Making the case for intellectual honesty

I am currently reading Robert Winder’s Bloody Foreigners which catalogues the waves of immigrants into Britain over the last 2000 years, the good they have (largely) brought to our country and our (mostly dreadful) reaction to them.  In case you were wondering the title is intended to be ironic.

About half way through the book Winder describes how in the 19th century genuine racism started to take over from hostility to newcomers that was not based in any ideology or feelings of superiority.  This largely happened through a process of intellectual leaders giving a (pseudo)theory based underpinning to the notion that one race was superior to another.  But lots of people played their part, and I was particularly struck by this sentence:

Even poets did their bit: the sublime or transcendent possibilities attributed to the English countryside by Wordsworth and Coleridge gave winsome strength to the idea that ours was a blessed, character-building landscape – our ruined cottages and neglected abbeys glowed with virtue.

Generalising this we have a clear example of how celebrating something as somehow superior when in fact it is merely different carries the very real danger of casting alternatives as inferior.  This can take root in a nation’s, or a company’s, psyche and be very difficult to shift.

I am a big fan of intellectual honesty and integrity, and I write this post to illustrate the dangers of not following this path.  It is not uncommon in companies to find patterns of behaviour celebrated as the ‘company XYZ way’ – that is great if they genuinely contribute to competitive advantage, but if, as is often the case they are merely different, then such celebration will blinker employees and possibly management to the alternatives.  That can be devastating inhibitor to change, particularly in times like these.

  • Nic

    I used to do a lot of turnaround / biz redesign work – the worst were the companies that had once been successful doing what they did, but then something changes and it don’t work anymore.

    Problem is, the old way is ingrained – I liken it to setting course on a big sailing ship – you can’t just turn the wheel, you have to have crew skilled enough to reset all the sails – but in stable times people tend to forget (or companies get rid of those people )

    Re intellectual honesty, I am also concerned about the tendency in Tech to hype stuff and to drink kool aid without observing (or admitting to) contrary evidence..

  • Nic

    I used to do a lot of turnaround / biz redesign work – the worst were the companies that had once been successful doing what they did, but then something changes and it don’t work anymore.

    Problem is, the old way is ingrained – I liken it to setting course on a big sailing ship – you can’t just turn the wheel, you have to have crew skilled enough to reset all the sails – but in stable times people tend to forget (or companies get rid of those people )

    Re intellectual honesty, I am also concerned about the tendency in Tech to hype stuff and to drink kool aid without observing (or admitting to) contrary evidence..

  • You might enjoy the analogy at the start of the following piece:

    http://www.b-list.org/weblog/2008/dec/05/python-3000/

    It’s not directly relevant, but it’s nice and ties into the blinkered “that’s how we’ve always done it” theme.

    Terry

  • You might enjoy the analogy at the start of the following piece:

    http://www.b-list.org/weblog/2008/dec/05/python-3000/

    It’s not directly relevant, but it’s nice and ties into the blinkered “that’s how we’ve always done it” theme.

    Terry

  • Hi Nic,
    Great post. I wonder if in talking about intellectual honesty, you are saying that what is important is to make sure to keep an eye on objective measures as well as subjective thoughts and feelings. Part of my interest over the last couple of years in positive psychology is that it is focused on finding, through empirically based methods, what makes people happy, and helps us succeed in life – as opposed to pop psychology or most "self help" which uses anecdotal evidence, but almost always lacks the empirical evidence.

    I think what you might be getting at is that companies should remain based in the empirical evidence realm. This is what intellectual honesty is. When an objective measure starts to indicate that a way of doing business no longer works, then you must look at why, and how to change it – regardless of if it still feels subjectively like the right way to do things. It may feel that way simply because of habit!

  • Hi Nic,
    Great post. I wonder if in talking about intellectual honesty, you are saying that what is important is to make sure to keep an eye on objective measures as well as subjective thoughts and feelings. Part of my interest over the last couple of years in positive psychology is that it is focused on finding, through empirically based methods, what makes people happy, and helps us succeed in life – as opposed to pop psychology or most "self help" which uses anecdotal evidence, but almost always lacks the empirical evidence.

    I think what you might be getting at is that companies should remain based in the empirical evidence realm. This is what intellectual honesty is. When an objective measure starts to indicate that a way of doing business no longer works, then you must look at why, and how to change it – regardless of if it still feels subjectively like the right way to do things. It may feel that way simply because of habit!

  • nic

    Thanks for the comments guys.

    Alan – you make good points, and having a collective misperception of the facts is obviously very dangerous, but remember also that many entrepreneurs are successful precisely because they push on and continue to believe in their visions when to other people it looks like the contrary evidence is overwhelming.

    Terry – great article, thanks. It illustrates my point perfectly.

    Sean – using metrics to drive a business is in general a good thing (clearly) and if done well can leave little room for intellectual dishonesty – but they are not the whole answer. Some things don’t lend themselves to measurement and it is of course possible to measure the wrong things.

  • nic

    Thanks for the comments guys.

    Alan – you make good points, and having a collective misperception of the facts is obviously very dangerous, but remember also that many entrepreneurs are successful precisely because they push on and continue to believe in their visions when to other people it looks like the contrary evidence is overwhelming.

    Terry – great article, thanks. It illustrates my point perfectly.

    Sean – using metrics to drive a business is in general a good thing (clearly) and if done well can leave little room for intellectual dishonesty – but they are not the whole answer. Some things don’t lend themselves to measurement and it is of course possible to measure the wrong things.