Tag Archives: intellectual honesty

The Grapes of Fallibilism

BEN: “I’m promoting a culture of skepticism. That’s what I’m doing. Hey, just take a look at what you believe and what you think about stuff, and stab it in the throat. And if it lives, we’re good.”

AARON: “Stabbing it in the throat… you had me until then.”

BEN: “I’m kind of an all-or-nothing guy.”

AARON: “Yeah! ‘Go big or go home. No fear.’  I think you can always be wrong. Always. You never ever know. Like I act like I know all the time, but if you have a good solid point, I will listen to you and I might change my mind because of it. I think more people need to do that. More people need to realize that, even though you may be totally committed to this idea or ideology, and you might have so much invested in it, you can always be wrong. You don’t know 100% anything…”

-Ben Parsons and Aaron Mason, episode 66 of The Grapes of Rad



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The Smart Bias

“Many of us would like to believe that intellect banishes prejudice. Sadly, this is itself a prejudice.”

-Nigel Warburton, “Everyday Philosophy”

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Intellectual Humility

I think there’s an important connection between intellectual honesty and humility. A simple goal of the classes I teach is to get us all to recognize what counts as good evidence and what counts as bad evidence for a claim. In general, I see students get better at this throughout the semester. But this doesn’t guarantee that we’ll care about the difference once we figure it out.

Getting us to care is my real goal. We should care about good evidence. We should care about evidence and arguments because they get us closer to the truth. When we judge an argument to be overall good, THE POWER OF LOGIC COMPELS US to believe the conclusion. If we are presented with decent evidence for some claim, but still stubbornly disagree with this claim for no strong reason, we are just being irrational. Worse, we’re effectively saying that the truth doesn’t matter to us.

This means we should be open-minded. We should be willing to challenge ourselves, and let new evidence change our current beliefs.  We should be open to the possibility that we’ve currently gotten something wrong. This is how comedian Todd Glass puts it:

Here are the first two paragraphs of an interesting article on this:

Last week, I jokingly asked a health club acquaintance whether he would change his mind about his choice for president if presented with sufficient facts that contradicted his present beliefs. He responded with utter confidence. “Absolutely not,” he said. “No new facts will change my mind because I know that these facts are correct.”

I was floored. In his brief rebuttal, he blindly demonstrated overconfidence in his own ideas and the inability to consider how new facts might alter a presently cherished opinion. Worse, he seemed unaware of how irrational his response might appear to others. It’s clear, I thought, that carefully constructed arguments and presentation of irrefutable evidence will not change this man’s mind.

Ironically, having extreme confidence in oneself is often a sign of ignorance. In many cases, such stubborn certainty is unwarranted.

Certainty Is a Sign of Ignorance

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Check the Source

Yeah, she was there, or read it in a book, or something-via GraphJam

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Debate vs. Consensus

I don’t like debates.  I understand the value of arguing back and forth, and can see how someone listening to a debate might benefit from hearing two reasonable opponents who disagree with each other.  But for participants, a debate model fosters intellectual dishonesty.  A debater is encouraged to argue in favor of her side regardless of whether her side is correct, or whether she believes her side is correct.  This puts the ability to persuade as the main goal in a debate.

Persuasion shouldn’t be the main goal of reasoning.  Figuring out the truth is the main goal.  Arguments are valuable because they are useful tools for figuring out what is true and what is false.

This can get lost in a debate.  Effective debaters can come up with seemingly convincing arguments toward any position at all–even crazy positions. This, in fact, seems to be a popular understanding of what it means to be smart: you are smart if you have the ability to convincingly argue for any opinion, regardless of whether you believe it.

But such indifference toward the truth is backwards.  The value of being smart is not simply being able to convince others. Being smart is good because it makes one more likely to be correct.  The value of intelligence is grounded in accuracy.

In “Reasonable Religious Disagreements,” Richard Feldman makes this point nicely:

“In my view, to think critically and effectively about hard issues requires reconstructing in clear and precise terms the important arguments on the issue with the aim of discovering whether those arguments succeed in establishing or lending rational support to their conclusions. So conceived, arguments are tools for helping us figure out what it is most reasonable to believe. They are decidedly not tools with which we can clobber our ‘opponents.’

“In fact, the idea that people with different views are opponents gets us off on the wrong foot. It is better to see others, as far as possible, as engaged in a collective search for the truth, with arguments being precise ways of spelling out reasons supporting a particular conclusion.”

I prefer using the model of  consensus decision-making.  In a consensus session, all participants have the same goal: to reach agreement.  This involves carefully listening to dissent and revising or defending one’s stance based on legitimate disagreement.  This is a good model for reasoning.  We’re all using the same tools, and working together to accomplish the same goal. The consensus decision-making process is intellectually honest.

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