The Fact Tank

fact tankThe Pew Research Center has a blog, named the Fact Tank, that is a component of an intriguing way of branding itself.

Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. It conducts public opinion polling, demographic research, media content analysis and other empirical social science research. Pew Research does not take policy positions. It is a subsidiary of The Pew Charitable Trusts.

They reinforce what initially caught my eye in this, the language “fact tank”, when they emphasize their role to “inform” us of what is influencing society through “empirical” research. This language cloaks their analysis as disinterested and objective rather than shaping society themselves.

Their language trades on an assumption that statistics are straightforward and unbiased, but most statisticians are quite aware that empirical data is quite manipulable. People create all sorts of arguments, or spin, based on the data. As much of the Pew data is survey driven, the development of the facts themselves, long before the analysis begins, reflects response biases from respondents as well as the manipulation of respondents through the phrasing of questions, ordering of questions, and even the topics chosen to survey.

I suspect that the analysts and leaders of the Pew Research Center are quite aware of these critiques, which makes it even more curious that they rely on this language of “facts”.   The sleight of hand here seems telling; they want to shape the culture by studying, reporting, and analyzing certain statistics, drawing on the authority of numbers to conceal the effort of molding society. Rebecca W. Rimel includes this interesting tidbit in her President’s message.

Our institution is steeped in the values that characterized the founders’ lives—their entrepreneurial and optimistic spirit; their integrity, humility, and inclusiveness; and their devotion to telling the truth and letting the people decide.

So, a set of values and interests lies behind their mission simply to “inform,” which is the case for any of us. Labeling oneself as a “Fact Tank,” though, seems a bit disingenuous. Whenever they produce new “facts,” such as their reports on those identifying as Nones, atheists, and Jews, the media, scholars, and the general public need to recognize their effort to shape society, not just inform it. As I have asserted previously (here and here), the survey data can construct new groups, not simply report on existing groups.

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