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Think tank

‘Tough love’ and young boozers

What is a “think tank”? Is it an armoured vehicle with caterpillar tracks and a swivelling turret that occasionally blasts out hot, radioactive chunks of pure Think? Or is it more like a fish-tank, a container of fluid featuring ersatz vegetation in which Think can swim in morose circles while getting fatter and occasionally breeding? Or does Think grow in its tank somewhat like mould in a petri dish, eventually attaining such a large mass of quivering, greyish brain-jelly that it bursts the walls and comes wetly bouncing all over the general population? Consulting the OED, I find that “think tank” was originally a US colloquialism for the brain (first citation 1905); the present use of “a research institute or other organization providing advice and ideas on national or commercial problems” is first exampled in 1959. But there is no help here on the origin of the phrase.

I only ask because the dicta that are regularly fired from “think tanks”, or burst wobblingly free from “think tanks”, are on the whole indistinguishable from the general run of moronic opinion journalism, and have to recommend them only the dubious glow attached to their supposed origin in such a tank, as opposed to in the feverish mind of some hack. Last week, for instance, the Independent reported:

Young people should be banned from drinking until they reach 21 or be forced to carry a card that records their alcohol intake, a think tank columnist claims yesterday [sic]. Binge drinking has become such an “overwhelming” problem, argues journal [sic] of the left-leaning Institute for Public Policy Research, that policy makers need to practice [sic] “tough love” and put drink out of the reach of youngsters.

What exactly will raising the legal drinking age accomplish? The “think tank” author explains:

“By raising the age threshold it is at least possible that those in their early and mid teens will not see drink as something they will soon be allowed to do so therefore they might as well start doing it surreptitiously now. Instead they might come to see it as it should be: forbidden.”

Right, because teenagers obviously see cannabis, say, as “forbidden”, and so meekly avoid going anywhere near it. Teenagers respect authority like nobody’s business. Tell them something’s “forbidden” and they’ll obediently forget all about it. Er… right?

Actually, even the author himself evidently realises that this idea is monstrous balls – because he is driven to use wanly hopeful constructions such as “might” and “it is at least possible” when describing his idiotic and ridiculous idea. Nonetheless, it comes from a “think tank”, so the PA and the Independent reported it with straight faces. “Think tank” is evidently too glamorous a phrase for producers of such spurtingly fatuous drivel, so we need to replace it with something more accurate. Any suggestions?

  1. 1  GD from CA  April 19, 2007, 11:33 pm 

    Oh, drivel dispensers, I guess, riffing on your last line. Though I imagine your readers will come up with far better.

    Nice to see you back.

  2. 2  Thom  April 20, 2007, 9:28 am 

    The Public Policy Twilight Home for Confused Liberals?

  3. 3  Vronsky  April 20, 2007, 10:14 am 

    The purpose of the ‘think tank’ is to assign a provenance to a view or strategy which appears to be disinterested, expert and external to politics. The intention is to drape a mantle of respectable objectivity over naked political dogmatism. Think Tanks have never found new theorems in geometry – ‘tanks’ they might in some sense be, but we have no evidence whatever that they think. Interesting, then, that the term has strong links to phrases like ‘thinking the unthinkable’, all of which I find too depressing to draw out on a Friday.

    Think Tanks give politicians a way to fly kites: sterilising single women below a certain age? Not us, guv – Think Tank stuff, that. Unless there’s some take-up on the idea, of course…

    So pulling together notion sof conspiracy, predation and experiment, I’d suggest calling them Black Kites.

    BTW, insert another ‘[sic]’ after ‘practice’ in your excerpt.

  4. 4  Barney  April 20, 2007, 11:52 am 

    Backing up Vronsky’s comment, I’ve found a reference to a United Nations Development Programme paper: “Thinking the Unthinkable: From Thought to Policy. The Role of Think Tanks in Shaping Government Strategy: Experiences from Central and Eastern Europe”, which gives the following definition which seems a marvellous example of Unspeak itself:

    “organizations engaged on a regular basis in research and advocacy on any matter related to public policy. They are the bridge between knowledge and power in modern democracies”

    which implies they’re indispensable (who would want knowledge and power to be separated?), and also under public control – when they are normally used for padvancing the political policies of whoever gives them the money (but ‘advocacy’ sounds so much fairer than ‘PR’, or ‘propaganda’). I think there’s an irregular verb here:

    I head a think tank
    You run a special interest group
    He is at the centre of a sinister cabal

    The UNDP reference comes from a paper on Asian think tanks which gives its own definition:

    “The word ‘think tank’ stems from the RAND Corporation, which operated as a closed and secure environment for US strategic thinking after World War II. The term entered popular usage in the 1960s to describe a group of specialists who undertake intensive study of important policy issues.”

    Bearing that in mind, a “policy play pen”, perhaps? If they had remained ‘closed and secure’, their ideas would never have been inflicted on the rest of the world.

  5. 5  Thom  April 20, 2007, 12:03 pm 

    re: sinister cabals, I got some spam from a conservative party think tank yesterday, inviting me to attend an event taking place in March 2007. Something sinister afoot, perhaps?

  6. 6  Andrew Brown  April 20, 2007, 3:37 pm 

    The distinction between a thinktank report and regular journalism used to be simple, and two-fold. First the think-tank report would be very much longer. It could easily run to 10 or 20,000 words. Secondly, it was intended as a briefing for politicians. Barney’s conjugation applies, here, of course.

