Skip to content

“Where in your education were you taught about intellectual honesty?”

Haynes Goddard asks:

Here is the question I want to put to this blog’s readers. Where in your education were you taught about intellectual honesty? I don’t mean academic dishonesty such as cheating and plagiarism which are actively controlled.

I am told it is covered in classes on critical thinking, mainly in Philosophy Depts. Where else? Most students do not take these classes.

If our students have not been exposed to examples of intellectual dishonesty and how to deal with them, then my hypothesis is that we faculty share much if not most of the blame for what we are observing.

I would like to know what your experience has been in this regard and your suggestions. Best to post here, but you also may contact me at

Feel free to answer Goddard in the comments.

Goddard provides some background, which I’ll give below, but I wanted to give his question first, because I think the question is interesting even if you disagree with his views on the particular issues he discusses.

Here’s where Goddard was coming from:

Andrew’s post on Scott Atlas and the ensuing discussion is germane to a current project of mine focused on the sources of such intellectual dishonesty. The question: how is it that well educated people such as Atlas, Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, McConnell and many others can be so intellectually dishonest?

As an economist, my [Goddard’s] discipline always looks for the incentives that motivate behavior. For the politicians, the incentives are clear: reelection. And for those motivated by money, the well worn observation by Upton Sinclair applies: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

Two weeks after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Towers, I had an honors section of introductory microeconomics to teach. One hot topic was airline safety, in particular passenger screening put in place after many hijacking incidents. I and my family were hijacked to Cuba on our way to Puerto Rico to visit my wife’s family.

As it happened there is an important topic in economics termed “public goods” which deals with the limits of using markets to allocate goods and services. The thrust of the concept in this case is that passenger screening is best done by government and not the private sector as originally done. In the class was a very bright student (he earned an A which I rarely gave) from the business school who was very ideological and would have none of the rational arguments. This was my first encounter with such a bright but closed minded student.

This set me off to read deeply in cognitive psychology and neuroscience on such behaviors. As some of you may know, this literature is large and growing. Some prominent names are John Jost, James Hibbing, Leon Festinger, Dan Kahan, among others.

It seems pretty uncontroversial that Cruz, Hawley, and McConnell are intellectually dishonest. I’m not so sure about Atlas: I say this not because I think the guy’s such a paragon of honesty but because he has so much bluster I can’t really figure out what he’s saying half the time. That said, I’m sure it wouldn’t be hard to find intellectual dishonesty on the other side of the political aisle as well. I don’t want to make this into a political contest. There’s a place for political contests, but this would distract from the larger goals of this post.

Anyway, back to the question. How can Ted Cruz etc. can be so intellectually dishonest? I can see lots of reasons. First, lots of people don’t like to admit error; part of this is a matter of style (what Ta-Nehisi Coates called the “culture of poverty” and which I’ve called the culture of journalism) and part of it is a rational calculation that admitting error just makes you a target. Second, you can get financial and political wins from intellectual dishonesty: if you do it in the right place at the right time, you can get people to pay you to mislead and lie for them. Third is ideology—scientific as well as political. If you want to believe something and the evidence doesn’t fit, you can tie yourself into contortions. Fourth is the logic of the greater good. I assume that Ted Cruz believes that if he and his allies have more political power, they can do good in the world—and, from that perspective, endorsing lies about the election is a small price to pay. He’s in the position of someone who robs a liquor store to get some necessary capital for his business, secure in the belief that when he makes it big, he can go back and return the stolen money at any time. Fifth is the logic of total war: if you think the other side is cheating, then it doesn’t count if you do it too, indeed you’d be derelict in your duty not to play “hardball.” Finally, there’s the idea of post-truth, the cynical idea that everything’s a negotiation, everything’s about power, and nothing means anything. From that perspective, intellectual dishonesty of the sort that bothers the readership of this blog is irrelevant: promoting lies about an election or promoting discredited covid theories is no worse than, say, representing pair of deuces as a pair of kings in order to induce someone to fold on the turn.

Anyway, I think Goddard’s general question—when and where do people learn about intellectual dishonesty?—is interesting, whatever you might feel about the particular examples that he highlights.


  1. MJM-Wa says:

    As someone who can honestly say he knows virtually nothing about Atlas’s position and who has only heard sound bites relating to the others, my question is rather “where in your education did you learn that labeling others w/ terms such ‘intellectually dishonest’ is a useful substitute for stating and critiquing their actual positions”?
    I know… it’s very old fashioned of me to be uncomfortable w/ substituting labeling for discourse.

    • Joshua says:

      > I know… it’s very old fashioned of me to be uncomfortable w/ substituting labeling for discourse.

      One problem there is the old “Sure it was totally false, but maybe they believed it to be true.” It’s really hard to get into someone’s head to know what they believed when they said something.

      Labeling is usually about something other than just discussing the material in question.

    • Andrew says:


      These are two separate questions. I agree with you that, when we encounter dishonesty in public statements, it’s important to identify exactly where the statements are wrong and where the dishonesty is happening. In addition, it can be interesting to explore the motivations and context of that dishonesty.

      Thus, Goddard is not substituting labeling for discourse; rather, the discourse already exists, and the labeling is there to facilitate further discussion.

    • Robert says:

      The entire meat of your complaint comes from “substitute” (i.e. that more thorough investigation was not done) when there’s no reason to think this is true. It’s a pet peeve of mine when people see X and try to build an argument out of “just X” when the ‘just’ is never substantiated at all. This conversation is being had by people who are already familiar with the situation.

  2. Joshua says:

    I’ve never understood the difference between intellectual dishonesty and regular ol’ dishonesty – except that somehow it seems that intellectual dishonesty is somehow more polite? It’s less offensive to say that someone was intellectually dishonest than to say they lied?

    • Andrew says:


      Yes, I think there is a distinction. One way to say it is: Lying is a form of dishonesty. Not correcting a mistake is a form of intellectual dishonesty.

      For example, the beauty-and-sex-ratio researcher made some mistakes in research that he published. I see no reason to think there was dishonesty there; he could well just have been confused. But after the errors were pointed out to him and he didn’t look into the problem, I’d call that intellectual dishonesty. It’s awkward for me to say this, but, ultimately, yes, I think it’s intellectually dishonest to avoid looking at serious arguments that contradict one’s claims.

      Similarly with that psychology professor who lied about me in the pages of Perspectives on Psychological Science. Maybe the original lie was an honest mistake, but not correcting the lie is intellectual dishonesty on the part of the author as well as the society that published the journal. They’re making a calculation that to admit the error is more costly to them than to make it right.

      • Joshua says:

        Andrew –

        > One way to say it is: Lying is a form of dishonesty. Not correcting a mistake is a form of intellectual dishonesty.

        So is there a distinction in the mental processes of the person being dishonest/intellectually dishonest? Or is it just a matter of context?

        You say not correcting a mistake is a form of intellectual dishonesty, and you gave examples – but I still don’t get the larger category of which those are examples or forms.

      • Michael Thompson says:

        I’m still debating with myself on whether or not I agree with your statement, “Not correcting a mistake is a form of intellectual dishonesty.”

        To Joshua’s point of “still don’t get the larger category of which those are examples or forms”, I’d point to this YouTube video by Julia Galef, “My favorite letter in the history of science”, which gives an excellent example of intellectual HONESTY. Then, the opposite of THAT, is intellectual dishonesty.

        The matter of the person’s intent is then not an issue. Determination of intellectual dishonesty is solely based upon the person’s characterization of the argument of an issue and the engagement with each of the points of the argument and the evidence or lack there of behind those points that matters. In other words, in one’s presentation of an argument, not acknowledging alternative explanations to the evidence or the existence of evidence that refutes one’s argument, whether done intentionally or not, is a failure to be intellectually honest. Similarly, in one’s retort to an argument, one falls short of intellectual honesty even if by simple omission of the key points in that argument or by failure to acknowledge the evidence presented for that argument.

