The Struggle for Intellectual Honesty

Most of the posts to The Inspired Rationalist will offer analysis of complex and often misunderstood, important topics. This post about intellectual honesty is different. It is an essay about a standard of behavior that is subtle but of great consequence.

Intellectual honesty is a concept that I’ve tried to consciously apply in my life for the last 25 years or so. It is not easy and the fact that I’m writing about it does not mean that I think I’m close to operating at the high level I aspire to. But I’m better at it than I would be if I didn’t have awareness of the concept and the motivation to apply it in my life. I believe more intellectual honesty contributes to a better world, and at an individual level, greater happiness. The Inspired Rationalist seeks to be guided by this principle.

Unfortunately, we (humans) are not wired to make this easy and so we struggle to maintain our intellectual honesty. Lately we seem to be slipping backwards and I believe this slippage is contributing to the polarization in our country. This is largely what motivates me to write this essay.

What is Intellectual Honesty?

Louis Guenin, a Harvard ethicist, defines intellectual honesty as “a virtuous disposition to eschew deception when given an incentive for deception.”

I agree with this definition, but my own working definition goes further. I believe it starts with the practice of self-honesty. This is a challenge. The wise and famous physicist Richard Feynman once said:

“Never fool yourself, and remember you are the easiest person to fool.”

Our species is highly skilled at self-deception and we exhibit considerable bias.  Our self-interest is a powerful driver of our beliefs. We often embrace or dismiss ideas, opinions and evidence based on what we want to be true, rather than by applying objective reasoning. This “motivated reasoning” impacts our world and political views, ethical beliefs, work life, and personal relationships.

Very often the motivating self-interest is ego related. We want to be right. Sometimes it’s a defense mechanism so we avoid unpleasant realities such as not wanting to experience the discomfort that comes with questioning long-held beliefs or character flaws that are at odds with our self-image. Sometimes the self-interest is financial. Often it is a loyalty to our tribes that leads us to easily accept their views. Our tribes might be political party, religion, country, social group, etc.

By deceiving ourselves, we protect our self-image and beliefs. This is a natural human coping mechanism. But taken too far it is a behavior that can harm our personal relationships and stunt our personal growth. On a society-wide basis it can lead to poor decision-making, dysfunction and tribal-driven conflict. In doing so it threatens the integrity of our democracy if our opinions (and votes) are disconnected from some sense of objective reasoning and accurate information.

Intellectual honesty pushes back against our motivated reasoning to seek out what is true.

Characteristics that Exemplify Intellectual Honesty

Intellectually honest people are curious, humble, and want to learn. They know that we tend to be hugely overconfident in our ability to understand. This humility-enabled awareness leads them to actively seek out the evidence and reasoning that support various points-of-view. They question the validity of their assumptions. They are willing to change their minds. All this helps form a solid foundation of truth-seeking support for their opinions.

A way to think about this is to visualize all the relevant information and perspectives on a topic as the area represented inside a circle. If we only see a slice of this area, we are only partly informed. Around this circle is an outer circle. That circle represents misinformation about the topic. If part of what we believe comes from this outer circle, this may get in the way of the truth from inside the circle.

This concept applies to misunderstandings and conflicts we experience with others, and our understanding and beliefs relating to just about everything.

When it comes to most things, no one has complete knowledge of all that is inside the circle. Expanding our awareness of different perspectives, rather than jumping to conclusions, improves our overall understanding of what is in the circle so that we can make reasonably informed judgments even though our information is still incomplete.

People whose self-image is not dependent on being right, tend to be more intellectually honest than those who need to be right and who become quickly defensive or feel personally attacked when challenged.

People who are intellectually honest have high self-awareness about how emotions can undermine the clarity of their reasoning and opinions.

None of us are intellectually honest all the time. Experts who study rationality and human judgment say we often fail at this. But with self-awareness and effort we can improve.

Why is Intellectual Honesty Important?