    But when I look at the IPPR’s journal (from which the binge drinking suggestions are culled) it appears to consist of opinion pieces just a little too long or a lot too boring to make it into the British papers. The two really long articles at the end seem to be reprinted from American magazines.

    The purpose of these things is not to affect policy, but simply to get the “think tank” talked about. That’s new, and is in some sense the opposite of the old sinister cabals like the CPS which did their work in darkness.

  7. 7  Alex Higgins  April 20, 2007, 5:32 pm 

    “Think tank” is evidently too glamorous a phrase for producers of such spurtingly fatuous drivel, so we need to replace it with something more accurate. Any suggestions?

    Hmmm. If only there was a word that rhymed with ‘tank’ that simultaneously implied sexual self-indulgence and work of poor quality or idiocy. Then you would have a great little pun going.

    “this idea is monstrous balls”

    That is beautiful.

    I would love it if a think tank used this phrase in a press release, with the appropriate gravitas and complete with peer-reviewed statistics. I reckon Chatham House could pull it off.

    Nice to see you back, Steven.

  8. 8  S. Swerts  April 20, 2007, 6:48 pm 

    How about “crank tank”?

  9. 9  Steven  April 20, 2007, 9:45 pm 

    Thanks for the welcomes back, and to Vronsky for the extra “sic”. “Black kites” has a nice Pentagonish ring to it but I fear it still sounds too glamorous. The option that Alex H wisely refuses to spell out is tempting, though it leaves the idea of “think” intact, as though thinking were actually what is going on in such institutions. “Crank tank” – mmm, not bad. Although it occurs to me that the regulars here at itself have a pretty strong claim to be considered some sort of rumbling impregnable tank of think, or at least of Unthink, and I wouldn’t want to call us cranks. But here we are saved by Barney’s splendid conjugation.

  10. 10  dsquared  April 21, 2007, 12:40 am 

    I can only note that “the influential” appears to have become part of the name of the IPPR, to the extent that it should these days be referred to as TIIPPR. Being “influential” appears to be a metaphysical property of the IPPR, certainly not derived from it actually ever influencing things.

    On the model of the “Decent Left”, a self-inflicted nickname which has now become an embarassment to the movement, I would be in favour of continuing to refer to think tanks as think tanks, but to refer to their publications as “lumps of Think”, as suggested above. viz “the latest Think from the IPPR is something about drinking licences, etc etc”.

  11. 11  Fallhammer  April 21, 2007, 2:05 pm 

    Surely the dull answer is “ideological lobby groups”, though they might prefer something like “political research organisations”.

    Given some of the crap they’ve produced over the years (Tax Freedom Day, anyone?), It seems to me that the term “think tank” is pretty much discredited anyway and will presently die a natural, if unsightly, death.

    A quick google indicates that the disgusting Mig****on Watch likes to style itself as a think tank, which can surely only hasten the term’s demise.

  12. 12  Jacob Christensen  April 21, 2007, 2:41 pm 

    The Danish cartoonist Ivar Gjørup (aka Oldfux) actually considered the true nature of think tanks some years ago and came up with this steam-powered think tank (the actual tank can be seen in the last frame): Self-administration: The Think Tank.

    According to the story, the tank runs on recycled newspapers and has a capacity of 60.000 citizens.

  13. 13  Graham Giblin  April 21, 2007, 4:11 pm 

    Far be it from me to display Higginsian wisdom, or to seek to avoid giving offense.
    A “wank tank” certainly has appeal: attractive alliteration, a sense of the waste and perhaps volume of the product of its efforts, its rhyming echo of another oversized, overblown, overhyped, useless American invention, the “yank tank”, and an appropriate reference to “spurtingly fatuous drivel”.
    I’ll go and wash up now.

  14. 14  hardindr  April 23, 2007, 12:39 am 

    What is a “think tank”?

    This is a “think tank”.

  15. 15  Steven  April 24, 2007, 12:57 am 

    Now that is a think tank. Thanks!

    “Mig****on Watch” is an orthography I intend to adopt permanently.

  16. 16  Graham Giblin  April 25, 2007, 12:33 pm 

    I notice that “independent” think tank MWUK “is chaired by Sir Andrew Green, a former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia.” See? He’s been to the source and that place is just full of migrants. Sorry, mig***ts. And all of them terrorists.

    While we appreciate the valuable contribution that many earlier immigrants have made, we believe that the numbers have now become too great.

    “I’m not a racist but…”

  17. 17  Stephen  May 4, 2007, 7:31 pm 

    I head a think tank
    You run a special interest group
    He is at the centre of a sinister cabal

    That is simply fantastic! It reminds me of a book I read where an expression was used: “On the one hand X, on the other hand Y, but on the gripping hand…”

    Now where is that RSS link?

  18. 18  Steven  May 5, 2007, 1:50 am 

    “Gripping hand” is very nice.

    This site now has RSS feeds coming out the wazoo. Does your browser not recognize them?

  19. 19  Stephen  May 5, 2007, 3:04 am 

    My browser is IE x.x and when I was here earlier it was from my work PC which goes thru a heavily restricted server. Now I have your RSS loaded into my Newsgator reader. The icon should be orange, you know!

    As for the gripping hand, it comes from this book by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle that I read a million years ago and it had such an impact.
    (The link is for the benefit of your younger readers, who should probably read this as well).

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