Intellectual Dishonesty

21 Apr

There’s a phrase that I’ve really come to dislike when I hear it, particularly from Christians. The simple phrase that literally causes a tense pain to run down my back is: “I’ve studied both sides”.

It seems like I hear this phrase often when I’m in discussion with people about everything from theological to political issues. The person often appears to be trying to communicate something like this: “You can trust me as an authority on this issue because I am open minded and have come to a conclusion based on a balanced approach to the issue, carefully researching all the arguments”. If that’s the truth, then great! I want to talk with you more, and learn from you any knowledge you may have to share to help me be more discerning about the topic. Iron sharpens iron. (Proverbs 27:17)

However, what I’ve found that it actually means is more along the lines of either:
(a) “I’m insecure about my knowledge of this issue, so I’m throwing this statement out hoping you will just believe me” or
(b) “I really believe that I’ve studied both sides because I’ve read authors that support my position and they quote from the opposing views, and then demonstrate why those views are wrong, so I must be educated on the opposite position too”.

The first one doesn’t really concern me near as much. For one, I certainly understand motivation that is derived from personal insecurity, as I struggled with it for many years. And two, that person really doesn’t actually believe what they’re saying, so hopefully they can learn from the experience of being challenged, and study the issue further (and also hopefully eventually apologize for lying).

Its the second one that really makes my skin crawl. When someone says to me “I’ve studied both sides” I admit, I get very frustrated because of my past experience with this phrase. I still always try to be gentle and kind, as Christ would want me to be, but I usually (though not always) try to challenge them. Not to win the argument, but to point out the intellectual dishonesty. It’s a simple challenge, I just ask “What authors have you read on the subject?” Rarely does someone recall them. I get all kinds of excuses usually around them not remembering the names because its been so long, or they weren’t paying attention, etc. So then, I typically offer a way out and ask “How many books or papers promoting the opposite subject have you read?” If I take it to that question, I have almost always discovered that, just as I noted in the second motivation above, the person has only read what advocates of their view have written criticizing the opposing view. (By the way, I try not to feel a sense of satisfaction as I listen to the person stumbling over their words. God is still helping me work on that one.) Once in a while, I get someone who then admits that they’ve read very little of the other side. This is at least a step in the right direction.

“Wise men store up knowledge, but the mouth of a fool invites ruin.” (Proverbs 10:14, NIV)
The reason I get so frustrated is that its just a big fat lie. And as a result of that lie, a number of things could happen. Here’s one example: The person we say it to may trust us on the issue, perhaps because we have been trustworthy and knowledgeable about other subjects as well. The person then becomes an advocate for the issue. Then time goes by and the person begins reading more about the subject and dialoging with us; then they learn that we lied. And what if this person also just so happens to be on the fence about becoming a Christian, and we have been the main witness in their life. Ouch. This is a pretty extreme example, but as often as people use the phrase or some variance of it, no doubt this situation has occurred.
Take perhaps the other extreme, maybe the person is even right about the position they are arguing for. Does that make the harm done any less? No because that still doesn’t make the lie ok. The fact is they don’t know that they’re right, but they are making a false statement and not speaking the truth when they say they’ve studied both sides.

There’s probably one other motivation going on as well. It always gives us more confidence in something we believe in, but maybe have hidden doubts, when it is believed by others. We probably (though fallaciously) think that the more people that believe it, the more trustworthy it can be. But that still doesn’t make it right.

Not only are we attempting to fool others when we use this phrase in this way, but we are also fooling ourselves if we actually believe that we’ve studied an opposing point of view by solely reading criticisms of it. The only way to really understand both sides of an issue is to study both sides of the issue! In fact, if I know I’m heading into a debate, I often try to make sure I know the other side as good, or even better than I know my own view.

I’m not saying we need to study every little issue, because some views are just intuitively stupid. If someone came to you today advocating that the earth was flat, you don’t need to spend any time reading their arguments. But Paul said to “Test all things; hold fast what is good” (1 Thess 5:21, NKJV). He meant that we should put to the test what we see and hear by examining it, and when we find truth, we should hold on to it. How can we really test things if we only come at them from one side?

Finally, I should note that I probably use the phrase myself. I know I have in the past, most likely for the first motivation I mentioned, but probably at some point for the second as well. Yet, now if I do ever use it, I would hope that I only do when I mean it. I try to follow the Bible’s advice “The simple believes every word, but the prudent considers well his steps.” (Proverbs 14:15 NKJV)

The bottom line is we can’t be effective lights of truth if we can’t even be honest amongst ourselves. So the next time you think about saying “I’ve studied both sides” please only say it if you really mean it.

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