Friday, October 23, 2015

Splitting Hairs: Skepticism, Cynicism and Doubt

Skeptical About Splitting Hares?
As I have frequently referenced in my blog, agreement upon terms is immensely important in communicating effectively. Effective communication in turn permits human individuals and humanity as a whole to build teams, document knowledge, establish priorities, negotiate compromises and ultimately solve problems in the real world.  

Toward this end I'd like to clarify terms between cynicism, skepticism and doubt. These terms are often conflated in conversation, in spite of there being clear differences to their core approach.  (to be sure there are fuzzy overlaps in these terms, alas my desire is to solidify the core position behind these abstractions to enable a better understanding)

Skepticism might be better phrased as scientific skepticism. Essentially, skepticism tends to be a mindset that requires that proposed claims provide statistically significant, supporting evidence to be taken seriously. In effect, skepticism rejects claims that have not stood up to honest examination, accepts claims which have stood up to scrutiny, and generally remains agnostic to positions that have insufficient supporting data and premises.

Cynicism, on the other hand, tends to be a mindset which preemptively sees the motives and outcomes of people, organizations and the world at large as overwhelmingly negative. In effect, cynicism rejects ideas and their pursuit an interal framework which perceives ill intentions of people and the general futility of positive progress.

Doubt, on yet the third hand, is a slightly different creature.  Doubt tends to be a gut level seed of curiosity that questions a reality claim, a moral stance, or the motives of people and organizations. Hope, in fact, could be considered doubt's quintessential complement, each aspect entangled with the other in a spinning, dualistic dance.  As such a healthy curiosity will exhibit both doubt and hope alongside a desire to navigate toward the best, most honest answers to these explorations.

I'd Buy That For a Dollar!
As an example in demonstration of the differences, suppose a well crafted video advertisement were shown to an audience selling a product promising immortal youth.  Among all who watched with interest, mental visions of hope and doubt might be sparked within the diversity of their minds, imagining the possibilities and causing all to wonder if such a product could possibly exist.  Persons with a cynical attitude would likely reject the claim out of hand, perhaps vocally deriding it as a profit making scheme and the gullibility of those who seduced by such wishful thinking.  Persons with a skeptical attitude would tend to take a step back from the awesome implications, review the evidence for the claim, consider similar past products and current state of technology to deliver, and afterwards reject the claim until supporting evidence surfaced.  In such an outlandish case, the cynics and skeptics might seem to be quite similar to those who were convinced by advertising spin.

In my opinion, skepticism also tends toward seeking a mindful, understanding of why many might be won over by a claim as outrageous as a promise of immortal youth.  Alas I'll leave sympathy and empathy for another hair splitting blog!

Be skeptical!

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