10 Signs of Intellectual Honesty

I can never post this too much…

When it comes to just about any topic, it seems as if the public discourse on the internet is dominated by rhetoric and propaganda. People are either selling products or ideology. In fact, just because someone may come across as calm and knowledgeable does not mean you should let your guard down and trust what they say. What you need to look for is a track record of intellectual honesty. Let me therefore propose 10 signs of intellectual honesty.



1. Do not overstate the power of your argument. One’s sense of conviction should be in proportion to the level of clear evidence assessable by most. If someone portrays their opponents as being either stupid or dishonest for disagreeing, intellectual dishonesty is probably in play. Intellectual honesty is most often associated with humility, not arrogance.

2. Show a willingness to publicly acknowledge that reasonable alternative viewpoints exist. The alternative views do not have to be treated as equally valid or powerful, but rarely is it the case that one and only one viewpoint has a complete monopoly on reason and evidence.

3. Be willing to publicly acknowledge and question one’s own assumptions and biases. All of us rely on assumptions when applying our world view to make sense of the data about the world. And all of us bring various biases to the table.

4. Be willing to publicly acknowledge where your argument is weak. Almost all arguments have weak spots, but those who are trying to sell an ideology will have great difficulty with this point and would rather obscure or downplay any weak points.

5. Be willing to publicly acknowledge when you are wrong. Those selling an ideology likewise have great difficulty admitting to being wrong, as this undercuts the rhetoric and image that is being sold. You get small points for admitting to being wrong on trivial matters and big points for admitting to being wrong on substantive points. You lose big points for failing to admit being wrong on something trivial.

6. Demonstrate consistency. A clear sign of intellectual dishonesty is when someone extensively relies on double standards. Typically, an excessively high standard is applied to the perceived opponent(s), while a very low standard is applied to the ideologues’ allies.

7. Address the argument instead of attacking the person making the argument. Ad hominem arguments are a clear sign of intellectual dishonesty. However, often times, the dishonesty is more subtle. For example, someone might make a token effort at debunking an argument and then turn significant attention to the person making the argument, relying on stereotypes, guilt-by-association, and innocent-sounding gotcha questions.

8. When addressing an argument, do not misrepresent it. A common tactic of the intellectually dishonest is to portray their opponent’s argument in straw man terms. In politics, this is called spin. Typically, such tactics eschew quoting the person in context, but instead rely heavily on out-of-context quotes, paraphrasing and impression. When addressing an argument, one should shows signs of having made a serious effort to first understand the argument and then accurately represent it in its strongest form.

9. Show a commitment to critical thinking. ‘Nuff said.

10. Be willing to publicly acknowledge when a point or criticism is good. If someone is unable or unwilling to admit when their opponent raises a good point or makes a good criticism, it demonstrates an unwillingness to participate in the give-and-take that characterizes an honest exchange.

While no one is perfect, and even those who strive for intellectual honesty can have a bad day, simply be on the look out for how many and how often these criteria apply to someone. In the arena of public discourse, it is not intelligence or knowledge that matters most – it is whether you can trust the intelligence or knowledge of another. After all, intelligence and knowledge can sometimes be the best tools of an intellectually dishonest approach.

- Mike Gene

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18 responses to “10 Signs of Intellectual Honesty

  1. I have this list tacked next to my computer. I refer to often not only for the purpose of discussing things on the internet but also in my personal life.

  2. Great list. Sadly, we live in a world where intellectual honesty is negatively correlated with political influence. A political leader who decided to follow your list would quickly find this out.

  3. These are pretty good, as a start. Charles Darwin was probably one of the best examples of these principles in action. When you read Origin of Species, you get a very real sense of humility, conviction in proportion to available evidence, consistency, acknowledging the alternatives and the potential weaknesses in his own theory, etc..

    The place where this list ends and where I’d then start is with the attitudes we hold toward evidence and the handling of evidence. You can start with the attitudes of intellectual honesty, and be sincere, yet be weighing evidence in a biased way due to pre-existing agendas. Also people can sometimes mimic the attitudes of intellectual honesty for public display without actually holding them.

    So these points are useful but not sufficient for good inquiry. in my opinion.

    kind regards,

    Todd

  4. It’s so frustrating when we condemn someone/some entity for signs and symptoms of intellectual dishonesty without recognizing our own acts of such dishonesty.

  5. Hi Todd,

    The place where this list ends and where I’d then start is with the attitudes we hold toward evidence and the handling of evidence.

