One of clear thinking’s biggest opponents is the ego. This is when an argument, stance, or opinion is supported not by evidence, but by pride, the need to be right, and the desire to avoid shame and embarrassment. Ego keeps us deaf and blind if we allow it to. It serves a purpose, but very quickly becomes detrimental to your evaluation of the world, as it has the power to warp reality around you. The most prominent defense mechanisms we use are rationalization and plain old denial.
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What is Intellectual Honesty (and Dishonesty)?
With our biggest obstacle addressed, it’s time to examine the traits of the honest thinking we want to seek out. And what are the traits of dishonest thinking that we want to avoid? It’s time to spell out how to embody our goals of seeing the world as objectively as humanly possible.
Intellectual honesty is a commitment to finding the truth, wholly, unconditionally, no matter what it might cost. It’s seeking out facts and reality, regardless of how uneasy, inopportune or distasteful that truth makes us feel. Often it involves what our ego would rather pretend doesn’t exist. It is the understanding that speed and certainty are completely unimportant when compared to accuracy.
The intellectually honest person is tireless about learning from all perspectives. They accept viewpoints that might differ from their own. They understand that reasonable people can hold opposing ideas. They’re swift in respecting the good points their opponents might bring up, and they’re not afraid to admit when their own argument might contain flaws or faults. They’re quick to concede when their own biases, prejudices or emotions might be informing their thinking.
Someone who’s committed to intellectual honesty is committed to the absolute facts of a matter and allows those facts alone to form their judgment. They don’t exaggerate or overstate arguments, and they don’t deliberately misconstrue what evidence presents them. They don’t make the truth adapt to their thinking. There is no circuitous logic or circular arguments, and questions are answered directly and without ulterior motive. If the ego senses danger, it acts swiftly to make most people spout an excuse, but the intellectually honest will throw themselves under the bus if that accurately reflects what happened.
The intellectually honest person remains modest and neutral when they’re pursuing the truth. They reject double standards and hypocrisy, and they don’t pretend to be experts on things they don’t know anything about. For example, a courtroom judge is expected to ignore their own personal beliefs, withstand outside pressure, and make an unbiased decision on cases or procedures completely adherent to the rule of law. The evidence will tell a story, and the judge removes their own opinions, gives each side the same opportunity, and simply uncovers that story instead of seeking to write it themselves.
An insurance adjustor investigating an accident, theoretically speaking, needs to block out both his company’s bottom line and their customer’s adverse situation, examine all the facts and events of the accident, and make their best judgment as to how it happened and which party is responsible. He is to assess according to the guidelines he is bound by, nothing more and nothing less. He cannot skip analyzing something because it is damaging to his company’s bottom line, and he must give the same weight to every factor he finds.
There is an element of scientific thinking, where a hypothesis or assumption is something that is meant to be tested, and is certainly never confused with a conclusion or argument. “I don’t know” is a perfectly acceptable answer, and so is “You’re right, I am wrong.” Each option is equally comfortable and easy to speak.
An intellectually dishonest person, on the other hand, is often easily identified by how they react to anything that doesn’t support them. They either don’t accept hostile to opposing opinions through denial or rationalization, or are downright hostile and demeaning. You just get the sense that there is something to be protected or hidden. They evade questions like they are playing dodge ball, and they come up with roundabout answers to direct inquiries. Thoughts focused on being right don’t always overlap with reality or the truth.
When it comes to reinforcing their own beliefs, the intellectually dishonest person stops their research the minute they find something that supports their assertion.
They’ll cherry-pick evidence they agree with and completely omit proof that they’re wrong. They’ll mangle the truth until it suits them by making bad analogies, taking quotes out of context, and equivocating or minimizing key points. They’ll go off on tangents to misrepresent the facts of a situation, in some cases simply making stuff up to support their statements. Using straw man arguments is a favorite: these are fallacies in which one arguer exaggerates what their opponent said to the point of ludicrous, when in actuality that opponent said nothing of the sort.
Innocent statement: “Maybe we should trust our government more.”
Straw man argument: “Oh, so you’re saying you want a fascist government and our very own Hitler to go along with?!”
“…No, that’s not what I said at all.”