        I find the simple two-way table for each key issue/hypothesis of an argument and evidence to be helpful in vetting the issues of an argument:
        | Evidence |
        Hypothesis | SUPPORTING | REFUTING |
        GIVEN EXPLNTN. | x | x |
        ALTERNATIVE | x | x |

        If any of the four cells are left empty (i.e. unaddressed, & therefore unchecked by “x”), then the argument falls short of being intellectually honest. Too often, folks only focus on the upper left and lower right cells when presenting the issues of their arguments.
        Coupling this with completeness/thoroughness of issues addressed is also important.
        In practice, there are also still the matters of degree and of stakes to address. Some commissions of intellectual dishonesty are far worse and more consequential than others due to the extent to which they fall short of intellectual honesty and to the impact on others, resp.

      • Paul Hayes says:

        A distinction can be made but I don’t think it’s very useful. The trouble is that everyone learns as a child that lying is wrong but few ever learn that lying is just one form of intellectual misbehaviour, all of which are morally wrong. If that psychology professor’s original error probably wasn’t deliberate – a lie – it probably was due to an unethical carelessness.

  3. jd says:
    Is this Goddard’s definition? Maybe he should define it here.
    I don’t remember ever being taught about it in my college education. It seems like something you learn based on life experiences.

  4. Ian M. says:

    A definition of intellectual honesty or some examples of intellectual dishonesty would be helpful. I have a general notion of what it is just from reading things where someone is accused of intellectual dishonesty, but I’ve never been formally taught anything about it.

    • Phil says:

      To be “intellectually honest” in a debate or discussion is to present your position fairly and to fairly and accurately describe how it contrasts with other positions. To be “intellectually dishonest” is to act in a manner that is not intellectually honest.

      To be “intellectually dishonest” is distinct from simply being dishonest, because you can be intellectually dishonest without making any false statements. If you present only the positive features of your position and only the negative features of your opponent’s position, you’re being intellectually dishonest, even if everything you say is true.

      • Andrew says:


        Well put. For example, suppose we are having a disagreement and you point me to a box labeled, “Definitive evidence against Andrew’s position.” I’m pretty sure that this box does contain such evidence, so I avoid opening it, thus avoiding the need to be dishonest in support of my claims. That would be intellectually dishonest of me.

        The tricky part is that it can be hard to be sure about intellectual dishonesty from the perspective of an outside observer. What if I say I’m refusing to open the box, not because I’m sure it has disconfirming evidence, but because I think it’s full of stupid arguments and I don’t want to waste my time with them? If we have just this one answer, it’s hard to know. If it’s a pattern of behavior, that’s something different.

        We can also see from this example an overlap between intellectual dishonesty and laziness. When David Brooks refuses to directly address evidence that contradicts some of his more ridiculous claims, I suspect part of this is intellectual dishonesty—he has certain positions he likes so much that he wants to keep holding them in spite of contradictory evidence–and part of this is laziness: it’s more work for him to look at new data and revise his thinking than to just write a new column based on whatever material his research assistant collected for him that day.

      • Ian M. says:

        Thanks, Phil and Prof. Gelman. Helpful.

  5. kj says:

    I think the example of passenger screening is weird. I wouldn’t consider it a public good. But no matter the merits, to go from “government is more efficient here” to “government should be in charge of passenger screening” requires one to believe efficiency is the primary consideration.

    It says something when you are so convinced of your own views that when someone disagrees, you jump to intellectual dishonesty and start reading research to understand why the person is messed up, rather than considering why someone could genuinely disagree.

    Finally, I probably missed something. I assume we’re talking cruz and hawley because of the election fraud business (which is intellectual dishonesty in my view), but why is mcconnell being lumped in? I thought he denounced what they were doing even before the events at the Capitol.

    • Andrew says:


      I agree that the screening example is not clear, which is one reason that I stuck those examples at the end of my post. Regarding Cruz, etc., I was assuming that the intellectual dishonesty that Goddard was referring to was not about the events at the capitol but rather about their support of claims that Trump won the election despite all the evidence to the contrary. McConnell came around on that one earlier than Cruz and Hawley did, but for awhile he too was holding out on it. But, again, I don’t think these details are so important to the larger questions Goddard was asking.

      • kj says:

        Like others, I’m not sure what intellectual dishonesty really is. My best guess is that it’s dishonesty during an intellectual debate. In that case, I suppose the primary motivation would just be to not admit to being wrong.

    • Haynes says:

      It is public safety, for which people give a positive valuation. And if a private market cannot be created to buy, produce and sell public safety, then it is a public good.

      • confused says:

        Well, I think one could argue that passenger screening is not a ‘good’ (public or otherwise) if the opportunity cost (time and money not spent on something else) is greater than the harm prevented. This seems at least at-first-glance possible (30 minutes delay every time someone flies on a plane in the US must add up to many lifetimes per year, etc.) I’ve heard that evaluations have shown the TSA is actually very ineffective, though I don’t have data on this.

  6. John Hall says:

    Regarding the airline screening example, we are getting the professor’s side of things rather than the students, so it comes across as one-sided.

    The public goods argument is misapplied in many situations. For instance, people said for years that lighthouses are a classic example of a public good, only for Ronald Coase to chase down the history of private lighthouses to prove them wrong. I can understand a typical public goods argument for government-run airline screening, but recall that the two properties for “public goods” is non-rivalry and non-excludability. The good (or rather the service) in this case is airline screening. I don’t see how the definition of public good meets these criteria. In particular, airline screening is excludable. If people don’t want to be screened, then they can’t fly. That makes airline screening a club good, which might lend itself to becoming a natural monopoly.

    At this point, one might argue that the private sector might under-provision airline screening services. In a purely market-oriented approach, airports would control screening. The primary customers of airports are airlines. Airlines might make the trade-off between passengers going through the lines quickly versus the possibility of hijacking (or other crimes) and prefer a better passenger experience.

    Thus, rather than a purely private solution, a mixed alternative would be a government mandate to have private airline screening of a given level of quality that it will enforce via regulation. This approach can then leave airports up to the task of providing it.

    Insisting that the public goods approach applies, to the point of arguing that an otherwise bright student is basically incapable of rational thought, makes the professor himself come off poorly. Perhaps he is unduly influenced himself?

    • Carlos Ungil says:

      I’m curious about what those “rational arguments” were. My first impression is that there may be stronger legal reasons than economic arguments.

    • confused says:

      >>Airlines might make the trade-off between passengers going through the lines quickly versus the possibility of hijacking (or other crimes) and prefer a better passenger experience

      And would this clearly be a wrong choice?

      If I had the choice of accepting (say) 100 hours of wasted time due to airport screening over my lifetime, or a 1 in 100,000 extra risk of dying in an incident, I’d think the latter would be the obvious right choice (since 100 hours is much more than 1/100,000 of my lifetime).

      I think one would have to make an argument that a) airport screening is meaningfully effective and b) the risk of dying in an aircraft-related crime is a lot higher than I’m suggesting

  7. Dale Lehman says:

    First to answer the immediate question: nowhere in my education formally. I have had instructors who helped develop a sense of honesty and ethics, but it was haphazard. I didn’t have formal ethics training (though I did take logic), but judging from the evidence, I’d say such formal courses don’t work (at least, if the goal is to prevent dishonesty in science, politics, journalism, business, or anything else).

    So, to the larger question. I think it is oversimplifying to paint it as a binary choice: honest or dishonest? In fact, I think this gets in the way of actually promoting intellectual honesty. It is always a slippery slope, a grey area if you like. Practical realities always push against total intellectual honesty – I doubt I could ever have done any expert witnessing if I took the extreme view (i.e., point out every specific potential caveat in any analysis I conducted, lest my results be misinterpreted). What I’ve come to believe is that the line has to be drawn personally, and that you have to hold yourself personally accountable for where you draw that line. I was taught (in a corporate environment) that your analysis had to pass a “red face test,” meaning that you needed to be able to testify without that feeling that you are deceiving people (I know, “red faced” is a poor term, but that is what it was called). This has served me well.

