not an endemic feature of the 19th, 20th or 21st centuries. The need to understand and forecast emerged with advanced communities and relations between them, which became ever more complicated and demanded understanding, planning and forecasting both one’s own and other’s actions – all the more so as both then and now there is also the intervention of natural forces to reckon with, and perhaps even other forces beyond our knowledge. Gnostics, Brothers of the Rose Cross, Masons, Cabbalists, Druids, the Delphic oracle, pontiffs and augurs, Whirling Dervishes, and dozens of other entities more or less successfully tried to play the role of a knowing entity capable of helping or hampering decision-makers.

One can argue how much they influenced the leaders. Anyway, Cicero is known to have paid for his advice and opinions with his head displayed on the Rostrum.

However, the heyday of intellectual consultancy and the idea that the world can be ruled rationally was the industrial bourgeois epoch of the late 19th and early 20th century. This business was for the elite and required good education and a measure of elegance to boot. The contemporary think tanks, as exemplified by Chatham House, were regarded as an exceptionally important affair at the interface of academic science, practical politics and intelligence, their aim being to create a rational platform for decision-making. Their success is arguable. The said Chatham House was supposed to devise a way to prevent war. Meanwhile, Hitler was defeated by soldiers on the ground with weapons in hand. Physicists, in turn, invented nuclear weapons, now widely regarded as a deterrent against global wars.

Nevertheless the think tanks continued to advance and proliferate. The Club of Rome and the Bilderberg Club are still couched in mystery, but they are quickly fading, although their reports and get-togethers still attract some public attention. A masterpiece in this sense was a Club of Rome report on the limits of growth, an apotheosis of the rational approach to world development. It is not pure Malthusianism yet it was dominated by the logic of addition and subtraction – how much is eaten, how much produced, etc. 

But the time of political and sociological maths is definitely over and this seems to be the reason behind the crisis of think tanks. The sheer number, the army of experts is no guarantee that they will be as effective as, say, Marsilio Ficino’s Plato Academy in the 15th century.

However, perhaps the main reason for the complex situation think tanks are finding themselves in is simply because the world environment has changed so drastically.

After all, and this is first, the political processes going on in the world involve unprecedented masses of people. This by no means started yesterday but the current scale was unimaginable in the past.  

Second, these masses have brought to the fore thousands of fresh leaders of a new type, who are now facing an exceptionally difficult choice, primarily because the general political background has become eroded. Throughout the 20th century, the world rulers possessed very similar basic knowledge. Of course, they responded to contemporary issues in different ways, but these things were common to them all. Today, it is very different. 

Third, the former bipolar and comparatively rational world based on the confrontation of the socialist and capitalist systems is no more. The postmodernist theories also did their bit by destroying the positive and somewhat conservative world. The common world development narrative has disappeared.

Fourth, there is a communications glut, with billions of people sinking in a boundless information ocean. The already fragile precepts (this is true and that is false) have been shattered. The cognitive dissonance made a lot of people desperate at being unable to sort out information.

Fifth, the technological revolution has caught mankind unawares. No one knows how to use its wealth or avoid its traps. Neither is it clear how to regulate this unprecedented and essentially trans border technological potential.     

Thus, thousands of think tanks and hundreds of thousands of experts now remind one of what is known in culture as a canary – either a bird that warns miners of methane danger, or a jailbird squealing on cellmates to the authorities.

Both roles are a far cry from the ideals of Enlightenment and humanism and are subservient in nature. Moreover, the think tanks’ analysis actually undergoes a malign simplification process. Not always, of course, but fairly often the mere appearance of understanding is produced rather than a multidimensional and honest analysis.

However, their combined intellectual power is not negligible. There are different think tanks in every part of the world, with most of them in the United States. But they are a far cry from majority, and don’t even make up a quarter. This begs the question: Why are so many well-educated people, some of whom are even clever, unable to offer the world anything coordinated and conceptualized? After all, the amount of knowledge available to numerous researchers is immense. The number of conferences and meetings can hardly be counted. The quantity of annual textual output is mind-boggling.

And yet, one doesn’t get the feeling that this striking diversity generates comprehensible and operationally accessible narratives.

I have no definitive answer to this question. But there is one thing I am confident about: the key problem is the quality of intellectual and, if you will, political communications.

The current splendor and misery of think tanks reflects the universal developmental crisis induced by the erosion of a vision of the future, common values and goals of development. But anyway everyone wants to live and enjoy a better life. The world will anyway remain competitive and the question is only how to moderate rivalry. We all anyway face terrestrial risks. It is just that the participants in the process are much more numerous and powerful.

Therefore, the intellectuals must devise a method to integrate the mental potential and make our communications more effective. Is it necessary to learn how to use big data with consummate skill? Is it necessary to promote this by developing some artificial intelligence apps? It’s hard to tell. But the think tanks – I am sure– should radically revise their role and make a qualitative breakthrough towards becoming a true world reflective system able to produce at least some draft decisions.