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An Honest Man!

The Greek philosopher Diogenes is famous for carrying a lantern during the day, claiming he was “searching for an honest man”. Yet again, we have an example of a commonly-accepted story being not (or not quite) right. In this case, the source is thought to be Diogenes Laërtius (no relation, so far as I could find), which says "ἄνθρωπον ζητῶ", which is simply “I am looking for a man”. That said, the implication is that he found himself surrounded by rascals and scoundrels, so the translation is not too far off, in context.

Most people talk about the importance of honesty, but many fall into one (or both) of two traps.

First, is the idea that honesty is brutal or mean. In recent years, “I’m just being honest” has often been used as an excuse for savage criticism by judges in talent competitions (which I will not name). So far as I am concerned, it is simply not necessary to break Rule One: “Don’t be a jerk”, and it is not only possible, but vastly preferable to provide feedback in a kind way, though it seems that almost every talent competition has a judge who uses “just being honest” as an excuse. (I consider this a rather sad comment on our current society)

You can be honest without being cruel, and you can provide constructive criticism without being a jerk. All of that said, the criticism might not be invalid, so it’s always good to listen. Turn it around in your head and try to strip out the nasty parts to see if there is anything left. If there isn’t, just ignore the whole thing, but even a jerk can make a good point, so try to see if you can take some useful feedback.

And then, of course, you have the people who simply lie and twist the truth in ways that boggle the mind. The current reigning champion of this seems to be Tucker Carlson, who has his own page on RationalWiki, and who features prominently on Right Wing Watch, both of which provide extensive evidence of any comments made.

In my mind, honesty is about being consistent and acting in an open, ethical, and evidence-based way. Check on things, even (especially?) if you think you are right. As I have discovered while writing this blog, you’re probably going to be wrong sometimes, but if you consider being wrong an opportunity to learn rather than a failure, you will be able to grow from it. Ask yourself how you know. Ask yourself what evidence might convince you of a different point of view. Listen to people you disagree with, listen to the evidence (or lack thereof), and see if the disagreement is a matter of opinion or a matter of fact.

As one example, Kellyanne Conway defended a demonstrably-false statement by Press Secretary Sean Spicer, by commenting that Spicer was providing “alternative facts.” The further you dig into that, the more problematic the whole situation seems.

As another example, I listened to the latest episode of The Allusionist, which is a wonderful podcast about language. On episode #154 (“Objectivity”), the guest Louis Raven Wallace said that he did not “believe in objectivity”.

My initial reaction was that this was theoretically true, but not really very useful. At the relativistic or quantum levels, perspective is vital, but most of the time, you will get the same results from the same inputs, and then...

Well, then I listened a bit more. He was looking at this in terms of journalism, and the way that the term “objectivity” is used to pretend a lack of bias or to provide “balance” in reporting. As an example, some media outlets will try to “balance” a discussion about climate change between a scientist reporting the consensus of the scientific community and someone offering debunked conspiracy theories or misinformation. This is not balance, but rather “balance theatre” which acts as if these two perspectives are equally valid. Rubbish.

After a while, I realized that, while I had some minor disagreements about some of the points made, I agreed with the overall point. And if I had simply stopped listening once I heard something I disagreed with, I’d have learned nothing.

Honesty really is the best policy... if you do it right.



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