    This is not to deny the formal role of education, legal restrictions, and professional self-enforcement of ethical practice. All of these are important. But in the end, I believe each individual has to hold themselves accountable for what they do and say. The excuses Andrew lists for Ted Cruz, for example, are clearly at work. But it is hard for me to fathom how one can justify their dishonesty on the basis of those – they may all be true, but they do not absolve Cruz of responsibility for himself. Unfortunately, it appears that many people are willing to engage in dishonesty that harms people by appealing to incentives, the perceived evils of others, the greater good (whatever that is), the ends justifying the means, etc. How do we “teach” people that is wrong? Can it be “taught?” I really don’t know – but I’d begin by saying we have to call people on their behavior and not accept it.

    Case in point: Marjorie Taylor Greene. A fairly coherent statement yesterday acknowledging that she was promoting falsehoods and regretting that. But, she largely absolved herself of responsibility by saying “I was allowed to believe….” Who “allowed” her to believe those things? And, in fact, while she correctly identified the role of social media and fringe/conspiracy views, she only 3 days ago was tweeting falsehoods about Rep. Omar marrying her brother. Actions speak louder than words. She needed (and needs) to be called on her behavior. As does Cruz. As do the people running phone scams bilking people of their money though deception, as do local county officials who prefer to blame the national and state governments for vaccine shortages rather than doing the best they can with what they have….. Sorry, too many things bothering me too much these days.

  8. Dale Lehman says:

    Just curious – does anyone know what my comment has not shown up yet? I submitted it several minutes ago and they usually show up immediately (except sometimes when there is a link, which there was not). In this case, I did mention several political figures by name – could that have caused a delay? I’m not trying to develop a conspiracy theory, but I am curious if anyone can shed light on why this happens.

    • Dale Lehman says:

      And I see my name listed on the right side with two comments, but the one I was wondering about does not appear – when I click on it, it just takes me to the post. So, it still has not appears, now a half hour later. Not that I’m so self-centered to think my comment is important, but I am curious as to where the delay is and what is causing it. These days, the working of social media and websites are of interest, in themselves.

    • Alex says:

      I see three posts from you – these two wondering where your comment is, and one directly above it (listed as being posted at 10:47) answering the question about where you learned about intellectual dishonesty.

    • Joshua says:

      Dale –

      > In this case, I did mention several political figures by name – could that have caused a delay?

      I’ve had an odd delay with my comments where there were not mentions of political figures. That doesn’t mean that it couldn’t be the reason, but it suggests there’s another reason entirely. Also, what would the mechanism be? An AI review of all comments of all blogs would be an enormous undertaking. It might be possible for there to be some kind of selective or irregular algorithm, but what would the purpose be? Who would be controlling it? What would be the rationale for the selective review?

    • Michael J says:

      I think it’s just quirkiness of the WordPress moderator. I’ve had similar issues where sometimes the comment shows up immediately and sometimes it doesn’t. For one reason or another your post may have been flagged as potential spam.

  9. Matt Skaggs says:

    “if you think the other side is cheating, then it doesn’t count if you do it too, indeed you’d be derelict in your duty not to play “hardball.” Finally, there’s the idea of post-truth, the cynical idea that everything’s a negotiation, everything’s about power, and nothing means anything.”

    I think this is really close. It starts when you recognize within yourself that your motivation to succeed surpasses your motivation to be seen as honest. But it is hard to acknowledge that your character is flawed in this way, so you just assume that everyone else must operate the same way. At that point, you would be putting yourself at a disadvantage by limiting yourself to nothing but honesty.

  10. RoyT says:

    In answer to the question, no where in my educational background. Over a long career in statistical consulting, I’ve seen numerous examples of statisticians being blatantly intellectually dishonest. Mostly, these were cases of manipulating either the data or the analyses to fit pre-conceived beliefs. Less frequently, I’ve seen occasions of deliberately hiding errors or refusing to allow independent analysts access to the data. My experiences are one reason I support Andrew when brings attention to these problems. More needs to be done regarding a code of ethics for the statistics profession.

  11. Alex says:

    Answering the original question: I don’t think I learned about intellectual honesty explicitly, but it came through in a number of math and science courses that I took starting back in high school (maybe grade school? hard to say since I wasn’t thinking about it explicitly). If you believe in an objective reality then it’s pretty easy for someone to show you that you’re wrong when you are. This is pretty clear-cut when you’re learning, say, math or physics: you get a correct answer or you don’t. Moving into the hazier world of research and psychology (my field), you take a research methods class as a requirement. You get the stuff about plagiarism, sure, but you also get the old-fashioned story of the scientific process and updating your beliefs in the face of evidence. If you buy into science as a serious enterprise then you have to try to fight intellectual dishonesty.

    To the political examples in the post: I don’t think the specific people mentioned there are being intellectually dishonest. I think they’re lying, or playing politics, or however you’d like to frame it. I think there are other political figures, like Marjorie Taylor Green, who don’t know better or who buy into the misinformation even in the face of common sense, but the Cruz/Howley/McConnell types are not that gullible.

  12. oncodoc says:

    I learned about honesty from my father. He was interested in the topic because of his personal history. He had been raised by an orthodox Jewish family in Europe and given the traditional values from the traditional sources. When he was a young adult, World War II broke out, and he was rounded up in a concentration camp. He survived this and came to America. In America, he was an unskilled laborer who gradually became a financial success. His view of honesty was complex. Unvarnished honesty and openness are not successful policies in a concentration camp. When you are a struggling employee with a young family, you do have to suck up to your boss. How can a powerless person gain enough power to liberate himself and those he loves from having to be deceitful? Don’t you have to use some deceit to rise in this world? But deceit is toxic and self destructive. My Dad actually thought about these things. Now obviously a US Senator or a professor at a university has a position of power that should enable honesty, but maybe the habits to get the power in the first place die hard. Senator Cruz is a son of an immigrant who struggled to attain power and status. You don’t get to a position of power without a struggle. The memory of that struggle remains in your bones.
    I think that building a culture of openness and criticism as I perceive Dr. Gelman doing is the answer.

    • Joshua says:

      oncodoc –

      I do think that dishonesty (and I suppose intellectual dishonesty) interacts with culture in a lot of ways. I’m thinking of some non-Americans I’ve encountered (I don’t really want to generalize about particular nationalities but I do have some in mind) who view “honesty” quite differently – in the sense that not telling the truth for perhaps mutual benefit (or maybe one’s own benefit if it doesn’t come at the expense of someone else) isn’t really considered to be morally objectionable. In fact, telling the truth just for the sake of telling the truth without considering the cost/benefits of the outcomes is considered naive or perhaps just un-pragmatic.

      Another example that comes to mind is how in some cultures, families wouldn’t want a doctor to tell a family-member that they have a fatal disease. Other cultures would be more prone to thinking that the unvarnished truth should be conveyed pretty much under any circumstances. I’m reasonably sure you’ve encountered that professionally?

      • oncodoc says:

        In reverse order:
        When I started my career, the era of silence was almost over. It continued longer in Europe and Japan. The strange thing is that patients knew; it does not take a lot of knowledge to figure out what’s going on when your family talks in hushed tones and the guys in white coats don’t talk at all. Somebody actually asked patients in that era, and the patients knew but didn’t want to trouble their families.
        I am a Jew, and Jews have often been accused of cunning, deceit, and lying. I believe that inequality in status and power causes deceit. People are not going to accept relegation to second class status. Thus arises perceptions and realities of different standards of truth. We have create more inclusivity to overcome this.

    • Andrew says:


      As Walter Savage Landor put it, “More people are good because they are happy than happy because they are good.”

  13. yyw says:

    Being well educated doesn’t mean one is capable of thinking critically. I’ve seen so many PhD social scientists with below 8th grade analytical and quantitative skills that I attribute most of what is going on in social science to incompetence first and foremost. The same can be said of politics. In addition, different people have different priors (based on prior experience, emotion etc.), which affect how they interpret data (which often are noisy). When you talk about public good etc, different people also have different utility functions. Be open minded.

