The Need for Intellectual Accountability – A Student Perspective

… an Atlas blog post

Nick Dalla Guarda, 29 March 2017

Intellectual accountability is the practice of intellectual honesty in academic institutions and beyond.

Harvard Medical School ethicist Louis M Guenin (reference below) defines “intellectual honesty” as a virtuous “disposition of an agent such that when presented with an incentive to deceive in any way, the agent will not deceive.” While this definition may be quite amorphous, it has several practical implications for the study and practice of public policy, including (but not limited to) the following:

1. When studying or promoting public policies, logical fallacies must be strictly avoided, or identified and deconstructed when confronted with them. Some logical fallacies are simply evidence of intellectual laziness – a failure to conduct research or an inability to see the argument behind the speaker – but intellectual fallacies can also be deployed for more nefarious ends, such as concealing or justifying the exercise of power.

  • Consider, for instance, how logical fallacies can creep into logic models used in the program evaluation of public policies, and how the free exchange of ideas is the only way to ensure such errors are identified and corrected as soon as possible.
  • Consider, in topics such as Diversity, Identity, and Rights, what role arguments with appeals to emotion, victimhood, or partisan norms have or should have in the post-secondary study of public policy?

2. Every argument or idea one disagrees with is an opportunity to engage with, learn about, and reaffirm the truth – not to mention sharpen your own arguments. One need not reach back to John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty or into the jurisprudence of the Supreme Court of Canada to understand the need for the free flow of ideas in democratic societies.

Some may counter that this starts from an erroneous position, given that power distorts the interpersonal (and linguistic) dynamics colouring most (if not all) social and intellectual interactions. If this is the case, then exposing that power imbalance is a necessary, but certainly not sufficient, facet of speaking truth to power and confronting the argument on its merits. This does not make social inequality or power imbalance an argument in itself.

3. Therefore, in order to remain intellectually honest and accountable, and to pursue the truth in as vigorous a manner as possible, public policy arguments should aspire towards (among other things):

  • The Kantian formula of universality: consider what would happen if your opinion became a universal law, enforceable everywhere, on everyone, forever.
  • Precision in terms/operationalizability: are your arguments only aspirational, or can they be put into practice? If the latter, what would be the results? If the former, state that openly and ask yourself what this brings to the argument.
  • Challenging commonly held beliefs and the structure of your own arguments: ask whether your opinions are in line with the evidence. Furthermore, ask if how they are presented will persuade decision makers, impress superiors, or justify resource (re)allocations.
  • Ground your arguments in evidence: this is the hard part, and where students of public policy must draw on their interdisciplinary training and do the “homework” needed to have their position thought out, counterarguments ready, and empirical evidence at hand.

These issues are critically important for public policy, given its potential to shape or channel public (and private) resources and power. Public policy operates in an interdisciplinary realm, with academic terms which are susceptible to manipulation and without any higher-order professional obligations, making a deep commitment to intellectual accountability absolutely indispensable.


Louis M. Guenin, Intellectual Honesty, Synthese, Vol. 145, No. 2, “Candor in Science” (June 2005), pp. 177-232 at 217.

Author: Nicola (Nick) Dalla Guarda received a BA in political science and European Studies from the University of Toronto in 2010 and a Juris Doctor from Osgoode Hall Law School in 2014. He is currently an MPP2018 student at the School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Toronto. Nick welcomes comment on this post and can be reached at

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified 29 March 2017.

Image: from Ganesh Subramanian, LinkedIn, at, accessed 29 March 2017.