I am proud to consider myself a skeptic. I run
a skeptic book club in town, and subscribe to
magazines such as Skeptic and Skeptical Inquirer.
I fantasize of being an intellectual descendant,
in my small ways, of Scottish philosopher David
Hume, who made of reasonable skepticism
his method of approaching problems ranging from
the political to religious.
And yet, I constantly have to battle the prejudice
(what else could it be?) that links skepticism
with cynicism in the popular culture. Fellow skeptic
Michael Shermer was once asked at a radio talk
show to which we participated why he seemed such
a jovial, easy-going fellow: after all, arent
skeptics supposed to be constantly begrudging
the very existence of the world?
Lets start with the basics. The Oxford
Dictionary defines cynisism as: 1. Tending
not to believe in the integrity or sincerity of
others. 2. Sceptical. 3. Contempuous; mocking.
4. Concerned only with ones own interests.
Also according to the Oxford, the word probably
derives from a Greek root naming a gymnasium in
which the philosopher Antisthenes used to teach.
Antisthenes was in fact the founder of the cynic
school in ancient Greece, which was characterized
by contempt for both pleasure and wealth.
Dictionary definitions, of course, are a mix
of prescriptions for the correct usage
of a term (we better try to use words consistently,
or communication soon becomes impossible), and
of descriptions of both current fashion and the
past history of words. It is therefore interesting
to note that while the Oxford lists skepticism
as the second meaning of cynical, if one looks
up skepticism itself the same dictionary tells
a different story: 1. A person inclined
to question or doubt accepted opinions. 2. A person
who doubts the truth of Christianity and other
religions; an atheist,from the Greek for
Well, if being skeptical means to doubt accepted
opinions, given that the majority opinion is that
there is some kind of God, I suppose a skeptic
has to also be an agnostic (notice that doubting
is not the same as categorically negating).
More generally, though, skepticism seems to me
to have a much more positive connotation than
cynicism. While I would have admired Antisthenes
contempt for wealth (Im not so sure about
pleasure), I would not make it a centerpiece of
my philosophy. To doubt claims that are not backed
by evidence, on the other hand, seems only reasonable.
And to attempt to inquire into the soundness of
such claims by seeking evidence in favor or against
them ought to rate among the highest virtues of
Instead, it is difficult to deny that skeptics
are perceived at best as party poopers and at
worst as permanent curmudgeons to be shun at parties
and ostracized in public discourse. Just consider
the endless stream of TV shows on such exciting
possibilities as extraterrestrial visits, chatting
with the deads, or the healing power of prayer.
In recent years, at least some of these programs
have featured a skeptic (often the above mentioned
Michel Shermer, or Paul Kurtz of the Committee
for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of
the Paranormal) to provide that most glorified
myth of media coverage: balance. It
turns out, however, perhaps not surprisingly,
that the token skeptic attempting to explain the
difficulties of conducting controlled experiments
on prayer healing will be given a fraction of
time, and that the program will always end with
a leading question aimed at keeping the mystery
alive and to prompt the viewer to tune in for
next weeks installment.
Worse yet, skepticism is rarely practiced in
the very earthly arena of public discourse, especially
by media journalists whose job allegedly is to
keep us informed and to keep everybody else (CEOs,
politicians, ideologues) on their toes. The legendary
Baltimore Sun skeptic at large of the first half
of the 20th century, H.L. Mencken, may have been
a bit too close to cynicism, but his reporting
of the infamous monkey trial in Dayton,
TN in 1925 is still refreshing to read if you
are not a zealous fundamentalist. Alas, investigative
reporting a la Murphy Brown TV series
is rare and much needed, not because we live in
especially troublesome times, but because we can
always use people who ask good questions. (Some)
politicians have always lied to the public to
get their way, and so have (some) members of the
military, some religious authorities, and occasionally
even some scientists.
That is why Humes reasonable skepticism
is vital to our society. It is not a question
of not believing others as a matter of principle.
Rather, it is about constantly exercising our
critical thinking skills to make more informed
decisions in our lives and when we go into the
voting booth. In an age of weapons of mass destruction
that vanish into thin air, victims of crime being
blamed for the assaults they suffered, and outrageous
claims concerning just about everything being
thrown around as gospel on talk shows, it would
come natural to be cynical. Instead, a little
sane skepticism will do us much good.
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