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Intellectual Honesty

During a recent discussion in the office, the term “intellectual honesty” was bandied about. At Seilevel, intellectual honesty is part of our stated core values, but it’s a term that’s easily misunderstood and misused. Feeling that I needed to understand better what this term really means, I hit the search engines hard. I also, as I usually do when I’m trolling for ideas, posted a question on Facebook. Mostly what I found was rather shallow, or confined to the realm of scientific research. I began to harbor a strong suspicion that “intellectual honesty” is just a fancy way to say “honesty.”

So, instead, I turn to my own experiences to try to wrap some ideas around this rather slippery concept.

An example from my recent past:  I was wasting some time on social media discussing public school funding, or the lack of it. Ongoing budget cuts were hurting some Texas school districts. A friend of mine shared some information about relative school funding across many developed countries. Not trusting one source of information shared by someone with an agenda, I did some research of my own, and came to some uncomfortable conclusions about the nature of school financing. It was hard, but I modified my position. Although I’m still a big advocate for well-funded public schools, I tend to look beyond just the amount of the budget and focus more on how the money is spent. And I acknowledged my friend’s contribution to my learning process, which wasn’t easy, as I still disagree with him on a lot of other things.

Another example:  I was recently having a heated discussion with a family member, who apologized by telling me “I’m sorry you’re upset.” This made me absolutely wild, and at first I wasn’t sure why. But then, my recent reading about intellectual honestly pointed towards a reason. It was a non-apology, basically turning the apologetic words around and into an attack. It’s like saying “It’s your fault for misunderstanding me.” The words didn’t match the intention, so they clanged and irritated.

I’ve recently noticed that in politics and social media, people tend to use “intellectual dishonesty” as a weapon to attack someone they disagree with. But, to tell someone who does not agree with you that they’re being intellectually dishonest is the height of dishonesty. Tricky, yes?

When I think about ways to actually, honestly, apply this value to my life and my work, for me the central idea is that it’s personal.  You can criticize someone else’s work, disagree with their position, or discover flaws in their research. But as soon as you start flinging the “dishonest” label at someone else, you are on the road to nowhere. The real power of intellectual honesty? Self-evaluation. Here are some questions that I’m going to use to help me be more honest with myself:

  1. Do I really believe what I am saying/writing, or am I just advocating someone else’s position?
  2. Do I really understand this, or am I relying on superficial evidence and anecdote?
  3. Do I understand this well enough to teach it to someone else?
  4. Am I doing what’s right, or what’s safe?
  5. Is my ego or my brain doing the talking?
  6. Am I really listening, or am I thinking of what I want to say?

In the meantime, I’d be interested to learn more about what you think about intellectual honesty and the effect it has on your work and your life. Comments welcome!