Skepticism vs Cynicism
The line between skepticism and cynicism is a bit too blurry for many people. Today we bring it into focus.
by Brian Dunning
September 26, 2017
Skeptical conclusions are often unpopular ones. That's why skepticism toward them was needed: whenever there's an idea that many people accept despite evidence to the contrary, it's usually because their support is ideology-driven. And when support for an idea is ideological, findings that the idea does not hold up are often met with hostility. I get this after every weekly show: my skeptical conclusion is rejected by some, often based on ideology.
It's important to recognize that nobody thinks their beliefs are wrong — that would violate the definition of a belief. Most people who hold fringe beliefs are aware that others do not embrace them — cue the familiar position "Scientists don't accept this idea because they can't fit it into their worldview." In short, when we observe that others disagree with our beliefs, logic mandates that it is they who are wrong. Beliefs are those ideas that we believe to be true. Therefore we cannot accept that a genuinely skeptical process of following the evidence would show our beliefs to be untrue. When someone disputes our beliefs, and claims to have arrived at that conclusion skeptically, we know they're wrong. We determine that their process was not skeptical, but cynical.
So, each week, I get emails from people who tell me I wasn't skeptical enough when I attacked their sacred cow, and that I defaulted to the easy position of cynicism. Had I been more skeptical and open-minded, they say, I would have come to see the truth. I'm cynical about reflexology. I'm cynical about alien visitation. I'm cynical about faith healing or psychic premonition or the value of detox cleanses.
Cynicism is like pornography in that it can be hard to define, but we know it when we see it. It can be defaulting to a position of negativity. It can be the assumption of negative motives. It can mean putting our own position on a pedestal and laughing off every other position. This is when cynicism is the most tempting: we hold a position we know (or believe) to be true, and someone else expresses a position that's the opposite. We tend to react with a negative view toward that person's position, without thinking whether we should question our own position.
There are a number of circumstances in which someone like me, who tries to be responsibly skeptical, gets accused of being only a mere cynic. Obviously one of the circumstances would be when I actually am being cynical. I do it, we all do. More than we should. But when I'm here in my chair, working carefully and double checking myself, never speaking off the cuff and always with a chance to go back and edit myself, it's pretty rare.
But if that is what happened — if a listener caught me asleep at the wheel and being cynical — that still wouldn't make my conclusions wrong. All it would prove is that I just didn't try very hard to make sure it's right.
Another such circumstance under which I am called a cynic is when I voice a conclusion that differs from some listener's preferred conclusion. Calling me a cynic is an easy way to dismiss my process that led me to the unwanted conclusion. It suggests that I just waved my hand at some idea that contradicted my own preferred dogma, and I said some negative stuff about it. You see, if my negativity toward the idea is due to mere cynicism rather than to responsible skepticism, the door is left open for the idea to still meet scientific standards. So leveling that charge against me is a pretty attractive prospect.
However, merely accusing me of cynicism instead of skepticism simply because you didn't like what I had to say is, itself, cynical. It is the assumption of a negative motivation on my part, or at the very least the assumption of intellectual laziness. I get this a lot from 9/11 truthers and other conspiracy theorists. They often accuse me of not being skeptical enough about the government. By dismissing their preferred conspiracy theory, they say I am being cynical and not skeptical. A truly skeptical analysis, they say — an examination of the government's processes based on proven evidence — would reveal the government to be a slick, well-oiled, watertight disinformation machine. They say.
I do not agree that evidence proves the government, and all the tens of thousands of people of which it consists, routinely operates as a well-disciplined unit to spread finely-tuned lies of massive proportions, and to organize the murders of thousands of citizens, with everyone willfully participating in lockstep. It's true that evidence proves small, cohesive groups within the government will sometimes cross lines and break laws, like the Watergate break-in and the Iran-Contra scandal, because they are often caught and prosecuted. But anything much larger would be checked and balanced even more quickly than those were. Our two-party system and three branches of government are eagle-eyed on the lookout for breaches by their counterparts. It's the big political win they're all looking for, in addition to being fundamentally ethical. It's just not realistic to think that any organization so complex and strung-out and full of conflicting interests could ever operate in such a cooperative manner to break so many laws and kill so many people with everyone thinking it's a good idea and without a single person ever blowing a whistle. To regard that many people as so uniformly evil is about as cynical as it's possible to be. Yet, many of the 9/11 truthers who email me state that uniform evil should be the default assumption about government — the null hypothesis, if you will. Unless I take the position of maximum possible cynicism, I'm not being skeptical enough. Well, I disrespectfully disagree.
Skepticism reveals many flaws in government, and in other systems. Cynicism sees only flaws everywhere.