At a personal level, we will have better relationships if we are first honest with ourselves. This means admitting when we screw up rather than defending or rationalizing our actions. It means making honest efforts to listen so we can understand others’ perspective rather than always believing ours is right.

Regarding our broader society, a commitment to intellectual honesty makes for more understanding and cooperation. Unfortunately, we live in a world where there is a lot of dishonesty. And our tribal wiring, emotions, and a strong tendency toward overconfidence in what we know makes us highly susceptible to accepting false narratives and untruths.

If too many of us are manipulated in this way, we will have a society in which, among other things, the gasoline thrown on the culture war fires is reinforced as people form strong opinions based on untruths or incomplete understanding. This is not what most of us want.

I worry about this given the increasing intensity of our differences that fray our common bonds. It seems likely that the growing polarization in our country is at least partly related to the echo chamber, as more and more people rely on biased information to drive beliefs. Without questioning these drivers of our beliefs, we allow belief to become truth. Belief is not the same as truth.

We need a critical mass of citizens whose beliefs and votes are informed by credible information, awareness of various points-of-view, thoughtful reasoning, willingness to compromise and a dose of humility. Intellectual honesty facilitates this good thinking.

Generally, living this way engenders respect and admiration – people tend to respect honesty of character and openness to other viewpoints. All this requires humility, self-awareness and mindfulness. It’s hard to do consistently, but we improve as we practice this in our lives.

Why Being Intellectually Honest is So Difficult

There are many reasons why this type of honesty is so challenging – I’m only mentioning a few here.

Our desire to be right and protect our interests (ego, etc.) leads us to construct narratives that explain and reinforce what we want to believe – we often form the beliefs first and concoct the supportive reasoning later. Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahnemen, who has studied the psychology of judgment and decision-making, has said:

“even if you did destroy the arguments that people raise for their beliefs, it wouldn’t change their beliefs, they would just find other arguments…. we have a lot of illusions about the role of reasons in our beliefs and decisions. It’s smaller than we think.”

(This quote was taken from a recent interview with Kahneman from the podcast On Being with Krista Tippett. Learn more in Kahneman’s acclaimed book, Thinking Fast and Slow. It’s a fascinating and thought-provoking read, though not an easy one.)

We all have a limited amount of time to seek understanding about many things. So, we take short cuts that are common to most people. Kahneman speaks about this too:

“the speed with which we find explanations for a thing that happened makes it difficult for us to learn the deep truth that the world is much more uncertain than we feel it is. We see a version of the world that is it simplified and a lot more certain than the world really is.”

Our short cuts come in many forms. For example, we have a strong tendency to remember things that support our views and ignore things that don’t (this is called confirmation bias). We regularly underweight the importance of things we don’t know and overweight the significance of things we do (remember the circle concept). We tend to easily take on the beliefs of our friends and the groups we are part of.

These shortcuts facilitate favoring narratives that we’ve been exposed to, sometimes since childhood. Experience-driven beliefs are particularly powerful. Think how your worldview might differ if you were born and raised by very conservative parents in rural Alabama and continued to live there, versus being raised by liberal parents in San Francisco, where you continued to live. Same person, but dramatically different experiences that likely inform very different worldviews. Yet, they are driven by the absolute randomness of completely different upbringings.

Today’s world provides far easier access to a broader menu of biased information sources than was previously available. So, from the standpoint of our worldviews, it is easy to stay within our ideological echo chamber if that is what we want, even though there are high quality, well-researched, information sources that exhibit less bias. The increasingly powerful echo chamber undermines our intellectual honesty. It is harmful.

If we allow ourselves to rely mostly on strongly right-wing or left-wing information sources, we will be bombarded with certain points of view, without exposure to a wider range of perspectives, information and balanced analysis. We will be fed agenda-driven storylines that are sometimes poorly researched, out of context and in the worst cases, blatantly false. They often stir up anger that feeds our increasingly intense tribal loyalties (us versus them) at the expense of the critical thinking and healthy questioning that is needed for us to be more objectively informed truth-seekers. It feeds our natural wiring that already knows what it wants to believe, irrespective of conflicting evidence.

