Intellectual Dishonesty

Intellectual Dishonesty

What is meant when one uses this term? Some possible meanings:

When one avoids an honest, deliberate and comprehensive approach to a matter because it may introduce an adverse effect on personally and professionally held views and beliefs.

Intellectual dishonesty is a failure to apply standards of rational evaluation that one is aware of, usually in a self-serving fashion. If one judges others more critically than oneself, that is intellectually dishonest. If one deflects criticism of a friend or ally simply because they are a friend or ally, that is intellectually dishonest. etc.


How is IntellectualDishonesty different from general dishonesty?


This term is a euphemistic way of calling your opponents liars, with the connotation that they are stupid or illogical as well. No, this is a poor characterization of the (proper) usage of this term.

Who says it's always used to describe one's opponents? --MikeSmith

Maybe an example of dishonesty that's not intellectual would help clear things up? It's harder to deceive about feelings than about thoughts, although not impossible. Is this helpful?


IntellectualDishonesty doesn't necessarily mean lies or otherwise morally wrong deeds. However, in pursuing an intellectual endeavour one has to commit oneself to higher standards. That's what's IntellectualHonesty is all about: keeping those higher standards and living up to the expectations. IntellectualDishonesty is not living up to the expected standard, and this might happen because of lazyness, superficiality and other "lesser" evils. However, when these evils manifest themselves in fields such as science, engineering, etc, they are qualified as IntellectualDishonesty because in these fields everyone is expected strive for higher standards.

In the field of SoftwareEngineering, there seems to be a significant amount of IntellectualDishonesty, primarily because the lines between the engineering discipline and the lucrative salesmanship tend to blur. And it is among the few engineering domains where the correlation between good engineering and commercial success has been historically a rather weak one.

SoftwareEngineering also suffers from a significant blurring between research and practice. A CivilEngineer? would not dream of inventing his own materials or techniques for designing/building a bridge, for instance. Only those methods and materials which are well-known to be safe, and subject to considerable research to demonstrate safety, would even be considered--to do otherwise would be professional malpractice. Yet SoftwareEngineers so this sort of thing all the time. Granted, most software is not MissionCritical--but if we conducted ourselves like other engineering disciplines, we'd have an approved set of technologies to use in our designs; anything which cannot be assembled out of those technologies would be instantly forbidden.


Intellectual dishonest is quite worthy of distinction from simple dishonesty. Of course, the term only makes sense in the context of an intellectual pursuit. To give a simple example, suppose I have conducted an experiment, and, being properly trained in the field in question and in empirical science, I realize that my experiment was lacking in a certain feature. Let's say for arguments sake that I have neglected to test for X.

Now if you come along and ask me "did you test for X?" and I answer "yes", then I am simply being dishonest; I am a liar.

However, I am intellectually dishonest for not mentioning (e.g. publishing) the fact as soon as I realized it was important. Clearly, if you as me the question and I answer "no", I am not lying to you. But I was still intellectually dishonest.

The history of science is full of examples like this. Luckily, the practice of science is vastly superior to any previously known method for turning up such discrepancies. Which means there is a reasonable chance it will happen in a lifetime or so.

{That's a case of omitting known relevant information. That's still part of general honesty. For example, a real-estate agent knows that there is hidden grave-yard in the backyard of a house, but doesn't tell potential buyers about it. Thus, I don't see a reason yet to make a distinction between general dishonesty and "intellectual" dishonesty. (Another likely sticking point is measuring "known". See AccusationThatAssumesKnowledgeOfInternalMotives.)}


A classic and repeated pattern of Intellectual Dishonesty within Computer Science can often be seen in choice of tools and languages. This is a good example of people not being dishonest with intent to deceive others, but self-deception. Generally I'd say it comes down to two different categories - there is conservatism stemming from lack of knowledge (I know X - X is therefore the right tool for the job) - and it's opposite (desire to write a project using some new scripting language/framework/tool because the developer wants to try it). An extension of this is ideological as well as commercial commitment - whether to a programming paradigm (OO, FP), language or the Open Source / proprietary debate. One consistent manifestation is people making decisions based on technology they have read about - 'Well X isn't working, we should do our next project in Y', rather than stepping back to something proven.

Sloth vs. Dishonesty

That's a case of not exploring (failure) history and vetting an organization's options sufficiently. This can happen in any endeavor, and is not limited to IT or science. I'd label it as "sloth", not dishonesty. A point of contention is also how much effort should be allocated to exploration and failure study. Some personality types "over-dwell" on relatively small things in my observation. I have a few pet "anal" topics also, I must admit. I just like talking about them because of personal interest. But it may not be in the best interest of the organization to divert lots of resources to such. People have a lot of other issues on their plate. We'd like our favorite topics to be top priority, but that's not always realistic. "Economic dishonesty"?


As a cathartic exercise, some examples of IntellectualDishonesty witnessed on WikiWiki:


Am I wrong in remembering it a Jesuitical principle that if a person arrive at a false conclusion without my actually deceiving or telling falsehood then all's right in the world?

