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Why Professors Love Intellectual Honesty

by: Alexander C. Cartwright ’13
PUBLISHED: 12 October 2011 No Comment

If you believe some of our most respected professors, here at H-SC, the most important part of a convincing argument is the degree to which the author is intellectually honest, that is the extent an argument considers the best arguments for the opposing side and still emerges victorious. An intellectually honest argument helps its author establish credibility because engaging the opposing side and defeating it legitimizes an author as one who is on the pursuit of truth instead of the pursuit of promoting a specific ideology.

Our professors’ demands for intellectual honesty does not seem strange at all, particularly given that the primary focus of a liberal arts education is to help us learn to be more critical thinkers.  While I am sure professors genuinely care about the intellectual progress of their students, there is another, less mentioned explanation for why professors like intellectual honesty.

Outside of the classroom, professors are scholars who are frequently seeking to publish new ideas or marginal extensions of established ideas to advance the current thought in his or her field. However, each professor’s publication is just one small voice in a large ongoing conversation; in this competitive academic debate, professors are interested in making sure their points are accounted for. In order for a professor to successfully make his or her voice heard in this ongoing conversation, the audience must be intellectually honest.

For example, an Economics professor may publish a new theory explaining why a government intervention that was at first considered helpful is in fact harmful. However, professors have little legal authority to change such a policy. Only the decision-makers in the government have such authority.  The audience of this economics professor’s work—the government officials—could easily ignore the professor’s publication since the government is a monopoly that does not face competition. However, an intellectually honest audience, which would be composed of actors seeking truth and not the promotion of a particular ideology, would allow the best argument to win, even if it is from a college professor. Thus, intellectual honesty empowers professors; it forces us to consider their scholarship and their work. In other words, it should be no shock that academia is teaching us to be intellectually honest because without intellectual honesty, academia wouldn’t matter since those in with the most power would by default hold the best arguments.

Scientist author Michael Schermer’s new book “Believing the Brain” argues that humans have a tendency to invent patterns where none exist and become sensitive to evidence that certifies our own, often-false beliefs (“Maybe We are all Conspiracy Theorists, WSJ, 9/10/11). In other words, humans may be predisposed conspiracy theorists, reminding us that we must be ever cognizant of conspiracy theories (like the one in this article), yet, ironically, the only way to ensure that we don’t fall into the trap of being too convinced of our own ideas is be being intellectually honest. Ultimately, self-interest and intellectual honesty go hand in hand as scholars work to advance themselves and advance knowledge towards the truth.

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