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How to Be Intellectually Honest

Intellectual honesty is a commitment to examine the evidence, think rationally, tell the truth, and act according to the truth.

Demonstrators carrying pro-science signs.
Hermes and his wife at a pro-science demonstration in 2017.

What is intellectual honesty?

Intellectual honesty is a personal commitment to search for the truth by examining the evidence and thinking rationally, to tell the truth, and to act according to the truth.

The above is my own definition of intellectual honesty, which I think is more complete than the one provided by Wikipedia:

"Intellectual honesty is an applied method of problem solving, characterized by an unbiased, honest attitude, which can be demonstrated in a number of different ways: 1) One's personal beliefs or politics do not interfere with the pursuit of truth. 2) Relevant facts and information are not purposefully omitted, even when such things may contradict one's hypothesis. 3) Facts are presented in an unbiased manner, and not twisted to give misleading impressions or to support one view over another. 4) References, or earlier work, are acknowledged where possible, and plagiarism is avoided."

How science taught me intellectual honesty

Over many years, as my beliefs drifted through several religions, philosophies and political ideologies, I became increasingly dissatisfied with the dogmatism I encountered everywhere. At the same time, doing scientific research acted as mental training, teaching me not to become enamored with a particular idea, but rather to put it to the most strenuous tests. No matter how genial an idea seemed at the beginning, I had to challenge it in my experiments to avoid being led in the wrong direction, wasting precious time and resources.

Mother Nature does not yield her secrets easily; she only reveals the truth to those who are willing to humble themselves and leave their ego behind.

I gradually realized that I had to apply the same discipline to my own personal life. It has been a slow, hard process. It is difficult to live in a state of constant doubt, to realize that many things will remain forever unknown.

On top of that, people do not like complete honesty, no matter what they say, and they will not forgive you if you challenge their beliefs.

The value of truth

Why should we place such a high value on the truth?

Because living a happy and meaningful life depends on making sound decisions based on truthful knowledge. A mind full of confusion and false beliefs not only leads us to behave badly, but it is also in itself a source of unhappiness.

Buddhism recognizes this when it teaches that ignorance is the root of suffering and that discovering the truth will liberate us from it.

The ancient Stoics of Greece and Rome reached a similar conclusion when they advocated a life of virtue based on honesty and rational thought. Living a life of virtue (eudaimonia) means living in close relationship with the truth.

Lying to oneself leads to confusion, wrong decisions and even neurosis.

Lying to others also leads to confusion, because the only effective way of lying is by building alternative realities that we end up believing.

On a larger scale, the triumph of Western civilization is based on science, which is a way of gathering knowledge about the world that is rational, rigorous, evidence-based, self-consistent and self-correcting. Undermining science and its standards of truth will lead to the demise of our technological civilization, the one that has produced unprecedented standards of living and to a worldwide decrease in suffering.

And yet, we live in a crisis of truthfulness. Much has been said about President Trump and his lies, but Trump is just the symptom of a disease that has been growing in both the Right and the Left for quite some time.

While the Left was traditionally a bulwark for science and rationality, postmodernism and political correctness have convinced us to sacrifice truth for political expedience.

As I discuss below, dogmatism, ideology and political correctness have infiltrated the intellectual discourse to such a level that it is hard to find an honest point of view anymore. We need a large group of people committed to intellectual honesty to counter this dangerous trend.

Twelve things an intellectually honest person should do

  1. Say “I don’t know” when there is no evidence or rational argument to answer a particular question. Recognizing our lack of knowledge on a particular matter provides a good starting point for any inquiry.

  2. Logical fallacies are a constant threat to sound thinking. Anybody committed to intellectual honesty should study them to become able to recognize them in our own thinking and in the arguments of others. Needless to say, the intellectually honest person should expunge fallacies for his discourse and apologize if he unconsciously uses them.

  3. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. This means that it is intellectually dishonest to argue from ignorance, as when we say “you have no evidence for what you say, therefore what I say must be true”. Anybody who makes a statement that departs from the “I don’t know” baseline must provide evidence or logical arguments to support it. And this includes negative statements like “there are no unicorns”, which are the hardest to prove.

  4. When there is conflicting evidence for something, the intellectually honest person recognizes the evidence against his opinion and bases his argument in balancing evidence for and against his position.

