Skepticism and Cynicism

Apparently, cynics wear robes made of stone. No wonder they think everything's going down the crapper. The last time they bought new clothing, their robes kept them from moving for millennia...

When I first told my friend Charlie that I was going off to my first drinking skeptically, he asked me if we were just going to sit around “thinking about nothing.”  I had to point out to Charlie at that point that he was confusing skepticism with nihilism, which is weird, especially when you think about the fact that everyone else confuses skepticism with cynicism.  Which is also not correct.  As you probably know though, most folks out there don’t really understand what skepticism is.  I’m sure you’ve had to explain it to them when telling them what your views are, I know I have.  It’s a hard thing to grasp at first, and I’m going to put this out there right now, I think the knee-jerk confusion of skepticism and cynicism is there for a reason.  It’s been discussed on the JREF, it’s been talked about on Yahoo! Answers, it’s even been picked up by certain newspapers, the delineation between skepticism and cynicism is fraught for a reason.  I think that as skeptics, we are constantly in danger of becoming cynics.

I think that it comes from how often we say “no” to things.  We say acupuncture has no efficacy, we say homeopathy could only possibly work if we break a few laws of physics, we say reflexology is a homunculus technique which seems to be disproven by people surviving the removal of their feet, just saying that alternative medicine doesn’t work seems to be a quick and easy short hand.  Usually, that blanket statement is correct. But that isn’t a skeptical statement, it’s a cynical one, because we haven’t examined every single alternative medicine and we can’t even say that any of them that we have absolutely will never work.  All we can say is that whenever we’ve tested them, they haven’t worked and we’re fairly certain that trend will continue.

This is what is hard about skepticism.  By embracing scientific methodology, we admit that all of our statements are conditional.  Our methodology can prove, but it cannot disprove.  To truly do skepticism justice, we need to approach each new situation with fresh eyes, keeping aware of our previous experiences but also accepting that this one time, the remarkably improbable may occur.

Cynicism is easier.  It’s less work and it leads to less disappointment, because when we’re cynics we never allow anything to be more than impossible.  But cynicism can also lead to hopelessness.  It can make us give up before any of the evidence is in.

Recently, I wrote about how I might be making a westward migration.  I tried to be guarded about it, but I wanted it to happen and I let myself get swept into the possibility.  This week, when I received a firm “it’s not happening,” I was devastated.  Honestly, I still am.  And there’s this huge part of my brain which is saying that the biggest mistake I made was to not surrender to my cynicism, that if I’d never hoped for it to happen, it wouldn’t have messed me up when it didn’t.  And that same part of me is telling me that’s how I should act in the future.  But the part of my brain that’s skeptical is telling me the cynicism is wrong.  This experiment has not been run in every conceivable situation, an therefore to presuppose an outcome is folly.

Cynicism is an easy game.  It requires no emotional input and no experimentation.  If your cynicism is proven to be wrong, that means there’s something nice out there, and if you’re right you get to be smug about it.  Skepticism is hard.  You always have to leave open the possibility that you’re wrong, and nothing is known until the data comes in.  Even then, we only know how things probably work.  But skepticism also tells us that there’s a reason to be hopeful, because it’s always possible that things will work out as we want them too.  Maybe not this time, but that might just mean we need to run the experiment again.  Granted, let’s look at prior plausibility and not spend out whole lives trying to show that homeopathy could work on some particular Thursday in November, but if the data comes in, we owe it to ourselves to take a look at it.

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1 comment to Skepticism and Cynicism

  • I mostly agree with you, Quixo, but I have two quibbles about what you’re saying.

    One is with the statement that science can prove, but not disprove; it’s a standard argument used against us by “believers”, and it’s not true. We absolutely can disprove some things. If you tell me, for example, that a rock dropped from a height of 50 feet will take 2 hours to hit the ground, we can go do a few experiments and disprove that.

    What we can’t disprove are vague statements, things with maybes and sometimeses, stuff that allows for mysterious forces and interventions. If you tell me that some rocks dropped from a height of 50 feel will sometimes take two hours to hit the ground, well, no, we can’t disprove that. We can show that we can’t produce that effect in our lab, and we can show the physics that such a rock would have to violate, but if you insist that you have seen it happen, we can’t say, definitively, that you haven’t.

    In particular, we can’t disprove most medical treatments, where even those “proven” effective only work sometimes. We can show repeatedly in controlled studies that acupuncture isn’t effective, but we have no definitive response to the guy who says, “Well, it worked for me.”

    That brings me to the second quibble, which is that I don’t think “Alternative medicine doesn’t work,” is just shorthand. I do think that when referring to medicine, “doesn’t work” is shorthand, in general, for “has not been shown to be effective.” Apart from that, medical treatments divide into two groups: those that have been shown to be effective, and those that haven’t. We call the first group “medicine”. What we call “alternative medicine” is a subset of the second group. Once something is shown to be effective, it ceases to be “alternative”.

    I don’t think that’s a minor point, either. It’s important to point out that treatments once considered alternative, if proven effective move to the side of “real” medicine. That, then, means that “Alternative treatment X works, therefore you shouldn’t be skeptical of alternative medicine,” is not a valid defense of alternative medicine.

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