A refrain I often hear from people regarding my scientific and skeptic mindset is how cynical I’m being. They tell me I’m just shooting down anything that I cannot see proven in an equation or carried out in some sort of lab experiment. Since I can rarely get that kind of validation, I always seem to hold negative views of new ideas.
To a certain extent, I can see how others see this. My first response to new information is usually a way of invalidating it. Honestly, this does seem quite cynical. However, that’s because we often use terms interchangeably, and this is most definitely the case here.
According to Dictionary.com, “cynical” is defined as: “distrusting or disparaging the motives of others, bitterly or sneeringly distrustful.”
This is obviously not my intent when responding to certain claims, though I’m sure it has occurred throughout my years of hearing crazy “science” from the media. The real word that should be used is skeptical.
According to Dictionary.com, “skeptical” is defined as: “Having an attitude of, or showing, doubt.”
This is definitely the word I’m looking for.
In my eyes, the difference between these two words stems from the negativity the former expresses. When I hear a new scientific “fact”, I don’t have any negative view of it. I simply question its validity. That’s not particularly negative. In fact, I would argue it’s neutral, because questioning the fact simply means I want to know more about how this fact relates to other scientific ideas.
I don’t necessarily need _a controlled laboratory experiment to think something is true. I can make a certain subset of inferences about the world that are probably more or less accurate for my purposes. However, my skeptical side kicks in as soon as I hear something about a “wonder drug” or the “one simple thing you can do to be happier”. These statements are usually under the guise of being scientific, but in reality they are misguided at best and pseudoscientific at worse. When I hear _those kinds of statements, I try not to reason it out myself and instead ask for evidence. If something is as powerful or great as someone says, then surely there is a wealth of evidence to support it. If not, then there is something lacking in the statement.
A quote that I particularly like from Carl Sagan (at least, he is the prominent figure that I know of who said it) is, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” It encapsulates the idea that skepticism for something that is particularly incredible needs a lot of evidence. Otherwise, we could be swayed by anything just because someone is persuasive. With this mindset of skepticism, you give yourself a way to trust statements because of the evidence, not because it “sounds” good.
On a related note, I’ll often get accusations of being close-minded because of my skepticism. This usually results from some really enthusiastic person not understanding why I can’t seem to ever be convinced that something they say is true. What they won’t say is that the claims they always make to me are extraordinary, and come with little explanation or evidence. When I prod for evidence, they switch the onus onto me to go read and find out for myself because they didn’t go through the whole study or article.
Unfortunately, that’s not how good conversation goes (at least, in my experience). If one wants to state something, they’re going to need some evidence or else it will be dismissed pretty quickly. But even if I do accept to go read further about it, the conversation will continue as if the statement was true.
This is a problem, because the conversation has shifted dramatically from what we know (or are reasonably certain of), to what we don’t know. Furthermore, I will then be chastised for never keeping my mind open to new possibilities.
My response: I’m always open to something new, but I need to see some kind of credible evidence. And unlike what many people think, witnessing an event is not a great tool to make these kind of claims.
In the end, I’m skeptical because I understand the rigour needed to correctly do science. The scientific process is a process, and one of the steps in it is to repeat experiments. Therefore, having a one-off study isn’t necessarily convincing to me. Likewise, many studies saying the same thing won’t be convincing if they all have some kind of flaw in the procedure.
Being skeptical does not make you cynical. It forces you to look at evidence before you integrate that knowledge with the rest in your life. A skeptic will be open to change, but the change must be convincing.
And it just so happens that the best tool we have to make convincing statements about the world is science.