  14. “I assume that Ted Cruz believes that if he and his allies have more political power, they can do good in the world—and, from that perspective, endorsing lies about the election is a small price to pay.”

    I sometimes think we’re being too hard on politicians. Or, more precisely, we’re holding them to an unreasonable intellectual standard. Neither intelligence nor honesty are proper political virtues. Politicians should have integrity, sure, and they should have our best interests at heart, but, as Andrew points out, they can easily think they manifest those virtues through what we immediately think of as lying. (By “we” I mean academics, social scientists, intellectuals.)

    I think a more charitable reading of Cruz’s beliefs is, not that he is “endorsing lies about the election” (i.e., asserting as fact something he know to be false) but that he is “representing skepticism about the election”. He is not claiming that the election was stolen, but promising that he’s going to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Politicians, on this view, don’t trade in claims (which may be true or false) but promises (which may be kept or broken). Like scientists, politicians are imperfect. They’ll make promises they can’t keep, just as scientists will make claims that don’t replicate.

    Both politicians and scientists rightly expect their careers to continue despite these errors, which are, precisely, not transgressions of the norms of their profession. Politicians know that they are, at the end of the day, accountable to the electorate (and whatever corruption is implicit in the means of measuring its will). They keep making promises, keeping some and breaking others, and hope their voters think they did well enough.

    As a norm, intellectual honesty applies to intellectuals, not politicians, and probably not the majority of journalists (except those that want to be considered intellectuals). And flagrant displays of dishonesty do undermine our credibility with each other. I just don’t think politicians are playing anywhere near that game.

    • Andrew says:


      Cruz endorsed the specific and ridiculous claim of fraud that we discussed here Either he looked into that claim and realized it was wrong and dishonestly endorsed it, or he carefully avoided looking into the claim so that he could have a sort of plausible deniability—but I’d say that’s intellectually dishonest too.

      I agree that a politician can be effective and even do good while being intellectually dishonest, and if you want to argue that Ted Cruz is a force for good in the world, I can see how this argument could go. But I think there’s no question that he was endorsing lies about the election.

      • I’m not saying he’s not making an utterance that looks, formally, like a statement of fact. I’m saying we should still not interpret him that way because he’s a politician. The only reference to Cruz in the post you link to says he offered to, precisely, to represent a position. (In the discussion there’s a lot of people who sort of take my view, as far as I can tell. I’m just less offended by the dishonesty of it.)

        I’m sure we can find something Cruz said that is more directly assertive of the idea that the election was stolen, or seems to have been stolen, but (as I hear him) he’s just saying, “If you think the election was stolen, vote for me, because I’m going to look into it.”

        I see you’re not impressed with the lawyer analogy, but I do think guilty people deserve counsel, and that their lawyers don’t deserve shame for taking on the job. Likewise, I think people with false beliefs should be represented in democratic bodies.

        • Dale Lehman says:

          I don’t like the analogy of politician and lawyer (even though the two sets overlap, much to my consternation). Lawyers have a job to represent their clients – but they have no obligation to accept a client if it is morally objectionable to them. So, I can understand lawyers who defend people they believe to be guilty, and to provide the best defense they can, although there are some clients that they choose to represent that should cause them to lose sleep over. Politicians have a duty to represent their voters – in a representative government, this does not mean they must parrot their views (indeed, how can/would they do that, particularly when the voters views differ). They are supposed to be public servants – and they often are measured by their “character.” Often they run on their “character.” That should include intellectual honesty. If they said “I am promoting false claims because it might get person X to be President rather than person Y and that is better for my voters because of reasons A,B,C,” then I guess I would consider that intellectually honest. But I would not vote for them and I would hope that most people would not.

          • I guess we disagree about whether political character requires honesty (or this special thing we’re calling intellectual honesty). If honesty is really a political norm, it’s hard to explain modern political history (or any of it?). I think people (voters) know at least implicitly that they shouldn’t believe their politicians. So finding our they’re not telling truth, is not shocking. What they’re looking for is someone who is speaking their truth in the corridors of power, giving voice to their concerns.

            As you say, Dale, it is impossible for representatives to actually hold all the views (of the constituencies) their represent. So instead of constantly distancing their public statements from their own opinions (which would take a lot of time and cause a lot of confusion) they speak “as if” they hold those views. That is, they jettison all obligations to intellectual honesty. And that’s part of their deal with the population. (We are not keeping our end of the bargain when we insist they be honest, I guess I’m saying.)

            • Dale Lehman says:

              And I thought I was a pessimist. I like to say I see the glass as 1/3 full – you apparently see it empty.

              • I’m certainly cynical about political speech. But this would make me a pessimist (and only about politics) if I thought honesty were the only virtue. I think the real hope lies in the decency of our rulers, their aversion to cruelty. Not their honesty. And, though you may call that glass 2/3 empty, I happy to grant it’s half full.

              • Also, I think there’s something to my, as it were, intellectual argument here. The politician’s epistemic situation (the knowledge-claims, beliefs, etc.) is very complex. But the relevant actions (voting in elections and voting in legislatures) are really quite simple. It would be too cognitively costly for a politician to be intellectually honest.

                It would also undermine the efficiency of political speech. Imagine if all politicians had to be continuously “honest” about what they themselves believe vis-a-vis what their constituents desire! Instead, they keep their actual beliefs to themselves, letting it guide their sense of the possible, but they say whatever the art of the possible requires.

            • Ken Schulz says:

              Thomas, this may not apply to you, but a large number of people who are as cynical as you about politicians, who believe that politicians can never be trusted to tell the truth or fulfill their promises, simply disengage from politics and don’t bother even to vote. So whatever their viewpoints on issues, those will be ignored by their nominal representatives.
              Personally, though, I consider this level of cynicism to be deeply corrosive to democracy, and I hold those who foster it responsible for their words and actions (“Government isn’t the solution to the problem, government is the problem”).

              • It’s important to emphasize that I’m only cynical about political speech, and only in the sense that I never take it literally. I think pinning politicians down on their lies is a waste of time, i.e., cognitive resources. And, actually, also the politicians time and energy, who now have to worry about managing their lies, rather than making policy. We should just keep tracking their actions, not checking their supposed facts.

                It is only if you think politics is rooted in facts (and that politicians therefore are suppose have some special mastery of them) that they can disappoint us by speaking untruth. I would say that the cynicism that corrodes democracies requires a norm of intellectual honesty that politicians then constantly violate. To say they don’t (for the sake preserving public trust in democracy) will often require, if you’ll pardon it, intellectual dishonesty, at least in my case.

                I believe there are good politicians. But not because they are honest. They are decent people and they remain decent in their careers. I don’t get disappointed when I find out they said something they didn’t believe, or didn’t denounce something they probably hate. It’s not their job to know the truth.

            • Dale Lehman says:

              I will admit to being largely ignorant about many political differences between the US and Europe. But I did watch Borgen (sort of like saying “I stayed in a Holiday Inn Express….), and based on that “evidence” perhaps our standards for politicians differ. Our expectations probably don’t vary much, but I still cling to standards that say I want politicians to rise above the fray and exhibit intellectual honesty.

              • Olav says:

                I’m a bit surprised by Thomas’s cynical attitude. Perhaps the situation in Denmark is very different from the situation in Norway, but at least in Norway I think the politicians are—for the most part—quite honest and decent people, and political discussions are remarkably open, forthright, and politicians are even often self-critical in a way I haven’t really ever seen in the US (I have lived in both countries for long periods of time). The handling of Covid has made this contrast even clearer to me than before. In my view, Norwegian politicians can’t at all be compared with their counterparts in the US. There are certainly no Hawleys or Cruzes, and even American politicians who have a reputation for being honest—such as Bernie Sanders, perhaps—are very slick compared to most Norwegian politicians, and tend to gloss over weaknesses in their own views (Norwegian leftists are usually much more honest about the significant costs and drawbacks of large social programs or of immigration, for example). Again, the situation might be very different in Denmark, but I don’t think it’s too much to ask of politicians that they be honest in their speech.

