Ten 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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24 responses to “Ten Signs of Intellectual Honesty

  1. The question about intellectual honesty applies equally to IDers.
    In your opinion what are IDers being “dishonest” about, intellectually?
    What are your criticisms of ID, Mike Gene?
    What do you think are the problems? Not what are other people’s problems with ID. Do you think IDers are being “intellectually honest” about them?
    More importantly, in a society in which people can hardly go two minutes w/o saying or doing something they know is “dishonest” how do we deal with our dishonesty?

  2. Hi Rock,

    Simply apply the 10 Signs to the ID Movement. Off the top of my head:

    When you insist that not only is ID a scientific explanation, but the best scientific explanation out there, I’d say that’s vastly overstating your case.

    Many in the ID movement cannot acknowledge that natural selection is at least a reasonable alternative explanation for the appearance of design.

    I really can’t think of significant examples where those in the ID movement admit being wrong about something significant or acknowledge where their position is weak.

    It’s inconsistent to insist that a kludgy system is not evidence against design, but hold up a sophisticated, elegant system as evidence for design.

    I can’t think of significant examples where those in the ID movement acknowledge when their critics have a good point.

    Of course, keep in mind that I have only read a very small fraction of ID material.

  3. Mike Gene,

    As a professor, I must say that I was greatly impressed by this list as I have never seen anyone outline the features of intellectual honesty so clearly and succinctly. You might be interested to know that I found your site from

    http://www.reddit.com/r/psychology/comments/f46iz/ten_signs_of_intellectual_honesty/

    where 90% of the reddit/psychology community have given your list a thumbs up. Nice job.

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  5. Thanks for this list. Now I’ll know how to fake intellectual honesty better.

  6. Turthbetuld,

    If you want to. The neat thing is that if, trying to “fake it,” you find yourself having to 1)not overstate the power of your argument, 2)show a willingness to publicly acknowledge that reasonable alternative viewpoints exist, 3)be willing to publicly acknowledge and question one’s own assumptions and biases, 4)be willing to publicly acknowledge where your argument is weak, 5)be willing to publicly acknowledge when you are wrong, 6) demonstrate consistency, 7)address the argument instead of attacking the person making the argument, 8)when addressing an argument, do not misrepresent it, 9)show a commitment to critical thinking, and 10) be willing to publicly acknowledge when a point or criticism is good, eventually you will become intellectually honest or your faking becomes irrelevant.

    Personally, I don’t think it can be faked for very long as those ten things are very hard for an advocate or apologist to do. But even if a faker succeeds, the wider public is serviced by having the advocate/apologist do those things.

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  9. I googled “intellectual honesty” and got your site. You make some good points in your 10-points. I would like to add:

    11) Back up your statements with abundant data, information, knowledge, observations, and experiences.

    That would dispense of most intellectual dishonesty, including ID.

  10. That point would only hold true if one was making a strong claim (something I cover in point 1). I dealt with this a couple of years ago:

    http://designmatrix.wordpress.com/2009/03/09/evidence-and-suspicion/

  11. I like the Intelligent Design discussion above.
    Entirely faith based but don’t say the word ‘god’ and we don’t know what they’re talking about. lol
    ID can’t stand up to Intellectual Honesty, it’s entire and complete basis being ‘i just can’t believe this all happened by chance’.

  12. Fascinating list and resonates truth so well. Intellectual honesty (no. 3) means being willing to acknowledge and perhaps be aware of ones own biases. In talking about ID (aka Intelligent Design) you showed your bias and even though you came down on the side of being against ID, at least you were intellectually honest in that you admitted you’ve not done much research on the subject. Well done! I’m not for or against either Intelligent Design or Evolution with its Natural Selection. As you said you couldn’t think of a single time where the ID people admitted the weakness in their arguments, I can equally say I’ve not seen that forthcoming from the Evolution people either. Evolution is one of many “theories” running around science receiving a thumbs up from the scientific establishment but lacking in both testable evidence, testable experiments and free of biased assumptions. In applying them to the scientific method I find they haven’t even passed the hypothesis stage, let alone make it to the point where it could be called a theory at the later stages of the scientific method. Where do we come from and how did we end up with all this diversity of species? I don’t know. If the only two choices I have are ID or Evolution then I’m left with no choices at all. Neither side admits the weaknesses in their arguments and both sides have more holes than swiss cheese in their hypotheses. This is just another of the highly charged partisan “it’s us versus them” subjects where intellectual honesty and abilities to admit bias just do not exist. The jury is FAR from being in on this one as far as I’m concerned.

