Ten Signs of Intellectual Honesty
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
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
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
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.
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
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.