    Agreed. And the first thing we need to do here is recognize two things:

    1. Do not confuse data with evidence. Data is detected and measured. Evidence exists when the mind interprets the data. Thus, there is a subjective element to the concept of evidence. This is significant because sometimes those who posture as if they are being objective speak as if the “evidence” is both an output of their objectivity and a sign of their objectivity.

    2. Evidence exists at different levels. Some evidence might only work to support a hunch, while other evidence supports a deeply held conviction.

  6. Hi Michael,

    Interesting reply, and I don’t know if I completely understand your viewpoint, so please have patience with me if my answer seems tangential at first. I’m trying to both understand what you are saying and further clarify my comments on the use of evidence.

    I think I may disagree with your view of evidence somewhat: evidence isn’t “subjective,” in my opinion, I think rather it is contextual. That is, what data is considered evidence depends on the question you are asking. Rules of evidence handling are pretty solid and objective in my experience, they are central not only to research methodology but also practical problem solving. I deal with evidence procedures frequently to help filter relevant from irrelevant information and assist in structuring data for analysis. It has everything to do with revealing the complexity of the dataset and letting the data tell its own story effectively.

    For good examples of structuring data for visuallizing datasets, see Ed Tufte’s wonderful books. Yes, people often lie with tricky graphs and statistics, and the tricks are very well known, that’s why people need a solid grasp of math, science, and research methodology to judge the proper use of data and why so few people do it very well. In my experience.

    kind regards,

    Todd

  7. Hi Todd,

    I didn’t say that evidence was subjective; I said it had a subjective element to it. We don’t see evidence with our eyes; we see evidence with our minds. Because of this, evidence plays an important role in both confirmation bias and disconfirmation bias. Also, we must remember that false propositions can exist with evidential support.

  8. Debra and Michael, yes I think you’re both right. That’s why I liked this post, it discusses the importance of a mindset of active open-mindedness because we all have our own biases through which we see things.

    My point is that inquiry starts with that recognition but doesn’t end there. It ends with the process of collaboratively trying to answer the same questions in a sincere and effective way, from a shared background of assumptions and evidence or else acknowledging that we are asking different questions.

    If I am helping a client work through a problem and I can’t bring everyone in the room to appreciate the common body of evidence, and start their thinking from there, then there is no hope of getting the best result. People will not honestly share their unique information and perspective if they think it is a competition rather than a collaboration. This is one of the biggest challenges to problem solving in the real world.

    kind regards,

    Todd

  9. Hi Todd,

    My point is that inquiry starts with that recognition but doesn’t end there. It ends with the process of collaboratively trying to answer the same questions in a sincere and effective way, from a shared background of assumptions and evidence or else acknowledging that we are asking different questions.

    And that’s a good point. The main goal of the list was to simply help people better determine whether their source of information should be viewed with some skepticism. Human beings are very good at recognizing blowhards, but can be misled by someone who comes across as being very smart, knowledgeable and polite. For as I say at the end of the blog entry, “intelligence and knowledge can sometimes be the best tools of an intellectually dishonest approach.”

    If I am helping a client work through a problem and I can’t bring everyone in the room to appreciate the common body of evidence, and start their thinking from there, then there is no hope of getting the best result. People will not honestly share their unique information and perspective if they think it is a competition rather than a collaboration. This is one of the biggest challenges to problem solving in the real world.

    I like this. I often use the metaphor of “showing your cards.” So, if we are in a competition, there are many reasons, motivated by self-interest, for not showing your cards: a)lose the ability to bluff; b) fear that the position (and the person holding the position) will be attacked and misrepresented; c) find out that you have a losing hand. The context of collaboration removes or reduces these concerns.

  10. Gorebloodgore

    Mike Gene, so this is where your rabbit hole is? I haven’t talked to you for over a year! Since you stopped posting at telic thoughts, I lost interest over there. I thought you went off writing another book or something? (im the DM Easter winner last year btw) haha.

    I liked this post alot! It actually made me laugh. I think this is the crux of internet debates, which is why I try not to get too involved anymore. If a person starts off hostile and name calling, its really not worth the time. If you want links I can provide them lol, I think just about anybody on here can.

  11. KrisBing,

    I think there’s a lot to what you’ve said there. Intellectual honesty is something I consider a positive virtue, something that it’s good to have more of. But it definitely isn’t always seen that way and we should be candid about that. It seems as if it really is negatively correlated with power and influence, people focused on power and taking action or persuading consider intellectual honesty a dispensible value rather than virtue. A way of building credibility perhaps but not really essential for thinking through the problem at hand. Creating and maintaining power becomes an end unto itself and people then find it silly to be so concerned about something as “academic” as true intellectual honesty. I guess that’s part of the old saying that power corrupts.

