Dec 19 2011

Skepticism vs Cynicism

Joe Nickell has been a working skeptic for a long time, and I am very happy to call him a friend. In writing this post I am reminded of something he said to me that struck me as particularly insightful – (paraphrasing) cynicism is a cheap form of skeptical one-upsmanship. In other words, it’s easy to seem more skeptical than the next guy just by being more cynical. True skepticism, however, is hard intellectual work.

This resonated with me, and brought into sharp focus what has bothered me about many encounters I have had in which someone was chiding me for not being skeptical enough. Sometimes this was coming from a perspective that I would now consider denialism, the specific denial of a generally accepted scientific or historical fact for ideological reasons. At other times the cynical pseudoskepticism was really just paranoid conspiracy mongering. For example, I recently received the following e-mail:

I sort of lost interest in you folks way back when OBL was “killed'” and his body disposed of at sea and photographs withheld, all inviting skepticism but instead skeptics earning nothing but ridicule from your team. I decided you weren’t really skeptical enough about some things, just others. Something about the behavior of otherwise excellent minds in the shadow of a powerful military state with an excellent propaganda apparatus. Except that in this case the propaganda was clumsy, the lies flagrant and out there to see …

The e-mailer is referring to our discussion on the SGU of the killing of Osama bin Laden by US forces. At the time we received many e-mails from those who thought we should taken a more “skeptical” perspective – the position that the US government was lying about the killing of OBL to some extent, and perhaps even entirely. Skepticism regarding the government is a typical context for this sort of response.

This can serve as an excellent example, in my opinion, of the difference between true skepticism and the cheap imitation – cynicism.

My approach to such questions is this: Yes, governments lie and cover up their activities. This includes even open democratic governments, like the US. Covering up information can be put into two general categories. The first is legitimate secrecy. The government is very open about the fact that some information is “top secret” and kept from the public for the purpose of national security. There is, however, an internal process by which such information can be assessed by our elected representatives. No one doubts the existence of legitimate secrecy in the government.

The other category of secrecy is illegal secrecy by individuals or groups of people in the government who are trying to cover up their own crimes or mistakes, or perhaps even mean well (they think they are doing what’s right for the country) but are going outside the system. This too, of course, happens. The Iran-Contra affair seems to be an example of this. The public takes for granted that some of this goes on all the time, at least in the form of spinning events or trying to bury inconvenient information without technically breaking the law. We accept a certain amount of this as “politics” – just don’t get caught crossing the line.

The real question is this: is there a third category, of organized deception and propaganda that is extra-democratic but representing the real way that our government operates, not the aberration of individuals? The e-mailer seems to think that the US government is a “powerful military state with an excellent propaganda apparatus.” This does not reflect reality as I understand it. Our government is deliberately not monolithic. There are different branches with a balance of power. There is also a two-party system, with the parties being in strong opposition politically, each more than willing to expose the shenanigans of the other party. And we have a constitutionally guaranteed free press, which may not always be optimally effective, but collectively it works pretty diligently to expose any government lies.

The OBL killing was an interesting event. The government acted partly out of legitimate military secrecy to carry out the operation. Then there was the question of PR – how to handle the aftermath of taking out a figure like OBL. There were many concerns – proving that he was actually killed, but minimizing the making of a martyr out of him, and not wanting to have any remains to act as a shrine or rallying point. I don’t think the government pulled it off optimally. They left far too much room for conspiracy mongering. But I can at least understand their dilemma.

With regard to this event the cynic assumes the government is lying, and assumes they have nefarious purposes and unlimited ability to carry out their deception. But at the same time they are “clumsy” and stupid, so that anyone can see that they are lying. This is conspiracy mongering, not skepticism.

The e-mailer continues:

“I haven’t been listening since much, and so wondered if your skeptical eyebrows raised a detectable scintilla or so when the elite Navy Sal (sic) Team that killed OBL perished in a helicopter crash.”

The conspiracy theorizing cynic sees this event as confirmation that there is a government cover-up. There is no evidence offered for a conspiracy – just take an event and cast it in as sinister and cynical a light as possible, and criticize any who do not follow you down this rabbit hole of not being skeptical.

The Navy Seals have been busy in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it is tragic but not surprising that they are suffering casualties. We don’t need a conspiracy theory to explain this. Further, while members of Navy Seal team 6, the team that killed OBL, were on the helicopter, the US government told the AP that none of them were the individuals involved in the OBL operation. Of course, this could just be another government lie.

I am open to any reasonable interpretation of events and to actual evidence that a specific interpretation is correct. The skeptical point of view is not to just assume the maximally cynical point of view. The skeptical approach is to evaluate the evidence and the plausibility of various hypotheses.

But as Joe said – you can always try to seem more skeptical than the next guy by short circuiting this process and just being cynical.


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