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Intellectual Honesty

Ted Neward takes a look at what intellectually honest debate does and does not look like, using the Ten Signs of Intellectual Honesty.

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At last night’s Seattle Languages meeting, I was reminded of what intellectually-honest debate does and does not look like; then, as part of the discussions and argument around the tragic deaths of several black men at the hands of police, I was presented with a link to a page entitled “Ten Signs of Intellectual Honesty”. This is good material.

First off, the original link: Ten Signs of Intellectual Honesty. I’m going to be quoting from it liberally, however, in case you don’t want to click through. (But please do so at least once sometime, so the author gets their just kudos for posting such awesomeness.)

With no further ado….

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. … Intellectual honesty is most often associated with humilty, not arrogance.” The humility thing really strikes a chord with me. Many years ago, I had the chance to conduct a one-on-one CNN-style interview with Bjarne Stroustrup (the creator of C++, if you’re not familiar with the name), and one of the first things that struck me was how quick he was to disavow the things he doesn’t know. There is no braggadocio, no “look at the cool sh*t I’ve created”, nothing. Brian Goetz (the Java language architect at Oracle) is similarly quite ready to admit what’s outside his wheelhouse. Venkat Subramaniam is one of the most open minds I’ve ever met. And so on and so on and so on; the bigger the “name” in Computer Science, the more humble they tend to be. (With a few exceptions.) I have since taken this to mean that the louder you crow about yourself, the less others are willing to crow about you, which is probably because there’s not all that much to crow about.

“If someone portrays their opponents as being either stupid or dishonest for disagreeing, intellectual dishonesty is probably in play.” Alas, it’s not always that easy; too often, genuinely interested people are arguing over the facts, because we’re too busy clinging to the facts that we like and ignoring the ones we don’t.

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.” This is even more true in areas where clear objective evidence is simply lacking. I will freely admit that people can build non-trivial systems in Perl; that doesn’t change the fact that I dislike the language. Nor does it change the fact that it can be useful. I have my reasons for why I don’t like it, and we can debate as to whether those reasons are legitimate or pure opinion, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t useful to people who’ve used it in the past.

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.” Another quote from Stroustrup: “The more I know, the more I know I don’t know.” If the guy who’s forgotten more about programming languages than I will ever know can say that, then there’s no room for me to stand up and insist that somehow I am never wrong. I think I know things, but there’s always the chance that I got the information wrong, the information I got was wrong when I got it, or the situation has changed since I got that information.

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.” (Yeah, I really don’t have a whole lot more to add to that.)

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.” This is probably the hardest thing in the world to do, and it’s why so often we do so with these weasel- word qualifiers. “If I offended anyone, I am sorry that they were offended.” Or “I was perhaps mistaken about the degree of truth in the statements you and I exchanged during that conversation.” These are not admissions of incorrectness. These are attempts to salvage the ego and balm the uncomfortable feeling that comes with being incorrect about something.

Make the resolution right now: Admit when you are wrong at least once a day. That’s mine.

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.” It’s hard sometimes to see, but this is part of why I think we engage in some of these endeavors—not to convince anybody of anything, but to find out where my own thinking is not being consistent and/or “fair”.

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.” Yeah, this starts to sound like just about every “flame war” I’ve ever seen go on between people who don’t have respect for one another. Including a few I’ve been in. (And apologies, by the way, to anyone I made ad hominem attacks against in the past, intentionally or accidentally. I don’t recall any, but I’m sure there’s more than a few across my past.)

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. … 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.” Sometimes, unfortunately, in the tone-less medium of the Internet, it’s too easy to interpret genuine questions for clarification or additional information around an argument as a precursor to a strawman, which is why as a general rule, if I’m seeking additional information, I try to just keep it to the question and nothing else—no interpretation and no “spin”. (I will also be the first to admit that it’s a favorite tactic of mine, to do exactly the opposite: Ask the question, anticipate the answer, and provide the “devastating” counterargument to what I think the answer will be. This is my commitment to try and break that habit.)

Show a Commitment to Critical Thinking

Want to start? Pick up a book on philosophy. Seriously. This is a subject that is all about doing nothing but critical thinking—there’s little in the way of repeatable, observable experiments that can be done in philosophy to arrive at an empirical truth. (In fact, one could argue that as soon as we can do that in a subject, it becomes “science” instead of philosophy.)

Best thing you can do for your career, honestly.

The original post contains a quick link to this, which contains the following workable list:

  1. gather complete information – more than one source
  2. understand and define terms (make others define terms, too)
  3. question the methods by which results were derived
  4. question the conclusion: do the facts support it? is there evidence of bias? remember correlation does not equal causation.
  5. uncover assumptions and biases
  6. question the source of information
  7. don’t expect all the answers
  8. examine the big picture
  9. look for multiple cause and effect
  10. watch for thought stopping sensationalism
  11. understand your own biases and values

From Human Biology: Health, Homeostasis, and The Environment, 3rd Edition, by Daniel D. Chiras.

Again, all of these are things that philosophical thinking tends to drum out of you. It begins with asking questions, and then questions about the questions.

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.” More importantly, it demonstrates that you can separate the argument from the arguer—and gets the egos out of the way. (By the way, this holds for any criticism—if you’re being criticized over something, including things like a code review, finding at least one thing in the critique that you can agree with in any way can help to separate your own ego out of the discussion.)

This whole blog is good if you’re a fan of science (with an emphasis on biology, it seems).

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Published at DZone with permission of Ted Neward, DZone MVB. See the original article here.

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