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Intellectual dishonesty appears so often, you have to ask whether or not it works. Why would people go to the trouble, if it was ineffective? On the other hand, perhaps people are intellectually dishonest without being aware of it, in which case being dishonest is no trouble at all. Dishonest argumentation is obvious to other people, however, so you wonder why public figures even get close to it: people who disagree with you will point it out, you needlessly acquire a reputation for being slippery, and no one trusts you anymore. Argumentative techniques that appear attractive at first do not seem so effective if they lead to those results.

First, what is intellectual dishonesty? It’s not exactly the same as lying. Here are three forms of it, discussed below:

  • Double ethical standard. In public discussion, the double standard often shows itself as a claim that I can do what I like, because I am in the right to begin with. Other people have to follow rules that don’t apply to me.
  • Ridicule. This form often begins with epithets or language chosen to place your opponents at a disadvantage. It often ends with dismissiveness and contempt.
  • Deceptive logic. Poor reasoning cover a large number of errors. A general form of the error is to reason from conclusions to evidence. That is, you assess evidence only in light of where you want to be at the end of your argument.

The first example has been in the news lately. Jonathan Gruber, health policy specialist at MIT and architect of the Affordable Care Act, is something of a bigshot around Boston. He has argued that the ACA would not have passed if the people who drafted and enacted it had been completely transparent about its effects. Think about President Obama’s assurance that if you like your plan, you can keep it. Yet Gruber charges Republican opponents with trying to confuse people about the act when they make their arguments about its effects. Gruber’s double standard could not be more plain.

The second example comes from the climate change debate. Alden Meyer, Director of Strategy and Policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, explains why he and his colleagues don’t use the phrase ‘global warming skeptic’ anymore: “We don’t call them skeptics, because they are not putting forward alternative ideas and having them tested in peer review journals. They basically deny this problem.” You can be sure that the scientists doing those peer reviews are not skeptics! They are peers because they already agree with you. They founded their scientific quarterly journals because they knew that to get respect from other academics, you have to have a journal.

‘Skeptic’ is a term of respect, whereas ‘denier’ is a term of ridicule. Meyer and his colleagues know that. ‘Climate change denier’ puts you in the same category as ‘Holocaust denier’: someone who is too whacko to deserve any attention at all. Yet Meyer sniffs his contempt in terms academic scientists understand: we have peer reviewed journals, and you don’t. We don’t even want you in the same room, let alone listen to you.

The last example goes back a little way, but is perhaps the most consequential of all. Philip Zelikow, executive director of the 9/11 commission, was charged by Congress and the President to find out what happened on 9/11. He wanted to give clear direction to his investigators before they began their work. Any researcher would say that to plan your work, you would write a list of questions you want to investigate. To maintain a sense of structure, you might organize your questions into a rough outline. You would not presuppose answers to any of your questions.How did he accomplish that?

How did Zelikow accomplish this planning task? He wrote a detailed outline of the commission’s report before his investigators began their research. The outline did not contain any questions. It essentially contained the answers to questions. He heard people ask, how could this happen, and how can we prevent it from happening again, and outlined a report that would give general, non-controversial responses to these questions. The people who prepared the report knew its contents before they gathered any information. That is not an investigation. It is a snow job, based on transparently dishonest logic, clothed in the prestige of government.

We should return to the question at the beginning of this piece. Does intellectual dishonesty work? Consider the three examples above, and you have your answer.

Before we sign off, we should note the grandfather almost all intellectual dishonesty practiced among people: hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is pretending to be something you are not. We all know how to recognize that.


I have to add one more example, from literature about the infamous events of 9/11. This type of dishonesty reveals itself as a particularly pernicious double standard: I don’t have to follow the same rules you have to follow, because I’m right and you’re not. The culprit in this case is Cass Sunstein, a University of Chicago law professor and friend of President Obama. He advocates infiltration of groups that advocate for a new investigation of 9/11, in order to disrupt them, sow division, spread false rumors and accusations, and generally render ineffective the activities of people who cannot build bonds of face-to-face trust.

These are exactly the tactics that Communist and other totalitarian parties used to maintain their power for so long. Sunstein’s only justification for these clearly illegal actions – they violate the Constitution’s right of free speech and assembly – is that the groups must be suppressed. They must be suppressed because what they advocate endangers the state. It is the same self-righteousness that justified the Church’s inquisition: we can do anything because we have right on our side.