Credulity, Skepticism, and Cynicism

Work and minor illness are continuing to kick my butt. While I manage all that, please enjoy this slightly retooled repost, originally posted here.

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.

Any of us who present complicated or contentious information to the rest of the world–bloggers, podcasters, journalists, interviewees, teachers–have an opportunity to help people figure out how to interact with it. We can model critical thinking. We can tell others why we trust those we do. We can….

Well, there has to be a fair number of things we can do.

We’re dealing with a spectrum of trust, of course, among other things. See my examples at the top of the post. Trusting anyone to trusting no one. Credulity to cynicism. And not to indulge in reflexive centrism, but the healthiest point in this spectrum is somewhere between the two ends.

It’s easy to spot what’s wrong with each extreme. The credulous can’t account for fraud or for the fact that our brains are are only good at some kinds of impulsive (gut) decision-making. The documentation of cognitive biases and fallacies is not just a creative venture. The cynics can’t account for anyone who doesn’t do science for mercenary reasons (and how many people do?) or for the continuous advance of knowledge. We really do understand more about how the universe works than we ever have, even if we have much, much more to learn.

The problem in getting to that healthy point is two-fold. First off, we need to encourage the credulous how to identify the professionally sympathetic. We also need to help the cynical identify sources of information that they can trust. However, we also need to do this without swinging the pendulum too far and making cynics of the credulous and vice versa.

That may sound like two problems, but it isn’t. It’s teaching people how to sort information and sources. We can still cause a broad swing, nonetheless, if we’re not careful. Finding out that the positive evidence for parapsychology was mostly based on bad research design and not reporting negative results certainly made me cynical for a time, although it mostly now gives me ideas on what to look for in good research design.

The second part of the problem is that, barring severe brain dysfunction, neither the cynics nor the credulous really exist. The spectrum isn’t a spectrum but a rugged terrain. Those people who don’t trust scientists believe the people who tell them where the conflicts of interest arise and those who poke holes in (or near) methodology. The one who trusts all of Oprah’s guests is deeply suspicious of pronouncements from faceless governments, universities and corporations.

Whether we’re right or wrong on a particular topic, we’re all partly credulous and partly skeptical. There is too much information required to make reasonable decisions in modern life for us evaluate it all. Instead, we trust some sources and distrust others and trust still others only on some subjects. We accept some evidence as valid and reject some as flawed or irrelevant. We decide when consensus has been reached among the experts who “count.” And often, we do all that without examining how or why, even if we think of ourselves as skeptics.

Does that mean we’re doing it all wrong or that it’s impossible to do it right? No, or we’d live in the postmodern nightmare my stock cynic at the top of this posts thinks we’re in. It does mean there’s plenty of work to be done, because the problem isn’t a simple one of teaching people how much to believe, but teaching them how to figure out what to believe, instead of basing their decisions on who is saying the things they want to hear or the things that get their attention. It isn’t even necessarily the case that credulity or cynicism aren’t occasionally called for.

So, skeptical and scientific interwebs, share your tricks. What do you do to promote critical thinking? How do you help others figure out who to trust when they aren’t experts in the field? And maybe more importantly, help us learn from an even wider group. What have people done to help you understand what you can trust and what you can’t?


  1. F says

    I hope your butt gets a chance to recover.

    Yes, it is amazing where people will place their credulity and their cynicism, and how these seem to be placed in such neat groupings.

    “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.

    I just read someone going off on this exact thing, somewhere, as if teh scientists are getting rich this way. As if a 100k grant turns into fifty bucks spent on glue and glitter, and the rest went into some scientist’s pocket. Stolen from hard-working conservatives through taxes. (I’m in ur garden, redistributin ur wealth.)

    I don’t know what the mechanism I use for self-correction is. I’m very cynical, but I’m equally cynical about other people’s cynical narratives. I remain skeptical of people or sources I have come to trust. I suppose I have learned from skepticism and trust failures of childhood.

    This is a very interesting thing to think about, but the longer I might analyze myself on this, the more likely I would fail to remain skeptical or aware of my own building narrative. Maybe the best way would be to do it in stages, with breaks long enough that when I returned to thinking about it, I could catch my own BS and say, “Hey, that’s a rather idealized model of what I wish I had done, rather than what actually happened.”

    Maybe it is odd, but it would probably be even less likely for me to put a finger on how others have influenced me in this regard. Sure, I read blogs like this one, but why do I lean towards rational/skeptical/atheist/anti-sexist/not-modern-conservative thinking in the first place? I was a fan of science from roughly four years of age, which helps, but why was that? (In what was fairly a science-vacuum, no less.)

    Now my head hurts, and I don’t have one single relevant answer to your questions, but you get a brain-dump post instead.

    Happy Wednesday!

  2. says

    Good post.

    This brought to my mind a conversation I had with a theist over the word “elitist”. I told him, if you had a heart problem who would you consult, a tarot reader or a cardiologist? He said, of course, the cardiologist. I said, fine, because you recognize that the cardiologist has knowledge both from studies and years of practice. But then you turn around and call anyone with knowledge as “elitist”. What you have done is perverted that word. Elitist usually refers to a class of people of a certain socio-economic class that has power and money, and the privileges that these empowers them. Often, these elitists are the cause of our ills and cannot be trusted. But now, you regard anyone with the “privilege” of knowledge as elitist. And in doing that, it allows you to dismiss any of them with a slight of hand.