July 05, 2018

4 Tips for Maintaining Your Intellectual Honesty


Note: This post has been contributed.


Image via Pixabay

We live in interesting times, as the old proverb goes, and much of what was taken for granted throughout human history is now being questioned on a daily basis. Fierce arguments and debates rage all around, new ideologies emerge, and old ones take on new formats.

In this dynamic, chaotic intellectual climate, worries over anti-scientific thinking have been rising steadily for some time now, particularly with the rise of the internet dethroning the vanguard of traditional media.

It is, however, the case that we are all prone to shoddy thinking and to being intellectually dishonest, if we don’t guard ourselves carefully against our own shortcomings, and remain humble, self-aware, and honest enough to spot them.

Here are some things you can do to help ensure that you remain intellectually honest despite all the temptation to the contrary.

Cultivate the art of entertaining an idea without accepting it

A quote attributed to Aristotle runs “it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain an idea without accepting it.”

What this means, essentially, is that being able to mull an idea over honestly, consider it’s merits and shortcomings, and consider the possibility that it might be true — without feeling compelled to accept it — is one of the highest forms of intellectual refinement.

This practice is increasingly being lost these days, as more and more of us seem to dismiss any ideas which go against our values, opinions, and biases, out of hand.

But it is only by entertaining ideas — even ones we find reprehensible — that we can come up with sophisticated, nuanced, and intellectually honest positions on things.

Try to actually listen to what the other person is saying in a conversation, rather than trying to defeat them

Humans are inherently tribal, and once we’ve identified ourselves with a particular political or ideological viewpoint, it is very easy for us to seek ways to defeat those in differing camps, rather than trying to engage in honest conversation, find out what they’re really saying, and use that information in the formation of our own views — whether we accept the other party’s motivations as ethical or factually valid, or not.

A conversation should always be about laying ideas on the table and interrogating them in the spirit of curiosity. A conversation should not be a Machiavellian game wherein in each party does their best to discredit or browbeat their opponent at all costs.

Nurture a sense of curiosity, and listen to what the other side has to say, then play with those ideas and see what you can unpack from them, in a dispassionate manner.

Resist the temptation of thinking that you’ve got the final answer

Issues that people consider worthy of emotional investment, are typically nuanced in the extreme. While we might be tempted to think that we have the final answer on any given topic, remaining open to the possibility that we might have more to learn — even more our opponents — is a way of ensuring that our ideas don’t stagnate, and that we remain intellectually honest.

It’s possible that the person you’re talking to may know less than you in many regards, but might know more than you in others, or might have insights you’d never have considered.

Teasing out the implications of these insights can force you to either strengthen and improve your own positions, or to adopt new, better and more cogent positions.

Avoid straw-manning and caricaturing your opponents

As a general rule, it’s highly unlikely that everyone who has radically different ideas to you, is just an evil, sinister, moron, and nothing else.

When we strawman our opponents, and make caricatures of them and their positions, all that we ultimately succeed in doing is ensuring that we never allow ourselves to see what they’re really saying, and why they’re saying those things.

When we’ve written someone and  their ideas off as “not worth engaging with”, we don’t disarm those ideas, or learn anything from them, we simply avoid the entire, difficult process of getting to the bottom of things, because we have convinced ourselves that we are above even acknowledging that real, normal people, genuinely hold those views.

This is an intellectually dishonest position, and flies in the face of the spirit of truth and open enquiry. Sometimes this straw-manning is done out of genuine biting contempt for the other party, and sometimes it’s done because we fear that the other party might say make a point that we’re forced to concede, and that our entire belief structure will come tumbling down as a result.

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