Sunday, 20 December 2015

Cynics and Skeptics

I've been chatting with the NZ skeptics lately on their closed facebook group because Jessika invited me.
She was referring to my musings on why skeptics would invite a GMO pimp to speak at their conference, but this post is about a different question Jess has raised, namely whether I am actually a skeptic or a cynic. It's a good question and I love good questions so I've had a wee think about the difference.

A couple of readily available definitions of cynicism beg more questions than they answer. For example, cynical beliefs are "beliefs that people are generally selfish and dishonest" and "cynicism is an attitude or state of mind characterized by a general distrust of others' motives".

These definitions are quite troubling for a somewhat orthodox economist like myself who starts by assuming people are selfish, mainly pursuing their own wants/needs, but doesn't automatically pair "selfish" with "dishonest". One can be very selfish without being even slightly dishonest. Similarly with distrust of motives: if I assume (for the purpose of initial analysis) that everyone is basically selfish then how does distrust even arise as an issue?

To which non-economists presumably say "Duh, get yourself up the PPE foodchain, to the philosophers. They're the ones who know the difference between skeptics and cynics."

Indeed they do. Philosophers know for example that the Cynics originated in ancient Greece and claim a Socratic lineage (that's the original cynic over there on the left: Diogenes). Their primary interests are ethical, but cynics conceive of ethics as a way of living rather than a doctrine. The cynics reckoned they had the short cut to virtue and believed that
"...virtue is a life lived in accord with nature. Nature offers the clearest indication of how to live the good life, which is characterized by reason, self-sufficiency, and freedom."
Freedom comes in three forms for cynics, one of which, parrhÄ“sia, is a protest oriented form of free speech that actively challenges some social norms. That bit does actually sound like me, as does the nature-focus, so maybe Jess is right and I am a cynic after all.

This group is waaay more complicated. Philosophers recognise four types of skepticism. One holds that God exists but we can't divine her thinking. I'd call them credulous skeptics since they believe in an imaginary friend. I doubt there are many pastafarians in this group.

A second group is incredibly doubtful that we can ever know anything at all. The brain-in-vat (BIV) hypothesis is relevant here: how can you be sure you're not just a brain in a vat, being fed ideas that make you think you've had actual real world experiences? This branch of skepticism would be pretty handy for a merchant of doubt.

Third are the academics skeptics who basically assume the role of judging the extent of our knowledge. This form of skepticism admits there may be merit in weighing up the evidence and would probably admit that public opinion is relevant to the weights for social choices.

The last category is contemporary skepticism which is said to rely on
an entirely intuitive and pre-theoretical understanding of our epistemic concepts. In this sense it has the form of a paradox - a series of wholly plausible and intuitive claims that, collectively, lead to an intellectually devastating conclusion. ...
Recent discussion of skepticism also treats the problem as having this paradoxical form, though the epistemic focus of the discussion is now not so much the lack of grounds for belief which counter the skeptic's grounds against belief, or the lack of certainty, but rather the lack of knowledge. Contemporary discussions of skepticism have thus tended to make the radical epistemological claim that we fail to know (hardly) anything.
So basically, skeptics argue that we don't know much at all because of the limits of knowledge. Some of the stuff we think we know is unsubstantiated, so we're wrong to think we know it.

Cynics on the other hand reckon they understand and/or have sufficient grounds to suspect that certain features of existing power structures and/or the ideas that support them are bullshit. So a classic conversation between cynic and skeptic might go something like this.

Cynic: this looks/sounds like bullshit
Skeptic: don't be so hasty, it might not be bullshit for all we really know

Based on my interactions so far with skeptics I think these classical roles swap and change according to the topic to the point where it's not clear whether a single person is actually a cynic or a skeptic.

For example, when it comes to alternative medicine the NZ skeptics are very cynical. Their starting position is that "this is bullshit" unless it has been scientifically been proven to be not bullshit. My own experience with using olive leaf extract to relieve the symptoms of shingles and my brother's use of celery seed to break down kidney stones (to take just two examples) leads me to a much more skeptical position: don't be so hasty, it might not be bullshit.

On GMOs and the perpetual warfare approach to agriculture however, the roles are reversed. I am not anti-GMO and consider it likely that genetic engineering will turn up some really useful stuff. I nevertheless recognise the huge risks in open release of GMOs and therefore call bullshit on people who argue for weaker safety regulations and on people who pimp GMO technology with emotional appeals.

In doing so I'm being pretty skeptical, arguing we don't know much and recognising that open release of living breeding GMOs has very uncertain effects. Oddly enough, this particular skepticism seems quite rare in the NZ skeptics group.


  1. My position is that I am not afraid to be called a cynic. As I see it, a cynic is a person who is more inclined (at times) to think that negative or unpleasant outcomes or selfish motivations are more likely than the positive. I think that this is an accurate view of things, at many times. And I do not think that this is hopeless: I think that even the most oppressive dictator could probably be motivated to do "good," in that they'd probably like to be dictator over something that's worth having, rather than being "the king of nothing."

  2. That's interesting Jeff, particularly the last bit about hope. I think I'm cynical on some topics and not on others. I'm generally trusting of others which is a non-cynical outlook, but that can flip pretty quickly in the face of new evidence.

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  5. Yes sharks after blood rings true for me too Sam :)