  5. A critical thinker should avoid both type 1 errors (believing something that is false) and type 2 errors (not believing something that is true). The “skeptic’s fallacy” is giving more weight to evidence against a statement than to evidence for that statement.

  6. While it is true that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, this idea has been abused by skeptics by labeling a theory that they dislike as “extraordinary”. A more thoughtful approach is to realize that our description of reality must be internally consistent. Therefore, if something challenges that consistency, the evidence for it must be equivalent to the collective evidence in favor of all the theories it challenges. Alternatively, we must provide a way to reconcile the new idea with previously existing knowledge. Science provides a description of the world that is consistent from the very small (quantum mechanics) to the very large (astrophysics and relativity), and from the simple (physics and chemistry) to the complex (biology and neuroscience). If an idea does not fit into this consilience of the sciences, it should be in deep trouble.

  7. Lying is unethical for many reasons. It undermines trust and creates confusion in our own minds. But the main reason not to lie is that everybody has the right to know the truth and when we lie we rob them of that right. It is important to realize that being intellectually honest means not just that we must know the truth, but that everybody should know it as well.

  8. The principle of telling the truth is not an absolute one, but must be balanced against the moral imperative not to harm other people and to increase the collective good. There are inconvenient truths, which can range from something that clashes against our lifestyle to something that can actually harm people if it became known. However, we should keep in mind that even if something is harmful, that does not make it false. This is a fallacy known as “arguing from adverse consequences”, and it keeps creeping into politically correct discourses. The world is as it is, it has not been created for our convenience or in agreement with our ethical principles. However, if we know that the truth is going to harm somebody, we do not need to disseminate it. In fact, we may have the moral obligation to keep it hidden. For example, scientific findings that would encourage racism or sexism should be thoroughly challenged and not disseminated until they have been vetted.

  9. Lying is not just making false statements. There are many subtle ways of not telling the truth. For example, we can lie by omission: by giving the impression that we are telling the whole truth when in fact we are concealing something. However, this does not mean that we have an obligation to tell everything we know; everybody is allowed to keep secrets. What it does mean is that it is unethical to selectively tell some facts and hide others to buttress our opinion. Another subtle way of lying is by misrepresenting the certainty by which we know something. Unfortunately, it is quite common to bolster our ego by bragging about how much we know about something that in fact we have not studied in so much depth. The right thing to do is to bracket what we say with some information about how we know it and how well we know it. Exaggerations, personal attacks and other rhetorical tricks are also attempts at tweaking the truth to our advantage.

  10. Hypocrisy is also unethical. This means that when we know something to be true, we must act in accordance with that truth. Or at least recognize that we are not doing so, for whatever reason.

  11. Wishful thinking is an ever-present temptation, and so are negative thoughts that arise from our self-doubt and insecurities. We must become aware of how our emotions color our ideas and worldview, and strive to achieve the most impartial view that we can. The way I do that is to explore my mind and my emotions with practices like meditation and mindfulness.

  12. Not everything we say must be fact-based. Life would be incredibly dull without fiction, fantasy, opinion and speculation. However, we should strive to label any of these things as such. Of course, the line between speculation and opinion, and fact-based statements and logic is necessarily blurry. It must be so, or we would risk killing our creativity.

Religious dogmas are unethical

Dogmatism is to declare an idea as the truth, rejecting any evidence and arguments that oppose it. The main sources of dogmatism are religious beliefs and political ideologies.

Some religions, like Buddhism, value free inquiry. Other religions, like Christianity and Islam, hold that believing in the absence of evidence is a moral good, which they call faith. However, even the religions, like Buddhism, that pay lip service to free inquiry, hold some unquestioned beliefs, like the existence of reincarnation and nirvana.

Faith and dogmatism are not moral goods. They are unethical because they infringe the basic moral principle of respect for the truth, which must be sought freely and honestly. The basic immorality of religious faith has dire consequences: centuries of religious persecution, inquisitions, witch hunts and religious wars.

Agnosticism

In the 19th Century, Thomas Huxley, a biologist who was one of the earliest defenders of the Theory of Evolution, argued that faith and religious belief in the absence of evidence is, in fact, a moral wrong because it is a form of self-deception. He called his idea agnosticism.