    Similarly, one of my favorite authors also says that “pitching out corrupts within,” meaning that the more you take the stance of advocacy, the less you are doing honest inquiry. Now advocacy is a perfetly legitimate thing in many situations, such as when we have a good answer already and need to publicize it. But it is largely inconsistent with honest inquiry. So even in situations where abuse of power isn’t an issue, I think that the desire to persuade often becomes the driving motive rather than a collective effort at getting to the heart of the problem (if there is indeed an agreed-on ommon objective). People who are convinced that they need to win over fans are not going to reconsider how they got to their conclusions and they may even find it offensive or inappropriate or perhaps just quaint that others are so concerned about intelletual honesty. Very frustrating, as Debra pointed our earlier.

  12. Hi, Michael and Todd -

    My personal interest in this area comes from my work as a conflict consultant and mediator. Including a third-party mediator in decision-making processes can be a way of opening the door for intellectual honesty. An effective mediator will provide a structure and facilitate a process that calls for critical, reflective thinking in a non-adversarial, non-competitive environment.

    A mediative approach encourages the type of candid communication vital to building and retaining intellectual honesty.

    Thanks very much for your thoughtful, thought-provoking posts on this topic. I appreciate your insights.

    Debra

  13. Debra, that’s an excellent point. In the type of work I do, we usually save third party draft techniques and actual mediators for the most difficult situations, but I think a trained facilitator is almost always a good idea when people interact in meetings, even when everyone seems to be on the same page. It’s just so hard to remove yourself from what’s going on unless your role is specifically to be detached.

    Thanks!

    Todd

  14. Hi Todd,

    You noted that “Creating and maintaining power becomes an end unto itself and people then find it silly to be so concerned about something as “academic” as true intellectual honesty. I guess that’s part of the old saying that power corrupts.” Very insightful. From there, the temptation to use those ends to justify any means becomes too great for most to resist. Of course, not any means can be applied (physical coercion in a democratic society, as an obvious example). However, unless one possesses a developed moral sense, the only criterion for rejecting a particular means is that it would create a perception that threatened one’s power. Am I making any sense?

    I also think there is a lot to KrisBing’s point. And it is damn depressing. It means that the voices we all hear from the world of politics and media, whether Right or Left, are all contaminated, to one degree or another, with intellectual dishonesty. This is not a big problem if those voices are talking about things we are knowledgeable about, but what about the topics where we lack sufficient knowledge? Who do we trust?

  15. Hi Gore,

    Great to hear from you! Yeah, the old rabbit hole was hacked, so I had to dig a new one here.

  16. Michael,

    “Who do we trust?”

    I’ll take a swing at this, though it sounds partly rhetorical?

    I’m not going to offer a blanket solution to this in terms of some class or role of people who are supposedly most trustworthy, because I’m not sure there is such a thing. There’s a lot to be said for identifying legitimate expertise in a field when you want to know about that field, but that’s obvious I hope. There are as well individuals with discernment and wisdom in addition to knowledge and expertise, but it also takes experience for each of us to identify them.

    I think we’re to some extent ‘wired’ to rely on social imitation without reflection to help our decision making, as a convenience and perhaps under some kinds of conditions a positive benefit and in a few cases even a necessity.

    What we each need, I think, are the skills to notice when reflection is called for, and the critical thinking and analysis skills to ask good questions, selet and organize evidence, and select better sources when we notice the clues that raw social imitation is misleading us. I think much of this is “metacognitive” skills, domain-general rather than specific to any particular field.

    The alternative to this hard work is to just accept an ideological viewpoint and see the world through its lens. There is real practical advantages to that for most people I think, even though it seems distasteful to reflective thinking “moderate” people who possess what I think of as the master virtue of prudence.

    The danger that some of us fear seems to be that democracy fundamentally depends on informed citizenry, and the concept of informed citizenry pretty much assumes that we don’t just think the way the next person does, nor rely on easily manipulated biases but that we each become informed and think for ourselves.

    I agree with you, the current situation is a little depressing, although I think there are signs that there may be hope, such as the increase in young people reading more books in some places (which I think presents a unique and important form of cognitive development), and the more active involvement of scientists and other intellectuals in popular culture.

    kind regards,

    Todd

  17. Pingback: What values does Glenn Beck want to return us to? - Page 11 - US Message Board - Political Discussion Forum

  18. Hi,

    I stumbled upon this today — realize it’s several years old, but an excellent and thoughtful piece no less. Thank you.

    Regards,

    Ruth

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