Ten Signs of Intellectual Honesty

Obtuseness is overwhelmingly the tactic of choice for people with strong points of view, and too frequently debate results in most unparliamentary language. Often one can only hope to plant the seeds of a different perspective, rather than reach a meeting of the minds. For me a primer on intellectual honesty is an almost essential prerequisite for debate.

I was fortunate enough to come across this piece of genius by the science/tech blog The Design Matrix and I cannot overstate both how valuable it has been to me personally and how important it is that these principles become more broadly understood:

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.

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  1. Reclaimist says:

    This is f****** brilliant. Thank you for that.

  2. tvfantasma says:

    Are these principles useful in the real world? They would be useful if all the people could understand when other people are violating them, but this is not the case. Therefore, in the real world, when your opponents are using the science of influence, being intellectual honest is useless.

  3. Anonymous says:

    >copy paste article from another blog
    >link to their front page instead of summarizing it and letting people read it on their site
    >scumbag blogger

  4. Mike Mellor says:

    Refer Robert H. Thouless, “Straight and Crooked Thinking.”

    http://www.amazon.com/Straight-Crooked-Thinking-Robert-Thouless/dp/B000V6YIT2/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1309524507&sr=1-2

    Stifly I like your angle on this: namely detecting the BS in your OWN arguments. When through trickery you win an argument you know you should have lost then you’re basing your life on a lie.

    • StiflySiferson says:

      I totally agree with that point, though as I say in the post, this originated from a blog called Design Matrix. Thanks!

      • Mike Mellor says:

        Though let’s admit a bit of chicanery often adds to the fun.

        “That sounds like something Adolf Hitler once said.”

        “You’re repeating yourself/You’re contradicting yourself.” And when asked to explain you say, “Just stand back and listen to yourself and it’ll become obvious.”

        My personal favorite: “Let’s just stick to the generally-accepted definition of the word, shall we?”

  5. TV says:

    This is why Obama has PR trouble with his opponents. He follows this playbook, while they’re screaming into the camera.

  6. Mia says:

    I agree w/ comment below. Brilliant. Needs to be required learning for everyone. Did I overstate my enthusiasm? 🙂

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