It’s well understood that emotions are much more powerful influencer than facts and reason. And there are many shady sources on the web and talk radio that are expert at pushing the levers of emotion. The most extreme are run by crackpots who have seen their influence expand enormously. But it is also true of the 24-hour cable news networks – particularly their opinion-oriented segments. Make no mistake, these are entertainment channels with lots of time to fill. They need to keep their audience coming back. Providing drama, attacking “other” tribes, and sometimes triggering outrage is an effective way to do that. This is central to their business model because the battle for our attention drives the revenue that is their lifeblood. There is some high-quality programming on some of the 24-hour cable channels. It’s not all bad and they are not all the same. But they know which buttons to push to give us what we want and they push them repeatedly.

Psychologists, social scientists, behavioral economists and neuroscientists are gaining increasing understanding about how we are influenced, including how very easily we can be manipulated. When we form opinions solely by feeding our biases, we invite ourselves to be manipulated and we do this because reinforcing those biases is often pleasurable, even when it triggers anger. An honest effort to fact-check our beliefs and expose ourselves to information that contradicts what we want to believe is unpleasant, and therefore avoided.

How to Become More Intellectually Honest

Despite the powerful human tendency to want to create our own reality, I don’t believe it is hopeless. Self-awareness of our struggle with self-honesty and bias, coupled with a commitment to the idea of intellectual honesty, can enable us to make great strides, even though we will all still fall short of the ideal.

Here are some thoughts on how to live this idea.

  1. We need to be incentivized to fight our natural wiring so we can pursue better thinking. Realize how much you respect people who model high levels of intellectual honesty. Think about how you want to be remembered. And think about the broader positive societal impact that comes from more people aspiring to a high standard.
  2. Because intellectual honesty is so difficult, it requires constant reminding. Be intentional about making it a daily morning practice to commit to being intellectually honest that day. 
  3. Make a habit of questioning the reasoning and assumptions that support your beliefs. Are they valid? How do you know? What informs them and how do you know these sources are accurate? Gaining these insights is sometimes surprisingly difficult.
  4. Think about what could make your beliefs and opinions wrong. Realize that our opinions and beliefs are often based on partial information. Ask yourself if you can articulate arguments that are at odds with what you believe, thereby testing your understanding of other viewpoints.
  5. Think about your core biases and be aware of them (you won’t be aware of all of them).
  6. Think about the biases of others who influence you. This includes people in your life, groups you belong to, and various media sources you rely on.
  7. In interactions with others try to listen and understand their point of view before convincing them of yours. If you find yourself getting emotional or thinking about how to make their argument wrong, think about what your motivations are.
  8. Seek the humility to change your mind and admit when you are wrong.

Aspiring to be more intellectually honest does not mean that we give up our shortcuts and practical decision-making. We will always be faced with making decisions and forming opinions in the face of uncertainty and incomplete information. We still need to rely on intuition and sometimes make quick decisions. We can still use our judgment to call bullshit on arguments that are poorly reasoned or uninformed. Listening and being open to alternative points of view does not mean rolling over to other’s views. Intellectual honesty does mean that we are thoughtful and aware of how we make these judgments and the motivations that inform them.

In committing to intellectual honesty it’s important to understand that we will all fall way short. Even those who are reasonably self-aware exhibit much more bias and irrational thinking than they want to believe. But we can feel good about the improvement that comes with effort and the positive impact it will have on our lives. And in doing so we contribute in our own small way to a better world.

I’ve consciously thought about intellectual honesty for over twenty-five years and the idea is very important to me. But as I write this I find myself questioning my choice of the name The Inspired Rationalist. Anything close to pure rationality is not attainable for humans. The Aspiring Rationalist would have been a better choice.