Later on, agnosticism came to mean indecision when confronted with the question “Do you believe in God?” I like to call Huxley’s original idea Strong Agnosticism. Instead of focusing on the idea of God, the strong agnostic confronts the “believe” part of the question, arguing that it is unethical to believe in something for which there is no evidence.

Therefore the strong agnostic draws a sharp distinction between the two, apparently similar, statements “I do not believe in God” and “I believe that there is no God”. The first one is intellectually honest, because “I do not believe” is equivalent to “I do not know”, whereas the second would require proof for the statement that there is no God.

Ideologies

Ideologies often become similar to religions in their disrespect for the standards of truth.

However, I am not arguing that ideologies are necessarily bad. By providing an internally consistent worldview, they are extremely effective in promoting effective ways to change it, hopefully for the better.

Just like religions, ideologies become more powerful the more their followers believe in them, which creates an incentive for dogmatism. Still, the deceptions weaved by ideologies are more subtle than the blunt articles of faith of the religions. They may involve framing reality in such a way that emphasizes some aspects and hide others.

  • Marxism emphasizes class differences, class struggle and the production of material wealth, while hiding the need for freedom and other non-material assets.

  • Capitalism also focuses on material wealth, but justifies inequality on a supposedly selfish and competitive human nature.

  • Feminism often veers to an extremist position that views everything through the lens of gender disparities. It erects the Patriarchy as the ultimate origin of most evils; not just the oppression of women, but also wealth inequality, violence and war.

  • Animal liberationists exaggerate the similarities between humans and animals while discarding the obvious differences, as well as the moral contract that forms the basis for human rights.

Another subtle way by which ideologies twist the truth is by starting with an idea and then searching for evidence supporting it, unlike the open inquiry for the truth practiced by science. This leads to rationalization (one-sided justification of a preexisting idea) and confabulation (made-up narratives to explain an event), two forms of self-deception that are common in the human mind.

Again, I am not saying that we should discard all ideologies — in fact, I label myself as socialist, feminist and sex-positive — but that we should question them when they become dogmatic or frame inquiries in a restrictive and biased way.

Political correctness

Political correctness is a modern form of thought-control based on the manipulation of language and the exclusion of ideas.

In the name of equality, respect and fairness, it deems that certain words and ideas are too immoral to be said in public and condemns anybody who dares say them to ostracism, loss of career and even worse - cancelling.

Political correctness does not argue against ideas. It argues against your right to think, express and debate those ideas. This encourages bigotry, because politically correct ideas go unchallenged. Political correctness is a form of dogmatism, because it is impossible to consider the truthfulness of an idea if you cannot express it.

But the problem with political correctness is not just censorship. It also has an active side that promotes certain ideas, like ‘mansplaining’ or ‘speciesism’, that have not been vetted by critical thinking, are assumed to be true, and cannot be criticized.

Another problem with political correctness is that it deliberately confuses opinion with behavior. For example, expressing the opinion that pedophiles can be rehabilitated will get you labeled as a pedophile.

Another insidious belief of political correctness is that we are conditioned to believe certain things by our gender, race, nationality, etc. This serves to justify censorship by discarding the opinion of a person based on the group he or she belongs to, and not on the value of their ideas.

Bullshit

Bullshit is not lying. It is an ongoing discourse done with absolute disrespect for the truth and with the goal of bolstering our ego and our social standing.

"In his essay On Bullshit (originally written in 1986, and published as a monograph in 2005), philosopher Harry Frankfurt of Princeton University characterizes bullshit as a form of falsehood distinct from lying. The liar, Frankfurt holds, knows and cares about the truth, but deliberately sets out to mislead instead of telling the truth. The "bullshitter", on the other hand, does not care about the truth and is only seeking to impress." Wikipedia.

Conclusions

We desperately need more intellectual honesty in all aspects of modern discourse, but particularly in politics. However, the critical thinker faces an uphill battle because he will be attacked from both the Right and the Left.

Challenging beliefs engenders a remarkable amount of violence. For many centuries and even today, religions have punished non-believers with torture and death. Modern political correctness and cancelling are used to ruin people and end their careers.

Only by establishing intellectual honesty, critical thinking and free speech as core values in our societies we can fight this awful drive towards dogmatism.

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