              • My views on this are not a reflection of any particular local political context. To not hold politicians to a standard of “intellectual honesty” is not think they’re thoroughly dishonest or bad people. For me, it’s a strictly procedural norm, or a principle of interpretation.

                I simply don’t change my beliefs about matters of fact because a politician says one thing or another. And I don’t think very many other people do either (in the US, Norway or Denmark, or wherever). So to be outraged when they “lie” to us is strange to me.

                When someone lies to you, they’re trying to mislead you. But I think we’re being disingenuous when we claim to have been “misled” by a politician. Politicians just lead, well or badly, and we judge them periodically on the basis of where we’ve ended up so far.

              • Dale Lehman says:

                You say

                “I simply don’t change my beliefs about matters of fact because a politician says one thing or another. And I don’t think very many other people do either (in the US, Norway or Denmark, or wherever). So to be outraged when they “lie” to us is strange to me.”

                Perhaps you missed all the interviews with Trump supporters who said they would believe whatever Trump tells them to believe, and would do whatever he tells them to do. Some of these were voters and even some politicians expressed these sentiments. I’m sure that is somewhat overstated, but I think it is a far cry from your confidence that politicians statements are not taken seriously by anyone. To be sure, I ignore what they say (other than preferring to hear something coherent, non-vulgar, and not hurtful), but I don’t pretend that my views are held by others. The fact that Trump got 70+ million votes in this election are ample evidence that many many people hold views that are very foreign to me.

              • I guess I assume that “we” (social scientists, intellectuals, etc.) don’t have the same epistemology as the dimmest Trump (or Biden) voters. I think we can question the wisdom of pursuing claims of election fraud. In other situations, we might question the wisdom of ignoring them. But to make anything of whether the person who is (wisely or unwisely) proposing to pursue (or not) such claims actually believes that election fraud happened is, to my mind, a waste of time and effort. And a misunderstanding of what politics is about, actually. (By which I only mean an understanding of politics that is different from mine, of course.)

        • Andrew says:


          I agree that even guilty people deserve counsel in our legal system. But in this case Cruz’s action was not to generously offer to defend a killer or whatever, it was to offer to support a specious lawsuit. Yes, everyone has a right in our system to sue, but they don’t have the right to expert assistance in their lawsuit. As many people have commented, the U.S. legal system is cluttered with frivolous lawsuits. If someone wants to support a lawsuit on its merits, fine, go for it. But there’s no such thing as supporting a false claim just because guilty people deserve counsel. In this case, Cruz was offering to support claims that were ridiculous, which I think is just as intellectually dishonest (and much more consequential) as the Association for Psychological Science refusing to correct unsupported lies about me.

          • Andrew: We agree that if intellectual honesty were a political norm Cruz would be violating it. I just don’t think it applies to politicians (and a few other professions).

            • Michael Nelson says:

              Dishonesty (or a certain sort) is an acceptable and natural thing for attorneys, given that dishonesty is a professional or cultural norm for the behavior of those in the role of politician. Their role is defined, in part, as convincing jurists or jurors by any legal/permissible means necessary.

              But that is what separates the role of attorney from the role of politician: the former is explicitly and objectively defined, while the latter is defined implicitly through social consensus. So intellectual honesty is only a norm for the role of politician among those who agree with you that it’s a norm. Among those who agree with Andrew, it is not a norm, it’s just normal (meaning usual or frequently occurring). Therefore, at the level of our society, there is no consensus about whether the role of politician includes the norm of dishonesty. There is no norm.

              There are, however, consequences. Among the consequences of Cruz’s dishonesty are the stoking of riots and irrational (or disingenuous) rancor, which are bad both objectively and subjectively (in that Cruz claims he doesn’t want these consequences or is even preventing them). So, if we abandon “political norms” as unachievable at the society-wide level, and instead work backward from consequences, whether Crus is a politician is irrelevant. The role of “good citizen” or even “good leader” has the norm of not wreaking widespread havoc for personal gain, and he is clearly violating that norm.

              • “There are, however, consequences.”

                Would you say there is an important moral/political difference between a riot that has been stoked by a sincere expression of belief, and one that has been stoked by an “intellectually dishonest” one? Feel free to run the thought experiment with true and false beliefs.

                My point would be that the politician is responsible precisely for the consequences of their speech. Even if Cruz had been perfectly sincere it’s reasonable for voters to consider it unwise to have expressed that belief at the time he did and to hold that mistake against him. If he defended himself by saying he was “just being honest” that would not make him a better (i.e., more decent) politician. Calling him dishonest is a waste of political critique.

                Sometimes the most indecent thing you can do in public is speak your mind. You’re not obligated to do so. And in many cases you’re obligated not to. Politicians are particularly bound to this norm, in my view.

        • kj says:

          I mostly agree with Thomas, although I agree with others that politicians aren’t exactly lawyers. It’s okay to support further investigation because many constituents want it. But, being in a position of authority where they can (in theory) be more informed, they should have also been upfront about what they themselves believed to be true, rather than being coy about it.

          • My hard line here would be to insist that we grant politicians epistemic authority at our peril. We should never take what they believe (even when they’re honest about it) more seriously than what we ourselves believe. Instead of demanding that they be upfront (which, as I say above, would be very cognitively costly) we should precisely allow them to be coy.

            • kj says:

              I disagree. While I wouldn’t just follow along with a politician’s opinion, it can be given weight. Senators have access to classified information and as part of their job must evaluate policy and listen to testimonies on both sides. As such, the views of a politician who (I think) share my values can be valuable data.

            • Dale Lehman says:

              Then I say replace them with algorithms. Seriously, if intellectual honesty is cognitively too costly, then I have no use for them – they become “representative” in that I have granted them virtual autonomy, subject only to the ballot box. Yes, we are pretty close to their already, but I resist declaring it over.

              • Andrew says:


                Yes, this is another example of the famous horseshoe theory. Extreme populism (of the sort that says that politicians have been elected by the people, so it would be anti-democratic to hold them to any external standards of behavior) becomes an extreme anti-populism in which politicians have no duty to truth, patriotism, or any such external principle. The problem with such an attitude is similar to the problem of the extreme belief in consumer sovereignty and rational behavior espoused by some neoclassical economists: it ignores the fact that people can make mistakes. The funny thing is, the very same people who love talking about unintended consequences of public policies don’t recognize that individual behaviors can have unintended consequences too.

              • I don’t see how an algorithm can be avatar of public decency. You have to have people in those positions, just don’t require them to tell truth. In a word, don’t ask them what they believe.

                The most farcical example of this mistake is the vitriol that is leveled at White House press secretaries for “lying for the president”. The journalists generally ask questions to which they have answers, and the point is to catch the press secretary in a lie. Predictably the art of being a press secretary is not to say anything.

                I think better questions, directed at the content of policy proposals, rather than facts they can just determine for themselves and report, would make for much better political discourse.

              • Dale Lehman says:

                Your last comment forces me to continue my Borgen references. I remember well the role of press secretary, otherwise called “the spin doctor.” I agree completely with your description of what transpires, but I continue to be disappointed and sickened by the behaviors. I guess I just don’t buy into the Kabuki theatre of established politics.

              • You have me at a disadvantage with Borgen, Dale. (And perhaps also with Kabuki, though I think I know what you mean.) But I’ll say again that this is less the result of politicians’ dishonesty than the misplaced curiosity of journalists about what they believe.

              • Dale Lehman says:

                If you missed the reference (or others did), Borgen was a Danish television series about politics. Part of my COVID home education. The politics was, I’m sure, stereotypical, but I do think it portrayed a particular kind of political life that was prevalent in the US until the early 1990s. Deals were struck in back smoke filled rooms, the public theatre (Kabuki or otherwise) was not expected to be real or honest.

