Expect Intellectual Honesty
Accurately communicating true beliefs
The term intellectual honesty is defined as accurately communicating true beliefs. This definition is small and mighty! Intellectual honesty is very powerful because it reveals so much about the person who is communicating. People (and their organizations) who are intellectually honest are demonstrating their respect for you and their audience by being candid, truthful, impartial, and skillful at evaluating evidence. They are also demonstrating their personal integrity and the care they take in seeking true beliefs. People who are intellectually dishonest are disrespecting you as they reveal their inability—and often their indifference or contempt—to choose true beliefs. Intellectual honesty builds trust. Intellectual dishonesty erodes trust.
Because it is quite easy to make true statements that send a false message, it is wise to practice good faith—the virtue of honest communication—rather than adopting a strict or narrow interpretation of truth. The first agreement Don Miguel Ruiz describes in his book The Four Agreements, is to “Be impeccable with your word”. We are saying the same thing. Take personal responsibility for the effects of your words.
Truth departs from good faith whenever literal truths are used to send a false message. This can be done by establishing a narrow perspective, quoting out of context, cherry picking, or overgeneralizing from anecdotal evidencerather than using systematic evidence. Omitting relevant information is deceptive. If the intent is to deceive, it is not good faith, it is an assault.
While good faith does allow for errors, it does not tolerate any intent to deceive.
We can promote both truth and grace. There are times when balancing compassion and gentleness with truth it becomes prudent to say less. There is rarely good reason to tell your grandmother she looks old. Before speaking ask yourself is it true? is it helpful? and is it kind? Strike a balance that best fits each situation. Consider carefully what you tell a dying person about their condition. Neither carelessness nor tactlessness are virtues.
Learn how to speak truth to power and know when it is prudent to wait and speak your mind another day. Choosing to blow the whistle is sometimes necessary and often perilous. Assemble allies and choose the opportunity, your words, and timing carefully. Know who are assisters and who are resisters. Beware of existing and powerful command hierarchies; begin by obeying the chain of command. Seek help from a trusted ombudsman. Have an effective plan in place before confronting tyranny.
Because untrue beliefs are more likely to be harmful than true beliefs, we have a moral obligation to choose true beliefs. We each have a responsibility to know how we know and to not assume rumors, misinformation, disinformation, propaganda, dogma, or doctrine are true. It is wise to seek real good.
It can be comfortable, easy, and even fun, to tolerate falsehoods. This is especially true when those falsehoods support our ideologies, confirm our biases, signal loyalty to our team, diminish a rival, help us fit in, make it easier to get along or go along, curry favor, or please the boss. But we must find the courage to insist on truth, especially when it is inconvenient. Do not pass on rumors you have not personally verified.
People who confuse false beliefs with true beliefs are not using a reliable epistemology—their way of knowing. Reliable epistemologies—ways of knowing—converge on reality. A lack of convergence is caused by unreliable methods. The most reliable epistemologies are based on thinking scientifically.
Intellectual honesty is more than sincerity because people sincerely hold untrue beliefs. This is common within cults, ideologies, echo chambers, autocracies, gullible people, the uneducated, the miseducated, and others shielded from true beliefs. Intellectual honesty requires the commitment to abandon untrue beliefs and obtain true beliefs.
Advancing falsehoods assaults human dignity. We demean ourselves when we are careless with the truth. We insult others when we squander our trustworthiness by telling lies, tolerating bull and nonsense, propagating falsehoods, feigning ignorance, obfuscating facts, or celebrating fabrications. We are being lazy when we settle for untrue beliefs rather than do the work required to seek true beliefs. We all deserve to learn what is true, what is real, and what is good. We can think clearly for ourselves and be candid with each other. We can handle the truth.
Because intellectual honesty reveals so much about the person who is communicating it is useful as an indicator of overall character. During the next political speech, interview, debate, or other forms of argumentation, pay attention to the intellectual honesty of the speaker. Support intellectually honest candidates and politicians and criticize and avoid intellectually dishonest ones. Evaluate the intellectual honesty of anyone seeking to persuade, participating in a debate, arguing for a cause, promoting a product, or defending an ideology. Extend this measure of character to better understand others in your life. Beware of your own lapses in intellectual honesty. Reflect on each lapse and work to increase your intellectual honesty as you expose the many charlatans among us.
Each of us has a responsibility to expect and insist on intellectual honesty, from ourselves and from others. This requires us to actively challenge falsehoods and to recognize true beliefs. Along with our duty to do no harm, we have a duty to advance no falsehoods.