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What is intellectual dishonesty? It is not exactly the same as lying. Here are three forms of it.

  • 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.
  • Deceptive logic. Poor reasoning covers numerous errors. A general form of this error reasons from conclusions to evidence. That is, you assess evidence only in light of where you want to be at the end of your argument.
  • This form often begins with epithets or language chosen to place your opponents at a disadvantage. It often ends with dismissiveness and contempt.

Double ethical standard

One 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 am right, and the things I want to do are necessary to defend the truth. By contrast, you are wrong, and you must not be permitted to spread falsehood. That is the essential position of Cass Sunstein, a University of Chicago law professor and friend of President Obama. Sunstein advocates infiltration of groups that seek a new investigation of 9/11, in order to disrupt those groups, 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 unconstitutional actions is that the groups he opposes as harmful must be suppressed. They must be suppressed because what they advocate endangers the state. It is the same self-righteousness that tyrants consistently use to cloak their power with fake legitimacy: we can do anything we like, because we have right on our side. We have to do these things to protect whatever public good we happen to advocate at the moment.

Cass Sunstein’s Conspiracy Theories illustrates this way of thinking. For a thorough deconstruction of Sunstein’s thinking, see David Ray Griffin’s Cognitive Infiltration: An Obama Appointee’s Plan to Undermine the 9/11 Conspiracy Theory. Sunstein’s essay looks impressive when you pick it up. It’s fitted out with an abstract, footnotes, and a bibliography. It’s also laced with authorial arrogance, as if he wants to add, “I don’t really want to spend that much time with this question, but in the end it’s important, so I’ll do it.”

The article discusses how we should respond to conspiracy theories. Because false conspiracy theories have pernicious effects, Sunstein says we can’t let them stand unchallenged. For instance, government should undermine accounts of 9/11 that suggest it was a false flag operation. We can’t let people believe in false theories that make them wonder whether the government is guilty of such criminal acts, Sunstein suggests. Sunstein wrote the paper not long before President Obama hired Sunstein to help him make the government look good.

The interesting thing about this paper, published in the Journal of Political Philosophy in 2009, is that Sunstein has nothing to say about how we tell whether or not a conspiracy theory is false. He acknowledges that some conspiracy theories are true, but suggests that most are false. He does not explain why government’s account of 9/11 – which maintains that enemies in Afghanistan conspired to attack New York City – qualifies as a true conspiracy theory. He believes other accounts of 9/11 – accounts that challenge the government’s conspiracy theory – to be false. Indeed, he compares other accounts to parents’ conspiracy theory about Santa Claus.

This latter comparison merely substitutes ridicule for argumentation. If you can paint your opponents as foolish, perhaps you do not need to engage them. Sunstein needs to explain why he thinks most conspiracy theories are false, and some are true. Without solid reasoning in that vein, Sunstein’s self assurance does him in.

One comparison we might consider is that between cognitive infiltration and old-fashioned, physical infiltration. Cognitive infiltration, in plain language, means to get inside someone’s head! You want to confuse people so they no longer feel sure about what is true and what is false. Then you can lead them to trust or at least accept government again, rather than fellow conspiracy theorists. Sowing confusion requires techniques that western democracies have generally not used against their own citizens.

Here Sunstein illustrates clearly how ungrounded self assurance results in a double standard. If you’re confident 9/11 conspiracy theories are false, and that they threaten the state’s foundations, you begin to think of ways to counteract their influence, even if your proposals are illegal. Sunstein’s concern about reputational harm from 9/11 conspiracy theories, makes him promote illegal conduct that would damage government’s reputation even more.

Deceptive logic

A second type of intellectual dishonesty is deceptive logic, and methods of inquiry that support such logic. Here Philip Zelikow, executive director of the 9/11 commission, serves as a good example. Zelikow 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 those you want to tackle first, and those you want to tackle later. You would not presuppose answers to any of your questions. You would, rather, think about what resources you need to locate in order to answer your questions. You might do the same kind of planning for your hypotheses: which ones will you tackle first, and what do you need to test them?

How did Zelikow accomplish these planning tasks? He wrote a detailed outline of the commission’s report before his investigators began their research. The outline did not contain any questions or hypotheses. It contained answers to questions. He had heard people ask, how could this happen, and how can we prevent it from happening again? Zelikow 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. The polite term for a report like that is a snow job, based on transparently dishonest logic. Less politely, one might call such an investigation a fraud, clothed in the prestige of government.


The last type of dishonesty is ridicule. People who use ridicule are hypocrites. They pretend to be better than you are, when they are not better. They use names as weapons, calling you a truther, or a denier, or behind your back, a conspiracy nut. A conspiracy nut does not deserve any attention at all, certainly not from superiors. Hypocrites consider themselves superior, for people who hold certain beliefs must be stupid. You see now why hypocrites and conspiracy nuts do not communicate with each other. Communication requires reciprocal respect. Hypocrites talk only to each other.

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Recognize these forms of dishonesty when you see them. With that recognition, you gain emotional resources to speak articulately when you encounter forceful people who practice these types of dishonesty. At a minimum, you can understand how their minds operate, and use that understanding to evaluate their arguments.