                I think all of this has been largely dismantled in the US, and perhaps many other places. Part of the populist appeal is a rejection of that elitist cliquish wheeling an dealing: but after dismantling that edifice, it got replaced by the rule of the mob. It left a vacuum which seems to have been filled by our worst human devices. My wife and I debate whether we were better off before – I’m not prepared to go back to that system, but I’ll admit that we have not come to a good place. It sounds to me like you are advocating that old system as the best we can expect from our political institutions.

  15. jrc says:

    Having a lawyer for a mom. She would beat you in just about any debate, but if you tried to BS her, it would be even worse. So I learned the hard way, by getting smashed in the (intellectual) face repeatedly. And after a while I was a strong enough thinker to not have to lie and to be able to accept being wrong (and to convince people when I was right).

    Her red pens were also how I learned to write clearly. And I think honesty in writing and clarity in thinking are related, but I don’t quite have a theory that pulls it together. It has something to do with it becoming increasingly hard to lie to yourself, and I think that is actually a big part of intellectual dishonesty – the harder it is to lie to yourself the harder it is to lie to other people.

  16. JimV says:

    I think the teaching of the scientific method, and of the theory of evolution in particular, is where one learns that honesty is the only way civilization makes progress. Science and invention proceed, like biological evolution, through trial and error plus memory. That requires honest criteria to evaluate successes versus errors. If failures are evaluated as successes, through lies, there can be no progress.

    Nature does not have the problem of evaluating what its successes are. Survival and reproduction can’t be faked. Mother nature can’t be fooled. Yes, cheaters and parasites can survive, but only at a low enough level so that the host survives. So the cheater has to face the fact that if everyone behaved that way, civilization would collapse. I suspect intellectual dishonesty has something to do with refusing to face that fact–sort of a meta-dishonesty?

  17. Haynes Goddard says:

    Andrew had to edit my longish post, so I answer some of the questions raised here.

    Here is the rest of the conversation with the bright student.

    The student and his companion would have none of the public goods argument, arguing instead that security should be private, not public. Of course they did not argue that there should be no screening, in light of the events. When I explained that passengers have risk preferences and prefer low risk, one of them instantly replied that there should be two lines at the airport, one for those with high risk aversion, and another for those with low risk aversion. When I noted that they all got on the same plane, the student again instantly said “two planes”. I stopped the discussion at that point, but could have said that the pilots and crew also have risk preferences. The joke among the pilots is that they are always the first at the crash site.

    The fact that the responses were instantaneous is significant from the psychological perspective, as cognitive neuroscientists have examined which parts of the brain are involved. Our courses involve the prefrontal cortex, where analytical thought occurs, whereas these instant answers come from the limbic or emotional centers of our brains – no thought involved.

    Two other examples that motivated my query. I advised our regional transport planning agency on whether the region should consider building a light rail system. We commissioned a benefit-cost analysis which was very conservatively done, leaving out some benefits, but identifying and measuring all the costs. The director of an Ohio conservative “think tank” came to town to make this public argument against it. With the projected $750 million cost of the one line system at the time, it would be possible to buy all of the 22,000 projected light rail riders a new car, and an Audi at that. He ignored the benefits totally. He also has a Ph.D. in public administration and had completed the graduate course work in economics for a Ph.D. but could not pass the qualifying exam in microeconomics.

    I would use this example on the first day in all my subsequent classes, and ask what is wrong with the argument. Eventually someone would reply that the point of the light rail was to take cars off the streets and reduce congestion, while this new car proposal would worsen the congestion.

    The other example briefly are my discussions on climate change with a Ph.D. engineer and an MD researcher at our medical school. They were denying that it is a problem. The engineer would send me things produced with petroleum industry support, clearly biased. When I suggested to the MD that since most people are risk averse, we might want to take out some insurance against the possibility of climate change by taking actions now, he replied “I never buy insurance”.

    Cognitive neuroscientists have identified these behaviors as motivated reasoning and cognitive dissonance. The literature is large.

    My point is to suggest that university faculty find a case in our disciplines where dishonest arguments are made and have the students read a bit on the psychological underpinnings. Best would be to find where our work is used to support some public policy. In my case, the empirically unsupported supply tax cuts argument would be a ready example.

    I am working on a longer draft and would be happy to share it off line if anyone is interested in the topic.

    • John Hall says:

      I appreciate the additional color. Those arguments from your student weren’t very good.

    • Carlos Ungil says:

      > The student and his companion would have none of the public goods argument, arguing instead that security should be private, not public. Of course they did not argue that there should be no screening, in light of the events. When I explained that passengers have risk preferences and prefer low risk, one of them instantly replied that there should be two lines at the airport, one for those with high risk aversion, and another for those with low risk aversion. When I noted that they all got on the same plane, the student again instantly said “two planes”.

      If they didn’t argue that there should be no screening, what was the difference between the two lines supposed to be?

      > I stopped the discussion at that point, but could have said that the pilots and crew also have risk preferences. The joke among the pilots is that they are always the first at the crash site.

      Should also be the government the one building the planes and operating the flights, instead of the private sector?

  18. jim says:

    If you’re trying to solve a problem, obviously intellectual honesty is a necessity. So it follows that what comes out of a person’s mouth isn’t so much about honesty, but about what problem they’re trying to solve.

    For example, on the one hand, the Gov of WA says we need CO2 tax to stop forest fires. On the other hand, he says he can stop them if he has the money to perform necessary forest maintenance (prescribed burns and clearing brush). We know that even if all WA-state emissions were eliminated today, it would have absolutely zero effect on climate, let alone forest fires, so the first statement is a lie. He must know it’s a lie because he later proposes the appropriate solution. He’s being dishonest because with that statement, his intent has nothing to do with forest fires, and everything to do with an entirely different political agenda. The second statement, however, is true. He *can* stop, or at least significantly reduce forest fire potential with forest maintenance and prescribed burns.

    So he does care about stopping fires. However, he’s willing to use the fear of forest fires to advance a different political agenda as well. He’s willing to be intellectually dishonest to advance his anti-industry agenda.

    • Andrew says:


      I wouldn’t say that intellectual honesty is a necessity for solving a problem, but it’s a useful tool. We could almost think of intellectual honesty as a kind of technology: the use of logic not just to convince others or to work out new problems but also to find and understand errors in our own thinking.

  19. Ethan Bolker says:

    Short answer to the first question: I never encountered a formal discussion of intellectual honesty.

    I’m not sure whether such would be effective. I think I am intellectually honest (I know I try) but learned to be so (if I am) by watching the world and thinking.

    There’s an analogy with the teaching of elementary logic using truth tables in the first courses in mathematics that require proofs. I have found that material of no help in teaching students how to construct correct proofs nor to discover how incorrect ones fail. That’s something students learn (or never learn) by doing.

    Of course the lack of intellectual honesty in academia and the rest of life is more serious. People who don’t master the idea of a proof don’t become mathematicians. But the lack of intellectual honesty is all too often no barrier in other endeavors.

  20. Haynes Goddard says:

    There is a way to encourage intellectual honesty: the Socratic method — just ask questions, and in particular ask about the causal mechanism. The word mechanism is central, and experiments have shown that it forces mental processing to shift to the prefrontal cortex. The thoughtless response is modified by the speaker himself and positions are moderated.

    The topic is taught in classes on critical thinking. I could have done it with this student, but as it was my first encounter with this, I wasn’t prepared.

    • Michael Nelson says:

      The Socratic method is also used in law schools, but for slightly different ends. Yes, the student should learn to think clearly and rationally, but not so they can embrace, or even deliver, their rational conclusions. Obtaining the correct answer is often only the first step in constructing an effective answer, and the latter may well contradict the former. Put another way, an effective lawyer has two answers to every question, Socratic or otherwise: one that begins, “This is why the point is wrong and you should agree with me…,” and one that begins, “This is why, even if the point is right, you should agree with me….” So, my point is, beware of prelaw students in your classes…. :)

  21. Michael Nelson says:

    I was fortunate to have a capstone course in my undergrad psych major that did an amazing job of presenting, and debating, examples of intellectual dishonesty in the social sciences. Ostensibly, the course was organized as a review of the transition of psychology from the purely rational (philosophy) to the empirical (science), and then a tour of its various subfields. The course as realized by the professor used the perspectives of each subfield to provoke questions about the definition of human nature, and to teach us what science is and what scientists are.