Anyhow, I think this snippet from "USING SENSE-MAKING METHODOLOGY TO STUDY MAKING SENSE OF DIFFERENCE" to be paradigmatic of this ummmmm "bad faith":

"One interesting exception is a study by Gunson and Collins (1997) of a housing project in which the procedural norms laid out were quite close to Habermas's ideal speech situation. Analysis, however, revealed manipulation of the process by institutional interests. It seems to me that this sort of research could be useful in underscoring specific ways in which the communication ideal as ethical and dialogic is distorted to be controlling and manipulative."

from Research Design Literature Review | http://communication.sbs.ohio-state.edu/sense-making/meet/2005/meet05foreman-wernet_lit.pdf --BenTremblay
Re: "When one avoids an honest, deliberate and comprehensive approach to a matter because..."

"Comprehensive" can be a source of contention. For example, in a BookStop situation, one party may feel it's the citer's duty to synthesize and apply the lessons in the book to the topic at hand, while the other party may feel that's not their burden and that the other party should read the entire book and apply it to the debate topic themselves. (Debating traditionally follows the first practice in my observation.)

It could be conflicting views of what is "moral" here. People don't always agree on what morality model should be the reference model. That's life. At best we can hope for a system that documents and consistently enforces an agreed-upon model using agreed-upon evaluation techniques (such as votes).
Yes, "intellectual" dishonesty is a form of dishonesty. So why is it useful to distinguish it?

I think it's because it's a good way to call attention to a particular problem in issues advocacy: People advocating for a cause tend to distort the truth, and tend to believe that it is perfectly permissible to do so.

Many of the same people who think it's morally wrong to lie to a loved one in order to avoid incurring that person's wrath do not think it is morally wrong to distort truth before an audience in order to convince the audience to adopt their position. Both are forms of dishonesty. The former is almost universally deplored. The latter is almost universally accepted.

Of course, if everyone agreed that intellectual dishonesty is morally wrong, there would be far fewer "debates" over issues. Many issues that are almost endlessly "debated" as matters of opinion are actually settled matters of fact, when all the facts are exposed. There's nothing to "debate" about, and that's boring, and unprofitable to demagogues.

Nonetheless, I submit that demagoguery is immoral, and intellectual dishonesty is what demagogues practice. --KenDibble

Being an advocate by itself does not mean one is intentionally distorting the truth. It just may mean they are passionate about a topic. Often that's more refreshing than somebody who goes through life picking and accepting the bland corporate fad tool that best increases their chances of getting a new beemer. If their evidence is poor, call them on it. If your counter-evidence is poor, then you should exercise your mind to present a better argument. Counter poor evidence by offering good counter evidence, not by using AccusationThatAssumesKnowledgeOfInternalMotives, which only trigger flame-wars and resentment.

Demagogues don't present evidence; they simply lie, or omit facts, and rely on the beauty of their language and the "passion" of their presentation to carry the day. One cannot defeat a demagogue by presenting better evidence; the demagogue is playing an entirely different game. One may prevail in a formal "debating society" debate by presenting better evidence. One rarely prevails in real-world political or other forms of debate by doing so. People are inclined to believe whatever a person says, regardless of whether it's true or false, if they have already decided that the person represents their "side". Demagogues perpetuate this situation by reinforcing this idea of "sides", when they misrepresent the truth by lying or omitting relevant facts.

Calling somebody a demagogue to his/her face would be an example of AccusationThatAssumesKnowledgeOfInternalMotives. What we need is a StrategyThatMakesUseOfKnowledgeOfInternalMotives?. The two are not the same, and it is absolutely necessary to understand an opponent's motivations in order to defeat the opponent. Such a strategy might therefore involve a deliberate calling-out of the demagogue. Demagogues are motivated in part by a thirst for power, and deliberately insulting someone who seeks power impugns his/her ego, resulting in an outburst of emotion. If this happens when the demagogue is declaiming on the stump, it's likely to cause him/her to make a mistake that may lead to his/her being discredited in the eyes of the audience. See Joseph Welch v Senator McCarthy? (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Army%E2%80%93McCarthy_hearings#Joseph_Welch_confronts_McCarthy) for an American example.

But to get back to "intellectual dishonesty", I restate that it's a useful distinction because it describes the particular, and not widely recognized, dishonesty of distorting truth as a tactic of advocacy.

I still don't see a difference.

It's not different from dishonesty, it's a subcategory of dishonesty. The distinction is useful to point out because, as illustrated by some responses here, people think it's an okay thing to do. It's not. It's immoral and unethical.

I still don't see it as a useful sub-category. What's considered by some an "okay thing to do"?

The advocacy distinction is an important one. Take lawyers as an example. They are advocating for either the guilt or innocence of a defendant. In doing so they are not allowed to lie about facts but they are allowed and in fact encouraged to sow doubt about the other sides claims in order to win. This is done even if they themselves find the other sides claims credible. They may know that their client is guilty yet argue for their innocence. That is their duty but it can easily be intellectually dishonest even though they do not tell any outright lies to achieve their goals.
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