However, let's change gears, and look at some cases where I think cynicism might actually be the appropriate response. When we think about a subject that involves the paranormal, such as ghosts or psychic powers or energy therapies — fields that have been exhaustively tested against rigorous standards for decades and failed 100% of the time — some cynicism is justified. I don't mean that it's the best way to approach these topics, only that it's a justified approach. The chances that they are real are so small as to be indistinguishable from zero. Here's where I might reference episode 530, "No, You Shouldn't Question Everything". We have applied so much skepticism to these topics, and come up with the same answer so many times, that it's simply no longer worth the effort to question them further. Being skeptical about reiki is a waste of skepticism. Philosophical imperatives of intellectual integrity demand that we treat reiki with responsible, open-minded skepticism; but basic pragmatism and common sense tell us that we'll be just fine if we give it a nice cynical pat-on-the-back on its way out the door.
In this sense, cynicism can be a heuristic. This is one interpretation of the point Bertrand Russell was making when he posed the thought experiment of claiming, without evidence, that a teapot orbits the Sun between the Earth and Mars. It has no reasonable chance of validity, and so it hasn't really earned the right to skeptical analysis. It's when we apply Hitchens' Razor: "What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence". The absolute vacuum of evidence for Russell's teapot renders any careful skepticism uselessly premature. It leaves room only for pure, unadulterated cynicism. And that cynicism is absolutely justified in cases like this.
But note how high that bar is set. Cynicism can be justified when there is no plausible likelihood that the concept is real. Maybe that's because it's made-up and silly, like Russell's teapot; or because it's failed hundreds or thousands of tests and never had any credibility to begin with, like our paranormal claims. But such concepts as these sit in a class of their own. Few of the ideas that intelligent adults debate meet that high bar for the justification of cynicism. Most of our ideas are at least debatable. The things that we actually talk about with our friends, ideas in which intelligent, educated people see potential value, are not in that class. I would include, in this class, concepts that we typically think of as "settled science", such as climate change, vaccination, fluoridation, and the value of paying a premium for organic produce. For all of these, there are arguments that are counter to the accepted scientific perspective but that are still within the ballpark of scientific plausibility. There is at least something intelligent to talk about. And whenever an intelligent subject is on the table, any expressed cynicism betrays a foolish lack of skepticism.
It's perhaps an unfortunate bit of collateral damage from doing what I do for a living that I can see pseudoscience coming a mile away. Say there's an advertisement for some new home medical device, such as one I was shown recently, which was a wand with some blue LED lights in it. You're supposed to brush this wand over your head and it cures baldness. Supposedly. I've done episodes on unapproved medical devices. I've done episodes on baldness cures. I've done episodes on why people believe things work when the evidence clearly shows they don't. And I'm super familiar with all the most common marketing terms that charlatans slap onto their ads for such products. So I rolled my eyes and knew, without even looking at any studies, that this thing was 100% bogus and fraudulent, and I knew that the company would still make a million dollars because it's so effortless to sell magically easy solutions to desperate people dealing with difficult problems. Now, let's be clear: that reaction of mine was purely cynical. It may have been informed cynicism, because I do know the field of pseudoscience as well as anyone on the planet; but it was still cynical. I'm not a trained medical professional, I don't keep up with the hair restoration journals, and it's entirely possible that someone found some specific wavelength or some attenuation frequency that has some actual physical effect. It's not very likely, but the fact is that hair restoration is outside of my core competence and I should give it the skeptical consideration it's due.
So there's my honest confession for you. I react with great cynicism to almost every new topic idea that comes across my desk. But, fortunately for Skeptoid listeners, the show is not about Brian's Personal Reaction. If I think the topic is enlightening enough to warrant a show, I will do the research. I will not cherrypick. I will deliberately search for credible results that contradict my preconceived notion. I've been surprised before by what I've found, and I will be surprised again. I will organize what I find into as engaging a narrative as I can. This is what I do for a living, and I do it as well as I'm able to. I enjoy it. I'm lucky to have the opportunity to do this. And one of the ways I insure that opportunity is to promise to leave my personal cynicism outside, and keep Skeptoid skeptical.
By Brian Dunning
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Skepticism vs Cynicism." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
26 Sep 2017. Web.
20 May 2018. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4590>
References & Further Reading
Andreycak, W. Skepticism or Cynicism: Attitudinal Impacts of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report on Young Americans. Burlington: University of Vermont, 2014.
Dick, T., Taigman, M. "Fine line, big difference. Are you skeptical or cynical?" Emergency Medical Services. 1 Feb. 2007, Volume 36, Number 2: 26.
Gower, B., Stokes, M. Socratic Questions: New Essays on the Philosophy of Socrates and Its Significance. London: Routledge, 1992.
Hoshiko, T. "Responsible conduct of scientific research: a one-semester course for graduate students." American Journal of Physiology. 1 Jun. 1993, Number 264: S8-S10.
Nardi, P. "Critical Thinker Explains Skepticism vs Cynicism." Pacific Standard. The Social Justice Foundation, 13 Oct. 2011. Web. 21 Sep. 2017. <https://psmag.com/social-justice/critical-thinker-explains-skepticism-vs-cynicism-36923>
Novella, S. "Skepticism vs Cynicism." Skepticblog. Skeptologist Partners, 19 Dec. 2011. Web. 21 Sep. 2017. <http://www.skepticblog.org/2011/12/19/skepticism-vs-cynicism/>
Wittgenstein, L. On Certainty. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969.
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