    I came away from that course believing that being a scientist is both a privilege and a responsibility. The overarching message was that we were being trained as scientists, as opposed to being trained to be qualified to get a job as a scientist. That meant we were acquiring a certain collection of skills–intellectual skills, not technical skills–and a certain set of beliefs both epistemological and ethical. As long as we held those skills and beliefs, and behaved accordingly, we would be scientists. To be intellectually dishonest is to surrender that role. It’s a role, a vocation, I value more than most forms of compensation for abandoning it.

    Also, my dad was a lawyer and a huge fan of disingenuous debate, both professionally and personally. I learned to love analysis and debate by example, and to love authenticity and consistency by contrast!

  22. Martha (Smith) says:

    I don’t recall ever being formally taught the concept of intellectual honesty. I don’t think I ever heard the term before I started using it myself, just because it seemed to be the right phrase to describe something that was important to me — namely, that I didn’t want to behave the way my mother often did, which I called intellectual dishonesty. In particular, she would often try to put a “positive” spin on things I considered negative (such as rationalizing something — “It’s OK to do this because …” when I thought that doing what she suggested was wrong). Once when I was in elementary school, I gave in to her pushing me to do something that I thought was dishonest. I felt so ashamed — and never wanted to have that feeling again. So I think that the phrase “intellectual honesty”, for me at least, started as a name for an ethic that would prevent my feeling ashamed for doing something wrong, for doing something that went against my conscience.

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      Adding to the above: My formal schooling also contributed some things to my concept of intellectual honesty (although I don’t think the phrase “intellectual honesty” was ever used). Some examples::

      High school:
      a. The concept of an asymptote and later of a limit ingrained the idea of being able to get closer and closer to some “endpoint”, without ever reaching it. This helped move me away from “black and white” thinking.
      b. A third semester course in physics, including the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, made me aware that “certainty” is not always possible.
      c. A course in World Literature taught me that our cultures help shape our thinking, so we need to be careful not to consider our ways of looking at the world as universal.
      d. Learning French also contributed to (c), as did going to schools that were ethnically diverse.

      e. A freshman course in Anthropology and studying some German and some Russian also contributed to (c), as did interacting with people who were even more ethnically diverse than those I knew from elementary and high school.
      f. Somewhere in college or grad school, I absorbed the important distinction between conjecture and proof.

      • Ken Schulz says:

        I can’t say I ever had any formal instruction in ‘intellectual honesty’, but, throughout my undergraduate and graduate education in philosophy and logic, and psychology, I acquired quite a few tools for pursuing intellectual honesty in my career. Specifically, knowing about fallacies, heuristics and cognitive biases, the Fundamental Attribution Error, cognitive dissonance, and others, sensitizes one to the possibility that one’s own thinking may not be as objective as one aspires to. And not only fallacies and biases; one of the most valuable tools in my mental toolkit is the 2 x 2 table, that represents the possible events in signal-detection experiments, or in diagnostic tests, but with far wider application. I’m sure most of us here, when we read in the papers that several residents near a power line report difficulty sleeping, think, ‘how many people not near power lines have difficulty sleeping?’ That’s filling in another cell of the table.
        But these were taught as content topics within a discipline, not as tools for practitioners.

  23. Peter Dorman says:

    This is a topic that has preoccupied me for decades, ever since I had an illuminating personal experience regarding norms of honesty. It probably isn’t a good idea to provide identifying information here, so I’ll just say I had worked with someone who was deeply invested in a particular political ideology and had acted dishonestly in an attempt to get me fired. I put enough energy into investigating the facts of the case to demonstrate the dishonesty had taken place. We had a private meeting with this person, at which I was told, “Yes, you caught me red-handed, but it won’t help you at all. If you bring this to a higher level, it will come down to who they believe, you or me, and they will believe me. [The person had the credentials to make this claim.] Just accept that nothing can prevent you from losing.” In the end, I was able to cut a deal, but I don’t think I will ever forget that meeting.

    What I took from this is that there are two levels of dishonesty. What we usually think of is the first level, whether someone is lying or, as raised in the OP, refusing to acknowledge counterarguments and disconfirming evidence. Most people who do this try to disguise their dishonesty, often from themselves as well, and are deeply embarrassed if they are caught out. In fact, fear of being embarrassed in this way often causes them to double down and resist coming clean. We’ve seen many examples of this in this blog.

    But there is a deeper level, which I think corresponds to Harry Frankfurt’s bullshit, where the norm of honesty has no purchase. This is the sort of meta-dishonesty I encountered in the experience I sketched. The second-level purveyors of dishonesty will try to cover for themselves, but only to the extent they need to in order to ward off reprisals. In many real life situations, a show of making a case is enough, and bullshitters will go through the motions even though they are aware their dishonesty is visible in broad daylight.

    What hit me back then was the realization that having no scruples about honesty could be highly empowering. In effect, it raises the bar for those who oppose you. If you are squeamish about being caught out in a lie, it is enough for others to show they recognize it; you will then have to back down and apologize. Most people in my experience have internalized such a norm. But if you have no such scruples, those who wish to stop you have to actually stop you, and that can be a lot more difficult.

    There are “left” and “right” versions of end-justifying-the-means, second-level dishonesty. The classic version on the left was Leninism, which argued that morality was class-specific, working class morality was whatever promoted socialism, and the Party incarnated the socialist project. There was no dishonor in lying for the Party. The current version on the right began as a vularized Straussianism: preservation of freedom depends on protecting it from the venality and ignorance of the crowd, the crowd won’t accept to hear this, and therefore defenders of freedom must dissimulate. I had the benefit of hearing the Straussian argument first hand when it first arrived on the political scene. (I don’t know and don’t care how reflective they are of what Strauss actually taught in his Committee on Social Thought seminars.)

    I suspect the meta-dishonesty I’m labeling Straussian is found much more in the libertarian wing of the US right than its evangelical wing. It may even explain why some libertarians are willing to pretend to be evangelicals even when it is not difficult to see through the disguise.

    OK, this speculation takes us well beyond matters of intellectual honesty in research, but I think the distinction between dishonestly appealing to norms of argument and rejecting those norms altogether is meaningful. One reason we’re in such a bad situation today wrt to disinformation is that we have tended to assume the norms were implicit and universally shared, so it was enough just to appeal to them—to provide better evidence and reasoning. With the open rejection of these norms now so widespread in large swaths of our society, we need to get meta, but we’re unprepared.

    I’ve been thinking about how some of these issues can be addressed in a classroom game, something I may post on soon.

  24. Lola says:

    I’ve been digging into personality psychology and psychometrics quite a bit lately and it has changed my perspective on this from one of an education / socialization problem to predominantly a core personality problem. Just like anything else, all personality traits or values, including intellectual honesty fall on a spectrum. We say power corrupts, and I think what that means here is power pushes people to more extreme sides of the spectrum. I think people that are naturally lacking in the honesty / humility traits are drawn to the utilitarian and Machiavellian philosophy of the conservative platform. So I think what you said about the greater good is certainly part of it.
    Besides all that, I’ve known people like your bright student and always remember thinking how their main personality flaw was that they always had to be the social contrarians. They didn’t feel like they fit in with everyone else, so they tried to rewrite the rules. So I think another big part of it is a need for attention and individuality. Those needs for them trump any value for intellectual honesty and push it farther away from any normal balance so that now intellectual dishonesty has become a defining personality trait of theirs.
    What I’m trying to say is the things we value the most are always the priority and lower level values get sacrificed in service of those.
    I can’t point to any moment in my formal education that discussed intellectual dishonesty (and I was enrolled primarily in philosophy / political science courses). It just happens to be higher on my ranking of values. If I had to start the discussion on where this education could be introduced, it would be towards recognizing your own personal hierarchy of values and finding ways to keep them balanced.

