Skepticism about cynics

When commenting on a previous post of mine, andreashettle asked,

I’m curious: how DO you help students understand the difference between blanket cynicism and healthy, balanced, thoughtful, analytical skepticism?

I don’t ordinarily teach. I’m in a different field. But I’ve done a little tutoring and teaching in the past. And sometimes I run into a student who has learned something about the concept of “bias” — and has become so good at spotting potential sources of “bias” that they refuse to believe ANY potential source of information at all, even the ones that are reasonably reliable and trustworthy (or at least, the ones that make an honest attempt to be, or that experts in the field have judged to be good sources). For example, they may reject peer-reviewed academic sources published by universities because of possible “bias”! It was frustrating trying to get through to them that “bias” is not an either/or paradigm — yes, every source and every author has a certain set of “biases,” but there are degrees of bias and there are ways to avoid the more blatant sources (say, an advertisement from a company that *of course* wants to make their product look best) while still learning something from the safer sources. And there are ways to intelligently evaluate sources to identify the ones that are trustworthy enough to be used as sources for their research paper or literature review or whatever they’re doing. But for them, there is no distinction: they’re all biased, period.

I don’t really anticipate being in a teaching situation again, at least not in the near future — but just in case … any tips? I’m thinking particularly of students who seem to have very black/white thinking, who don’t seem to be able to parse fine gradations very well, and who also seem to have a tendency to pick a few specific things that some teacher has taught them in the past and cling to them so tightly that they seem incapable of admitting that what they learned could still be refined in some way–or could even be just point-blank wrong.


Wow, yeah. Students who are cynical can indeed be extremely tiresome. Those who mistake cynicism for skepticism aren’t quite so bad, as they are usually amenable to further education that will broaden their outlook, especially if it’s presented as “more ways to be clever”.

But then we have students like those whom you mention, the jaded, snarky, closed-minded sort who think in absolutes. Blanket cynicism is just intellectual laziness, and someone who is cynical and doubts everything is just as poor at thinking as someone who is gullible and believes everything. The cynic uses their personal biases instead of critical thinking to reach their conclusions. A cynic is highly resistant to examining new information and prefers to keep their established opinions, but the skeptic welcomes the opportunity to examine new evidence and is willing to change their understanding.

Cynicism often involves a particular kind of dogmatism, a negative view that disbelieves the good intentions or generosity of others, and cynics are frequently self-centered. As you have observed, they can be inflexible in their thinking — flexibility would require work from examining, evaluating and possibly reconsidering previous views. It’s far much easier to decide that a few chosen “facts” are true, establish a set of biases and preconceptions, and then doggedly try to fit those onto everything they run into. Naturally, this approach doesn’t work well, and further interpersonal conflicts and tensions result. There is also a great deal of cognitive dissonance that results, which increases the inner and interpersonal tensions. Unfortunately, that doesn’t easily resolve into the cynic being willing to re-examine their beliefs and accommodate new information.

There are very few absolute givens (such as laws of physics). In real life, most things run on levels of probability. But saying that something isn’t “true” because it cannot be 100% guaranteed to happen all the time under every single circumstance for every single person is simply taking the reductio ad absurdum:

… a type of logical argument where one assumes a claim for the sake of argument, derives an absurd or ridiculous outcome, and then concludes that the original assumption must have been wrong as it led to an absurd result.

Sure, everyone has some bias. However, we can be aware of those, and employ means to help counter them — this is why scientific experiments use double-blind studies! We also use large numbers of research subjects to help reduce the variability in the data due to the natural variability in individuals (human or otherwise), plus control groups, random assignment, and so on. In the grand scheme of things, it’s actually rather humorous that the cynic who complains of bias is exhibiting a massive bias of their own …

One way to address some of this rigid thinking is to turn the tables around, and ask the student how they would design experiments to assess the validity of an assertion. (Don’t ask them to “prove” something; that just falls back into the trap of absolutes.) Start with facts that they also recognise as being true, and build from there.

You might, at other times, avoid the whole argument scenario and explore what sorts of things the student is afraid of, meaning how they have felt that people have “let them down”, and instead of seeking to place blame (which is an easy way out that resolves nothing and just perpetuates the feelings of hurt), ask them what they can do that will provide whatever it is they are lacking, and how they can get that in new situations. It may well be that part of the pain comes from the fact that the student has not been able to identify just what it was they did not get (interpersonally, rather than materially). We can’t fix problems when we don’t know what it is that’s going wrong!

Similarly to cynics, societies will revert to their tribal minds when they feel anxious because of high levels of change. Our cultures are partly belief systems about the way we think the world ought to be, and social changes on multiple fronts destabilise that, requiring too many re-evaluations about our concepts. So social groups react to massive social change by becoming more conservative, more isolationist, and more black-and-white in their thinking. The same is true for individuals; the cynic finds that the world is much more multifaceted, amorphous, and complex than they are ready to deal with, and they retract into a defense of trusting no new information.

Boiled down to the basics, everyone wants the same things. They want to be recognised for their successes and individual skills, they want to be useful, they want to be helped in a way that respects them, and they need to feel safe and know that they can rely on others.

To be skeptics, we have to feel safe enough to explore new things, and to open ourselves up for having our beliefs challenged, and then be able to re-evaluate them.

1 Comment

  1. 28 October 2007 at 17:46

    […] or skeptical, and  do you know I just can’t make my mind up. But I found this post  rather thought provoking. (Noddy, you might find some of the links in this blogers side bar of […]

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