Sinful Silence: Intellectual Honesty and the Virtues of Vocalizing Dissent

“The core of science is not controlled experiment or mathematical modeling; it is intellectual honesty.”

Sam Harris

Public intellectuals should be humble, open, erudite, and perhaps even witty, but more important than all of these, they should be intellectually honest. That might strike one as banal. Of course they shouldn’t lie. But intellectual honesty is not a simple abstention from mendacities; it is also a positive commitment to telling the truth, to the best of one’s ability, about controversial and even taboo topics.

For most of human history and still in many countries today, telling the truth could imperil one’s life and family. The costs were extraordinary. In the contemporary West, things are not so grim. Few have to fear death or confinement. But honesty might very well cost a person prestige and even a career. Those who do not question orthodoxies might not understand this, for just as a person only feels his prison when he presses against the walls, so too a person only knows the boundaries of acceptable discourse when he challenges them. But the pushback, the resistance, is real and potentially severe.

So what does one do when faced with the dilemma of believing the taboo position is likely correct or that the orthodoxy is likely wrong?

I have talked to many people — and I would say that most academics fall into this category — who have opinions, even scientific opinions, which they keep private. And I understand. Many of these people have families. And some employ others. Honesty might cost them a job; it might cost their employees their jobs.

Still public intellectuals should strive to behave according to a principle that Arthur Jensen articulated: one’s public opinions on serious scientific and political topics should match one’s private opinions. In other words, one should be intellectually transparent. Of course, this doesn’t mean that one needs to divulge secrets or betray confidences; and it doesn’t mean that one has to tell one’s mother that her cooking is awful. White lies and silence have their place. I am only referring to opinions about consequential intellectual topics — about science, morality, and politics.

We face a collective action problem. It’s better for each individual intellectual to remain quiet about controversial beliefs, hoping that somebody else speaks up and moves the public narrative toward the truth. That way, the silent ones don’t lose status, but somebody still pushes the dialogue in the right direction. But, of course, each somebody thinks the same thing: “I am just going to sit this one out and let somebody else say it.” And so each somebody is silent. And then everybody is silent and lies, errors, and misinformation spread like cobwebs in an unused attic.

The only way out of this is to value truth for its own sake — to applaud truth and to reward those who promote it, regardless of how temporarily unpleasant it might be. Of course, intellectual honesty should also be coupled with intellectual humility. One could always be wrong. And the orthodoxy might be the orthodoxy for quite legitimate scientific or philosophical reasons. But humility is no excuse for silence. Those who are lucky enough to get paid to be intellectuals should strive to be intellectually transparent, to forward their views as honestly as possibly, while of course acknowledging uncertainty.

Practically, we can all contribute to more honesty by publicly applauding intellectuals such as Charles Murray and Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan and Amy Wax and Noah Carl who have faced scurrilous personal attacks and opprobrium for forwarding their honest views about controversial issues. There are many public intellectuals, but few with such courage. I don’t, of course, agree with everything they have said or written. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that each has contributed to a more honest conversation about important issues by voicing taboo opinions.

But I am dubious that this strategy will ever make intellectual honesty more lucrative, more materially or socially rewarding, than strategic dishonesty and silence. So ultimately it is about looking at oneself in the mirror. Prestige and accolades might feel good, but like transient pleasure of the flesh, they can easily seduce one’s soul to damnation. Whether there is an afterlife or not, there is indeed an inner life. Intellectual honesty and transparency might offer nothing more than a clear conscience. But, upon consideration, that’s a rather rich reward after all.

I’m interested in evolutionary psychology, history, baseball, and poetry. Wayward graduate student of Florida State University.