Skeptic or Cynic?
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | July 25, 2021
Skeptics are open to new knowledge. Cynics are closed, rejecting everything.
Some people constantly and confidently speak foolishly, expressing thoughts without facts and judgements without cause. Often, these same people are aghast when many skeptically challenge readily their madness.
Wisdom requires we skeptically examine claims of truth, slowly considering facts and weighing contradictions. Skepticism is good. Here at Flourishing Life Society, we have touted the virtues of skeptical thought for over a decade. Yet, skepticism has a cousin that isn't so virtuous. The cynic shares some of the same characteristics, however, in practice, they are opposites. The skeptic curiously and courageously investigates with an open mind. The cynic is closed to information challenging preconceived ideas.
The skeptic is a seeker after truth; an open-minded inquirer who has not yet arrived at a definite conviction.
"Skeptic" is derived from a Greek word meaning "questioning" or "thoughtful." Healthy skepticism leads to belief or acceptance only when the fact has been proved beyond a reasonable doubt. So, skepticism is a process of learning, weeding out flimsy claims of fact, before holding to a belief with conviction.
Skepticism isn't a rejection of knowledge; but a love of knowledge. This includes knowledge that challenges previously held beliefs. Learning doesn't simply fill voids where no knowledge exists; often learning entails replacing and updating previously held knowledge.
The Difference Between Skepticism and Cynicism
The cynic rejects anything contrary to their current beliefs. The cynic is disposed to find fault. The skeptic is inclined to view the issue from multiple angles and contexts. The Associated Press Stylebook has a simple differentiation: "A skeptic is a doubter. A cynic is a disbeliever" (Perlman, 2018).
The cynic rejects everything contradicting previous held beliefs without reasonable examination.
We are biased. We can't help it. Our brains rely on held knowledge to organize and assimilate new facts. We filter the world to smoothly integrate incoming facts into our belief systems. This is nothing new. Jesus points this out candidly, "ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel" (Matthew 23:24 KJV).
Thomas Gilovich, a professor of psychology at Cornell University, wrote "information that is consistent with our pre-existing beliefs is often accepted at face value, whereas evidence that contradicts them is critically scrutinized and discounted" (1993). If the information is consistent, we swallow the whole damn camel. However, when it contradicts, we choke on the gnat.
For most knowledge, there is no right or wrong, just different subjective views. An honest skepticism often uncovers the opposing but plausible interpretations, seeing how the facts may fit into opposing narratives differently.
Nietzsche wrote at length on perspectives and truth. Philosopher and writer, Dan Garro, explains that for Nietzsche, "there is no objective truth to be discovered, but only what is true given a certain perspective or way of looking at things." Garro continues, "when we realize this, we become more aware of the role of tacit beliefs, biases, convictions, and values in shaping the world we come to accept as given. It makes us more accepting of different narratives, different perspectives, because we have an easier time recognizing that no one perspective has it perfectly right" (2021).
Not All Bias is Bad
Gilovich artfully explains, "not all bias is a bad thing; indeed, a certain amount is absolutely essential. The power and flexibility with which we reason depends upon our ability to use context, generic knowledge, and pre-existing information to disambiguate and extract meaning from new information—and, to some degree, to bias our interpretation of evidence" (1993).
The danger comes when we take the bias too far. We allow it to place a stranglehold on learning, protecting against discomfort by closing our minds to new possibilities and differing contexts.
Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson wrote, "complex inner truths ever emerge from the darkness." We must let the light in, curiously examining conflicting explanations. Tavris and Aronson explain, "when a story is repeated often enough, it becomes so familiar that it chips away at a person's initial skepticism." However, they proclaim, "every once in a while someone steps forward to speak up for truth, even when the truth gets in the way of a good, self-justifying story."
"It's not easy," they warn, "because it means taking a fresh, skeptical look at the comforting memory we have lived by, scrutinizing it from every angle for its plausibility, and, no matter how great the ensuing dissonance, letting go of it" (2020).
Knowledge not yet gained exhilarates the soul. We gaze into a much larger world as we graciously and skeptically examine ever expanding theories.
Cynicism often invades from intellectual exhaustion. Either life has outmatched with every hope dashed against hard realities or we just can't process the shear amount of junk slung at us. We just give up trying to skeptically examine the the piles of foul smelling rubbish for a few morsels of trustworthy and worthwhile information.
Michiko Kakutani wrote in his 2018 book that "cynicism and weariness and fear can make people susceptible to the lies and false promises of leaders bent on unconditional power." He continues, "the sensationalism and cynicism that blast unrelenting from social media accounts leads to outrage. The "outrage gives way to outrage fatigue, which gives way to the sort of cynicism and weariness that empowers those disseminating the lies" (Location 1284).
Its not that we're too lazy to think. We are too exhausted to think. We swallow the camel and move on, paying the price later.
Developing Healthy Skepticism
Gilovich suggests that "the most general and most important mental habit to instill is an appreciation of the folly of trying to draw conclusions from incomplete and unrepresentative evidence." With countless things happening simultaneously, from countless causes, there are coincidences. Drawing conclusions without careful investigation leads to biased and wrong associations. As Gilovich explains, "To the skeptic, all seemingly bizarre coincidences are not terribly amazing when considered from the appropriate statistical perspective" (1993).
We naturally employ quick explanations. Our minds intuitively jump to a meaning without effort. Leonard Mlodinow suggest we "work to immunize ourselves against our errors of intuition. We can learn to view both explanations and prophecies with skepticism" (2009). Part of this immunization work is looking beyond the first superficially plausible answer. We can mindfully check those answers off to our minds natural process of slapping quick meanings on a complex event for cognitive ease. The cognitive ease often is achieved by sloppy attempts to appease current beliefs.
Michael Kahneman suggests that settling for the simple answer is "lazy." We need to be more engaged. "Those who avoid the sin of intellectual sloth," he explains, "are more alert, more intellectually active, less willing to be satisfied with superficially attractive answers, more skeptical about their intuitions" (2013, location 774).
The advice appears to contradict todays royal crowning of intuition. Many advice bloggers praise intuition as a failproof guide to success. Unfortunately, this kindly advice is ill fitted for many situations. Intuitions can only draw from the pools of past experience. Areas where expertise is lacking our intuition is crippled, inviting inexperienced and biased conclusions. What we think is right may be absolutely wrong. Our constant dismissal of sound evidence does not make us a wise skeptic; rejection is the fruits of the foolish cynic afraid to openly examine facts that challenge underlying beliefs. Our intuition, instead of setting us free, cages us to limited biased worlds, blind to the ever increasing knowledge that is only available to the curious skeptic.
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Garro, D. (2021). Perspective—In Pursuit of Truth. Do Better with Dan. Published 1-14-2021. Accessed 7-25-2021.
Gilovich, T. (1993). How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life. Free Press; Reprint edition
Kahneman, D. (2013). Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st edition.
Kakutani, M. (2018). The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump. Tim Duggan Books
Mlodinow, L (2009). The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives. Vintage; Illustrated edition.
Perlman, M. (2018). How is skepticism different than cynicism? Find the answer in ancient Greece. Columbian Journalism Review. Published 10-15-2018. Reviewed 7-16-2021.
Tavris, C., Aronson, E. (2020). Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me) Third Edition: Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts. Mariner; Reprint edition