I have mentioned before how valuable I find Judith Curry’s Climate etc website, which ought to have pride of place on my Blogroll. There you will find serious and sustained argument about ‘climate change’, the kind of argument that makes me realise how much I still have to learn. And you will also find, from time to time, gems that she has found in her search around the Internet. A recent one is about intellectual honesty and dishonesty. It’s worth reading by anyone who is interested about the way  we communicate about matters which concern us. I’m not thinking about advertising or politics, where intellectual honesty is hardly expected any more, but in the ordinary cut and thrust of argument in the media, and in education, where honesty about what is known and what is not known ought to be central.

Ms Curry first found an essay called ’10 Signs of Intellectual Honesty’ by someone with the unlikely name of Mike Gene, a contribution that caused someone else, ‘A.robustus’, to offer ’10 Signs of Intellectual Dishonesty’. They are both well worth reading, and taking to heart, but I thought the second was so crisply done that it was worth presenting here, in a mildly edited form. What are the ten signs?

1. Arrogance or “I am the messenger of truth”.  Be alert for arguments that send the following messages:

  • “What I am telling you ARE the facts and these facts have, and always will, withstand any test.”
  • “ Anybody that disagrees with ‘us’ is either stupid or is trying to undermine ‘our’ dedication and hard work.”
  • “ They have access to the same evidence, but they either ignore it or deliberately misinterpret it to suit their own agenda or hypothesis.”

2. Handwaving or “Your views have no merit”.  Look for ‘arguments’ that dismiss other views out of hand.  Often accompanied by Sign #1 with the opponent, not the specific argument, being dismissed.

3. Unwavering commitment, or “I know I am right – why bother arguing?”  People who refuse to accept that they may not be 100 per cent correct, or might be looking at the evidence through their own preferred colour of glasses, are not being honest with themselves or with their readers/listeners.

4. Avoiding/Ignoring the question or “  . . . and let’s not forget about . . .” Those who refuse to admit that their argument is weak in an area and, worse still, avoid answering difficult questions in that area, are being intellectually dishonest.  If they don’t ignore the question, these people can be easily recognised through their efforts to change the subject.

5. Never admitting error or “I am/We are right – regardless of your evidence”.  These are the people who will never admit that they are wrong – ever – regardless of clear evidence that demonstrates at least the possibility of error. See Sign #1.

6. Employing double standards or “Your evidence is unacceptable (because it’s your evidence)”.  Here the bar is set very high for the acceptance of evidence – at a much higher level indeed for opponents than for the kind of evidence they want to put forward.

7. Argumentum ad hominem or “You’re a [insert label/stereotype here] . . . and you have a secret agenda” This is a favoured approach of those who might be arguing from a weak position.  It is typically employed to avoid answering a difficult question (Sign #4) or used in conjunction with handwaving (Sign #2).

8. Destroying a straw man or “You might say that, but how do you explain . . . ?”   People who do this are shifting the subject, and attacking the opponent’s position on the new area, often an area that is unrelated or remotely related to the original point of disagreement.  This technique is usually employed in an effort to avoid a question (Sign #4) or when the speaker/writer doesn’t have the knowledge to address the issue.

9. Ignoring the principles of critical thinking.  Those who rely on one source of information  usually without question — are doing this.  People who only consider information from a single book, article, paper, video — or any number of these from sources that are known to support that person’s views or opinions — are being intellectually dishonest. Sign #1 usually applies in this case.

10. Ignoring [partial] defeat  Intellectually dishonest speakers and writers will NEVER admit that the other side has found a weakness in their argument.  You will never see them congratulate an opponent on finding a flaw in their argument, and they will use all of the other signs if necessary to draw your attention away from the subject.

While I read the original article I kept wondering how many of these sins I was guilty of, and came to the not wholly satisfactory conclusion that I was aware of them all, and tried to avoid them in my own writing and speaking. There is an additional defence against intellectual dishonesty, which I learned as a university teacher, and that is to accept that you don’t know, but will try to find out. Sometimes that means that you have to vacate the argument, and your opponent has a victory. I can remember a few occasions where that has happened recently, to my annoyance.

But in the long run these defeats and victories are irrelevant. What is at the core is one’s own preparedness to behave honestly in argument. It is no easy matter.

Join the discussion One Comment

  • PeterE says:

    One of my favourite books is ‘How to Read a book’ by Mortimer J Adler and Charles Van Doren. They sum up with the following [edited by me] points : do not rush to comment until you can say ‘I understand’; show where your opponent’s argument is uninformed, misinformed or illogical, or where the analysis is incomplete. (If you can’t do this, you may have learnt something). These rules are the intellectually honest way to proceed.

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