Skepticism vs. cynicism

These two words are often used interchangeably, but they’re not really the same thing. If we’re going to engage in critical thinking, we need to learn to exercise skepticism without being cynical. It can be a pretty easy trap to fall into. They’re both uncountable nouns, but there’s a significant difference in application.

  1. Skepticism is doubting the truth of a singular thing, or claim.
  2. Cynicism is more pervasive, broad distrust of human nature.

I try to to apply this my own life by thinking of skepticism as questioning a claim, but cynicism as disregarding the person that makes it. And it can be really tricky to not become cynical toward somebody who is repeatedly wrong. It’s like the boy who cried wolf; sooner or later it just becomes easier and more efficient to disregard everything they say. E.g., one of my childhood friends lives in his own make-believe land and I have a very hard time believing anything he says. He’s a very nice guy, but he’s full of it.

The problem with disregarding a whole person or source is plain from another idiom: even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while. When you get right down to it, cynicism is more like misanthropy than skepticism.

The specific example I keep in mind to check myself is Glenn Beck. For the most part, he’s a fear-mongering Alex Jones-lite conspiracy theorist. History and simple fact-checking prove him wrong an overwhelming majority of the time. The cynic could then simply right him off as a lunatic and disregard him. With a batting average as poor as Mr. Beck’s, it seems like it would simply be more efficient to blow him off. But I can never forget an episode of his TV show where he made a profound statement and blowing him off would have resulted in missing it.

glennbeck

click to embiggen

It was his 12/06/2012 show with Penn Jillette, the speaking half of illusionist duo Penn & Teller, about Libertarianism. Glenn and Penn don’t see eye-to-eye on a lot of issues, but rather than cynically disregard everything the other has to say they discussed things like mature and rational adults. (That’s not even where I meant to go with this example, just a happy coincidence!) During his monologue, Mr. Beck said people tend to think the right/left divide about Democrats and Republicans when the real scale of governing is between totalitarian and anarchy. There are tiny details that we could quibble over, but the reality is Glenn Beck came very close to realizing and talking about horseshoe theory. (Coincidentally, I’ve had a post on horseshoe theory saved as a draft in my to-do list, so that may be tomorrow’s essay.)

When it comes to critical thinking, propaganda, and the reality of how governments work, this is no little thing. This is a profound, and often historically true statement. This is why I do my very best to try not be cynical and simply disregard a person or source out of hand. They just might be right.

By all means, be skeptical. Always investigate claims, because what is true is more important than what we want to be true. Just do your best to avoid becoming cynical. It can be very difficult and I struggle with it myself, but that blind squirrel from the idiom is a person just like you. They have thoughts and emotions, too. In skepticism of a claim, try to reinforce that you’re not questioning them as a person. The claim and the claimant are two different things, even if claimants sometimes forget that. Exercise the Golden Rule and treat the claimant with kindness, even if they’re wrong. A lot. Because none of us are correct 100% of the time.


  1. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/skepticism
  2. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cynical

 

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