    Fantastic list! Very well thought out.

  13. Mike, you might add to this list. Don’t demand easy answers. Admit that you might need to do more learning to understand another person’s point of view.

  14. Great post. While I understand the direct correlation to academia, I see many other applications for intellectual honesty. I envision it applied to development and in teambuilding among other things. This is a mental discipline, a philosophy and a core value.

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  16. Some people might be interested in majoring in intellectual honesty at college.

  17. Kenyatta Graham

    The answer of whether there was creation or evolution is quite simple, there was both! Unfortunately, the substantial portion of the scientific community that believes in intelligent design is not being listened to because there are those with a contrarian agenda who are making the loudest noise and have had the ear of many who just cannot get with the idea of a diety with so much power: besides one can’t admit that there is a God and just walk away, something has to be done about that knowledge and for many that is very, very uncomfortable. And then there are the equally intransigent “believers” who ignore the truth that is right before their eyes; after all, if God created only two people and the rest of us are descendants from them whether black, white, brown, red or yellow, then there had to be an evolutionary process of some type. Darwin spent time in a seminary and was almost blessed with the correct answer due to that and scientific inquiry, that is, until his perception became clouded because he just could not accept that there is a God of creation. Random chaos with no specific guidance developes into millenia of order and immutable physical laws, and we are supposed to believe such nonsense, balderdash!

  18. Luyanda Mgwexa

    It really was insightful in layman terms easier for some of us to understand and have a reflection of what one always wonder on his own. I am still rethinking the combination of intelligence and the knowledge and how they lead to some intelectual dishonesty!!! #really thinking and trying to reflect on some of the experiences we encounter in our daily life!#

  19. This is a nice list Phil, that I have no debate with. But I do wonder if there is a hidden bias in the article, namely in the assumption that we are in an era where civil debate is still possible, rather than caustic rhetoric. There are several recent incidents which clearly demonstrate a flight from reason by those shaping political public discourse. The most recent one, is a 7-4 ruling by the 8th circuit court of appeals, requiring doctors to give false information to women seeking abortions. The issue here is not anortion right or wrong. The court explicitly set out in it’s ruling that a risk of suicide advisement did not need “proof of causation”. In another case, the Texas GOP Education Platform explicitly state that critical thinking should not be taught because it may cause children to examine their parents beliefs. http://m.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/texas-gop-rejects-critical-thinking-skills-really/2012/07/08/gJQAHNpFXW_blog.html
    see the article here.
    My point is, you can’t debate with a drunk. When the opposing viewpoint is based on belief in the absence of evidence, it seems neither prudent or effective to extend the courtesy elevating the arguement to debate status. And pointing out intellectual dishonesty to an anti intellectual only makes them feel like a hero for standing firm in their faith against facts. I despair for a worthy opponent.

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  21. I’ve tried to live by those ten rules. Unfortunately, society doesn’t always appreciate that. For example, when I worked as an economic policy adviser to the Queensland government, my analysis and conclusions were rarely if ever contested, but were often found to be inconvenient by those with particular agendas. I was side-lined, I was told by an ally in senior management, because the highest ranks felt threatened by my honesty, integrity, intellect and analytical rigour. But they are things which should never be compromised.

  22. I love this list, but I’m struck by the fact that some of the comments seem to assume that the role of intellectual honesty is to distinguish between the religious and the reasonable.

  23. Very good list. But I dont see to much intellectual honesty this days. Especially in 3 topics: Allopathic medicine vs alternative medicine, Evolution vs ID, Global Warming caused by humans. There are A LOT of BIG Money involved and HUGE political interest – so it is almost impossible to see HONEST science in real life! But your post is great and refreshing! This is what science should be about!

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