Consultant Steve Weitzenkorn, in an excellent blog post titled “What Happened to Intellectual Honesty?,” writes about the importance of this quality in contemporary life:
Harvard ethicist Louis M. Guenin describes the “kernel” of intellectual honesty as “a virtuous disposition to eschew deception when given an incentive for deception.” Intellectual honesty involves presenting and discussing facts in an inclusive and unbiased manner, and examining all available data not just the information that supports one’s preferred solution or position. It requires that people put aside personal interests and assumptions and be as objective as possible. The opposite of intellectual honesty is “spin” – creating a misleading, distorted, or false impression by intentionally omitting some facts and/or selectively emphasizing or exaggerating others to promote one position or viewpoint over another. Spinning is calculated misrepresentation.
Politics and more
Weitzenkorn’s post focuses on spin and dishonesty in politics: “The common practice is to say anything to get elected or promote an agenda, including personally maligning one’s opponent.” But it’s more than that, he urges. Trash and burn politics is so predominant that these behaviors become modeled for young people, teaching them that lying and distortion are perfectly acceptable ways of getting ahead.
Advocacy vs. dishonesty: A fine line?
If we’re going to be intellectually honest about it, we must concede that pure objectivity in offering an assessment, analysis, or observation is impossible. We all make subjective judgments on how to shape and present information. Sometimes those judgments lead us to become advocates for a given policy, practice, candidate, or cause.
The line between advocacy and dishonesty can be a fine one. The tools of persuasion involve appeals to the heart and mind, and in that realm there is plenty of room for manipulation. As a lawyer, advocate, and educator, I have become well aware of how easy it is to distort. I have heard brilliant legal arguments that are patently dishonest. I have heard utterances at faculty meetings that have made my head spin with their calculated falsity.
I make no claim of purity on these points. I can think of many times when I have advanced weak arguments and spun messages. But over the years I have found myself understanding how inauthentic it feels to conduct one’s work in such a manner. Operating in a constant spin zone requires us to abandon a vital part of our souls.
We can’t micro-regulate this behavior. Ultimately, intellectual honesty (or lack thereof) is about having a strong personal ethic (or not). For those of us who work in the world of information and ideas, it all comes down to individual responsibility.