When they sense their argument is disbelieved, the intellectually dishonest person often resorts to panic, distortion, or deflection. The discussion becomes something to win, and they do it by any means possible. They’ll exaggerate, misinterpret, cry false equivalencies, or simply change the subject. Defense becomes the name of the game. There is an inability to answer yes or no questions without having to justify; there is never a straightforward answer given.
Over time, an intellectually dishonest person can lob so many of these defenses and tactics so often and repetitively that they even talk themselves into believing something they used to know wasn’t entirely on solid ground to begin with. Like abiding by the ego, the most dangerous side effect of intellectual dishonesty is the potential to warp reality on a mass scale.
As mentioned earlier, we engage in self-deceptions out of self-defense. But furthermore, nothing is quite as narcotic as the need to be right; and to maintain that feeling, we lie to ourselves.
Switching from a track of intellectual dishonesty to one of clear thinking isn’t a cakewalk. It requires leaving behind established beliefs and biases that are difficult to let go of. In the process, you leave yourself feeling vulnerable and inadequate. Uttering, “I don’t know” or “I was wrong” for the first time can be painful. But consider that the bravado and bluster you showcase in intellectual dishonesty paints a far worse picture of you.
Obstacles to Honest Thought
Our egos play a large part in obscuring clear and critical thought, but even if you are able to quash it and eventually separate your thinking processes from it, there are still many habits that cloud our thinking. Just like dealing with the ego, they might be so habitual and heavily ingrained that you can’t find the truth with a compass.
The three common obstacles are intellectual laziness, willful ignorance, and adherence to sacred cows. They each impact our ability to see truth in different ways.
Intellectual laziness. Especially in today’s technology-driven society where answers are easier and quicker to obtain than ever before, we tend to expend very little energy into intellectual pursuits. Our brains seek the fastest of superficial confirmations of facts and then head straight for the beach for a few hours. The goal is ease and certainty rather than accuracy. It’s easy and it feels like you’ve done what you’re supposed to. This in itself leads to chronic jumping to conclusions.
But there’s more to an intellectually lazy person than just seeking comfort. They prefer that other people do the thinking for them. They’ll happily defer to the beliefs of a friend, social media memes, or dubious experts to define their convictions. They outsource their critical thinking and seek to substitute it with apparent authority figures, which inevitably leave large gaps of understanding. You have to wonder at what point they are creating their own opinions instead of parroting what they have heard from often-questionable sources.
Aside from not being discerning with sources, the intellectually lazy person also doesn’t want to take the effort to change their mind, and they’ll pursue that stasis to the ends of the earth. In the pursuit of maintaining consistency over seeking truth, they’ll only consider information that will back up what they want to believe, whether it’s debunked science or a far-flung conspiracy theory. Even if they’re presented with clear evidence and reasoning, they’ll refuse to consider any of it, or reject it out of hand without understanding a single part of it.
They seek the path of least resistance. As such, they over-value stability, and are resistant to change. Saying “I don’t know” is not preferred because it requires extra work to juggle multiple perspectives—it’s not an easy, comfortable state. It’s much easier to be able to latch onto one opinion or perspective.
When an intellectually lazy person does take the mantle and try to do their own research, they’ll often stop after a cursory glance—and even then, they’ll probably only look at material that supports their own beliefs. They seek to oversimplify and remove nuance from complex issues. After all, it’s more effort to have to understand your errors and change your perspective. If they get backed into a corner by someone rationally challenging their views, you just might see the ego start to rear its ugly head.
Like all the other aspects of clear thinking, avoiding intellectual laziness becomes an exercise in building habits of self-awareness and metacognition—thinking about your own thinking.
Ask yourself if you are merely seeking an answer or if you are actually seeking the truth. These different paths prescribe incredibly different courses of action. To see truth, you don’t stop researching something the minute you find your viewpoints (or their opposites) validated. You seek information from as many sides and sources as you can and accept that some real evidence you come across might make you uncomfortable.
You would engage in this search firsthand, as opposed to listening to other people’s anecdotes. You would seek to discover nuance and not settle at the first explanation that seems plausible. You would treat your assumptions as just that, assumptions and not fact or truth. It sounds exhausting, but the more you use these muscles, the easier it gets.