    • Lola says:

      Necessary intellectual honesty disclaimer:

      I want to note that I purposely repeatedly used “I think” to identify my beliefs as conjecture rather than fact above. I have been primarily collecting my data from peer reviewed studies on the use of such instruments as HEXACO, Reiss Motivation Profile, etc., but I haven’t personally replicated any of them.

    • Haynes says:

      There is also a field called political psychology, and also one termed political neuroscience. John Hibbing at Nebraska publishes in this area and some of his research suggests that as many as 40% of conservatives are born that way.

      Other research shows that conservatives rank lower in empathy than do liberals. See the work by Dan Kahan at Yale.

      Is there a connection to intellectual dishonesty? Could that be the reason why conservatives are underrepresented on university faculties?

      And translating the term motivated reasoning to everyday language, it is “I know what I WANT to believe, and there is nothing you can show or tell me that will cause me to change my mind”. This is where the Socratic method is of use. Don’t give information, as it will be quickly rejected, as did my student with respect to passenger screening. Had I been prepared, it would have been an interesting case.

  25. Lola says:

    I’m taking notes from all the comments above to summarize the proposed solutions (to intellectual honesty instruction and to politicians in general):

    1. Rename Critical Thinking 101 to The Scientific Method Applied to Life 101 – 401 and make it mandatory. This is less about instruction than it is about weeding out the intellectually dishonest.

    2. Bar all lawyers from becoming politicians going forward. While that seems contradictory since their education should heavily overlap, apparently the skills acquired to become an effective lawyer are antithetical to any position that requires integrity (or intellectual honesty).

    3. Check transcripts to make sure political candidates completed and aced all of The Scientific Method Applied to Life courses

    4. Create an ancillary grading system that addresses traits like intellectual honesty, empathy and so on so Goddard could flunk his bright student on something.

    5. Have people vote on issues rather than people. They can learn the facts and even various opinions about those issues on the same platform they use to vote.

    6. Automate all of this. In fact, simply build philosopher king AI to replace politicians. No need to add the intellectual honesty feature as it comes default.

    All hail the Philosopher King

  26. rm bloom says:

    “Epistemic dependence: I find myself believing all sorts of things for which I do not possess evidence…. The list of things I believe, though I have no evidence for the truth of them, is, if not infinite, virtually endless.” [Article by Hardwig]

  27. Min says:

    Where we first taught about intellectual honesty/dishonesty? I would say 10th grade, when we first started writing papers. That’s also when we were not just expected to be spoon fed, but began to debate questions informally in class.

    I grew up in the Bible Belt, and our teachers had a strong sense of rectitude. There were limits to intellectual honesty in our education, however, in history, religion, and science.

    Our history texts were intellectually dishonest. In the early grades it was intended to inculcate a rosy picture of our nation, state, and culture. In high school we were taught that Reconstruction was bad, as the freedmen were not prepared for government and were taken advantage of by carpetbaggers and scalawags. The KKK was mentioned, OC, but nothing about their massacres.

    Questioning religion was actively discouraged, and our high school science teacher, a chemist who taught chemistry, physics, and biology, simply skipped the chapter in biology about evolution. It could have been worse, and was. 30 years later the biology teacher was a creationist.

    Science teaching was rote in all grades. The TV show, Mr. Wizard, was better at encouraging kids to think and ask questions.

    These days I would hope that high school kids would learn critical thinking. From what I have seen, critical thinking texts cannot compare with my grandmother’s 19th century high school rhetoric text, but they are better than nothing. I think that Schopenhauer on logical fallacies is not too hard for high school kids, and is quite entertaining. Schopenhauer called crap crap.

    IMX, a lot of quite intelligent college graduates do not understand or appreciate the austerity of scientific thinking. IMO it is the most intellectually honest, because you are constantly questioning yourself. I think Feynman is also comprehensible to high school students, is entertaining, and calls out poor thinking. Other authors that come to mind are Asimov and my hero, Lancelot Hogben. :)

    More broadly, Mark Twain and George Orwell are anti-bullshitters and incisive thinkers.

  28. confused says:

    We got ethics in college, but there wasn’t really anything that made the jump from just “not lying/falsifying” to “admitting your mistakes and questioning the assumptions/patterns of thought that led to them”.

    Even the critical thinking stuff both in HS and college was more about how to evaluate sources than about really questioning your own assumptions/recognizing your axioms. That was never really taught in any formal way, though I picked up some of it “indirectly” from a few good teachers (“indirectly” in the sense that it wasn’t part of the formal curriculum, but they wove it in anyway), some from my parents, and some more on my own from just reading.

  29. Dzhaughn says:

    Really, Andrew’s question answers itself: We learn about intellectual honesty from the Democratic Party, and about intellectual dishonesty from the Republican Party. (And what we learn that “honesty” is a transphobic heteronormative racist patriarchal construct for reinforcing structures of oppression. But hush, it polls well for us.)

    Personally, Hatfield being dead, I would point to C. S. Lewis “Miracles” as the writing where I most directly encountered the idea of intellectual honesty. Several of his arguments rely on it for their force, whether or not you agree with the argument. For example, if you accept a cosmology that excludes any smidgen of anything resembling free will, certain other questions follow. For instance, Harvey Weinstein had no choice; why should we blame him? Would you shake your fist at the weather? (Regrettably, the interlocutor here may discover the appeal of weather-fist-shaking.) B. F. Skinner at least tried to grasp this nettle. Anyway, the point is it is an argument from intellectual honesty.

    I had several humanities professors who exemplified the idea, from my point of view. I thought they were great. Hard. Not very popular. They were all white males, too. In math, it really isn’t a congtroversy. It’s also not very popular.

    When I was younger, Carl Sagan on Cosmos managed to have that effect on me. If you accept the methods, you have to accept the conclusions, and not just the comfortable ones.

    • Chebyshev says:

      “ The question: how is it that well educated people such as Atlas, Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, McConnell and many others can be so intellectually dishonest?”

      This one answers itself too. The author seems to show an acute selection bias along party lines. Intellectual dishonesty is another fancy academic term invented by academics to deal with uncomfortable cognitive dissonance of having to be part of the “right” wing of the two wings and cheer for intolerance and censorship.

      • Olav says:

        There’s a lot of nonsense on the left in American politics. You have cancel culture, stifling groupthink, twitter courts, obnoxious hero-worship (Obama, Sanders, Ginsburg, AOC, etc.), a refusal to talk honestly about the actual costs and benefits of various policies, etc. However, I don’t think the left has any politician that is anywhere close to being as dishonest (intellectually or otherwise) as Cruz, Hawley, and McConnell. So I think it’s fair to use them as examples without that implying any partisan bias.

  30. I’ve started a new course in our MSc program: Case Studies in Psycholinguistic Data Analysis and Computatinal Modeling. Every week i take a paper (often my own) and create a situation where students are faced with a variety of real life conundrums. A tiny change can flip a result from significant to non significant (you should see their faces!). I focus on significance even though my papers are all Bayesian, because this is how all students seem to be trained to think, innterms of nhst. The course isn’t about honesty in the sense of how to be honest, but i show how easy it is to convince yourself that the dishonest analysis is actually just fine. While teaching it i discovered that some results i oublished as inconclusive could gave been cast as decisive had i wanted to really really get a decisive outcome. I think the students were pretty shocked to see the results just flip around so easily.

  31. Michael Weissman says:

    I got lucky. The key line in an article about my dad (a chemist) was a quote from a colleague something like “Whenever I get excited about publishing something, I always think first, would it get by Sam?” Or Mr. Bruns (9th grade geometry teacher) who only praised me once, when I answered a question with “I don’t know.” And it went on from there, mother, sister, PhD advisor,… This is the first time somebody has made me realize just how unusual this environment was.

Leave a Reply

Where can you find the best CBD products? CBD gummies made with vegan ingredients and CBD oils that are lab tested and 100% organic? Click here.