10 January 2010

#scio10: Skepticism != cynicism

In preparatory remarks for a Science Online session about trust and critical thinking, Stephanie Zvan makes a point that isn't made often enough:
You’ve met them. “Oh, those scientists. They get their funding from the government/industry/political think tanks. They’re just producing the results needed to keep their money flowing. They’ll say anything it takes. Besides, it’s not like they don’t make mistakes. Even Newton and Einstein had it wrong.”

You’ve met the others, too. “My friend told me about an Oprah show where she talked to a writer who explained how the universe really works. I always knew it was a special place made just for me.”

There’s no polite way to say it, but it can be said simply. They’re both doing it wrong.
The point being that the opposite of complete credulousness – cynicism – is not the same thing as skepticism. I see the term "skeptic" used as a synonym for "cynic" all over the place. But they're not the same thing at all – the cynic is the guy in Zvan's first example, who trusts nothing at all. A skeptic, on the other hand, does trust, given justification. Skepticism is positive; it believes that there are knowable answers to factual questions, and that human brainpower can deduce them. A skeptic may rarely decide that a given answer is the final word on a question, but that's not at all the same thing as rejecting the possibility of a useful answer.

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