What Does It Mean to be Intellectually Dishonest?

Alan Jacobs, over at The American Scene, links to this National Review article which begins:

I am old enough to remember when America’s colleges and universities seemed to be the most open-minded and intellectually rigorous institutions in our society. Today, something very much like the opposite is true: America’s colleges and universities have become, and have been for some decades, the most closed-minded and intellectually dishonest institutions in our society.

To which Alan asks:

What do people mean when they talk about intellectual dishonesty? How does that differ from any other kind of dishonesty? Is there some kind of dishonesty that’s not intellectual? I have just never understood that phrase. What would Barone’s sentence lose if you just struck out the word “intellectually”?

It’s a good question. In my post on what it means to "intellectually respect" someone, I say that intellectual honesty is the willingness to change one’s mind and be open to all viewpoints. But it’s definitely ambiguous.

As to the original point around whether America’s universities have become closed-minded and intellectually dishonest, I think there’s something to it. Fortunately not all colleges fit this bill.

If you really want to go suck the gas pipe, read this New Atlantis review of I Am Charlotte Simmons by two professors who say college is really as soul-sucking as Tom Wolfe thinks, or read Bill Bennett in the NRO who thinks we should abolish the department of education.

7 Responses to What Does It Mean to be Intellectually Dishonest?

  1. Chris Yeh says:

    I think that intellectual dishonesty is a matter of refusing to apply the same level of rigor to examining one’s own beliefs, as to those of others.

    Someone who is intellectually dishonest may not actually lie; instead, he simply chooses not to notice the flaws in his own thinking.

    I’m reminded of the entrepreneur who, when I advised him to test his idea using simple, low-cost experiments, said with horror, “But what if I find out that it’s no good?”

    Intellectual dishonesty goes beyond simple laziness; it is a willful sticking of one’s neck in the sand in an attempt to avoid seeing the truth.

  2. Brian Reese says:

    Intellectual dishonesty to me is failing to think rationally in regards to independent thought, and avoiding outside information that may change your original position.

    Even though what is considered “rational” varies from person to person, failing to think independently is much worse. So where do you draw the line when letting others help you, versus reaching your own conclusions? I am not sure, yet.

    The ability to take outside information or another’s opinion is absolutely critical to avoid close-mindedness; however, one must be able to think independently using relevant information, while discarding the nonsense.

    Abolishing the department of education is nonsense.

  3. Dave says:

    Good comments, I would add a couple of things. Normally we think of “plain & simple” dishonesty as the misstatement of facts, e.g., “Yes, I’m over 21.” Intellectual dishonesty at a minimum involves reasoning processes as pointed out above – usually by obscuring the fact that the speaker has a hidden agenda and the “reasoning” is really just rationalization. There is a further connotation, though, that the intellectually dishonest person is also in some position of respect or authority – that people have some reason to trust or respect the person’s opinion on the matter at hand, both in terms of knowledge and objectivity – and that trust is abused. Thus I wouldn’t typically refer to a salesperson as being “intellectually dishonest” when he tries to snow me … since I know that he has an agenda to sell me his wares. Whereas we have a different set of expectations for a professor or scientist, that she explicitly points out any agenda or preconceived notions.

  4. Some of it’s to do with how people use their intellect to enable their dishonesty- both by rationalising comfortable but unstable beliefs, and by kidding themselves about the fact they are doing it.

  5. olivier says:

    An intellectual is someone who, when confronted with a question that contains the word ‘intellectual’, immediately asks “but what does that mean, ‘intellectual’?”

  6. olivier says:

    Additionally, beware of anti-intellectualism. That is a pastime usually performed by intellectuals that have read a bit of Nietzsche. Anti-intellectualism is one of the purest examples of intellectual dishonesty.

    The definition of intellectual dishonesty then is: “your intellect knows something to be factually true, but you choose to defend the counterposition anyway”. Usually done for political gains. Also see: populism.

  7. Jon says:

    Isn’t it similar to “scientific racism,” in that facts are skewed in order to validate a false statement?

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