Skepticism vs Cynicism

In the LDS general conference last weekend (the 3rd and 4th), Dieter Uchtdorf said "There is nothing noble or impressive about being cynical.  Skepticism is easy--anyone can do it."  (The full talk can be found here.)

One reason why I wanted to write about this is because I myself often conflated cynicism with skepticism for much of my younger years, and this may possibly have been because to religious people they may seem like the same thing.  First, I'd like to briefly give dictionary definitions for both words (something which, ironically has seemed fairly common in novice Mormon talks in local church meetings at least in the last decade or so).

I take these definitions from Dictionary.com.
Cynic (n): a person who believes that only selfishness motivates human actions and who disbelieves in or minimizes selfless acts or disinterested points of view.

Skeptic (n): a person who questions the validity or authenticity of something purporting to be factual.

There are, of course, other definitions, but these two will suffice for the purpose of distinguishing the two concepts.  Someone who is cynical essentially believes the worst in others.  A cynic may believe, for example, that the government does not have social programs for the benefit of its people but rather to enslave and control its people.  When offered money, a cynic may ask "What's the catch?"  A cynical teacher may expect eir students to perform poorly on tests, or assume that the students will only perform well if they are bribed into doing so.

A skeptic is someone who insists on having proof before believing something.  A skeptical car shopper may not believe everything the salesman asserts about the car eir selling.  A skeptic may choose not to walk across an old bridge before first testing it in some way to determine whether it has the integrity to bear the weight of a human without collapsing.  The scientific method is formalized skepticism.

Skepticism may cause cynicism.  The two may be related.  But they should not be conflated.  One can be skeptical without being cynical, and vice versa.  A cynic my mistrust everyone, even people who have proven their honesty, which is not a rational thing to do.  A skeptic may acknowledge that there are people who act selflessly (and, in fact, a rational-thinking skeptic connected with reality must admit this upon seeing evidence of it).

Thus, skepticism and cynicism are not the same concept.  They are different.  A person may be both or neither or one but not the other.  But let us examine further what he said about it.  He said there is nothing noble in being cynical.  That's probably true.  I don't see how cynicism would promote or engender nobleness.  Being cynical typically causes one to be selfish.  The reasoning is "No one else is being selfless so why should I?  I'm just going to look out for me and no one else."  This is certainly not a noble act.  It's not a selfless act.  Indeed, the French seem to have come up with a term for how nobility should act "noblesse oblige", which means "the moral obligation of those of high birth, powerful social position, etc., to act with honor, kindliness, generosity, etc."  Kindliness and generosity are typically not traits one would expect to see exhibited in a cynic.

 In the next sentence, he asserts that skepticism is easy and anyone can do it.  This is false.  Skepticism does not come naturally to humans.  We are biologically predisposed to a phenomenon called "confirmation bias".  This essentially means that we will look for information which supports our current beliefs and filter out those which do not.  This isn't a conscious thing.  It isn't a pretentious effort to prove oneself right.  It's just a natural biological fact.  It's in our genetic coding.  That's the way we think.  It takes conscious effort to be skeptical.  We must make an effort to take a step back and say "Wait a minute, why is this true?  What would I look for as evidence to reject this claim versus evidence to support the claim?"  That is the heart of skepticism.

One famous test to teach people about confirmation bias is the following card game.  The cards A, B, 4, and 7 are laid out in front of you.  You are told each card has a number on one side and a letter on the other.  Which cards must you turn over to decide whether the following statement is true? "If a card has a vowel on it then there is an even number on the other side."  Most people think that the A and the 4 must be checked.  However, this is only the information you'd think to check if you were confirming that your belief (the statement in question) is true, not if it is false.  For example, if the card with the 7 had an E on its reverse then the statement would be false.

It turns out that being skeptical is difficult.  It's unnatural.  We have to train ourselves to do it.  But stubbornly continuing on in spite of receiving information which may conflict with one's current beliefs is not difficult at all, it is natural and we see it happen every day.  It's easy to dismiss or deny evidence which proves you wrong, it takes conscious effort to assimilate that information and possibly alter your world view because of it. So Uchtdorf has it exactly backward on this matter.  It is easy to have faith, it is difficult to be skeptical.

He goes on to say "It is the faithful life that requires moral strength, dedication, and courage. Those who hold fast to faith are far more impressive than those who give in to doubt when mysterious questions or concerns arise."  I would agree that it takes dedication and courage to remain faithful to one's moral code.  Sometimes it's easy to compromise.  If I see a $10 bill on the ground, it may be easy for me to pick it up and pocket it, and it may require resolve to try to restore it to its owner.  (It may be impossible to ascertain or locate the owner.)

However, holding fast to one's ethics is different from holding fast to one's beliefs.  It is certainly not impressive to hold fast to a belief when you have reason to doubt it.  It is folly to ignore the doubts and brush them under the rug.  Suppose I am feeling low on energy.  I could dismiss it and pretend there's nothing wrong with me or I could bring my concerns to a doctor and have him attempt to diagnose the problem.  If I ignore my uneasy feelings, I can continue steadfast in the belief that I'm healthy, but all the while my condition is worsening to the point where the doctor may not be able to help me when I do end up going to see him, depending on the nature of the ailment.

Rather, it takes courage and strength to admit "I might be wrong.  What I believe may be inaccurate.  Does this new information confirm or reject my belief?  Is the new information true?  Is it valid?  Does it fit with my world view, or do I need to modify my world view?"  These are questions that a critical thinker will ask emself.  It is not easy to change beliefs.  It is not easy to adapt to new information.  Doubts make us uncomfortable.  They cause us to feel cognitive dissonance.  We like dismissing them and ignoring them, that's much easier.  But what we need to do is face them, address them, and embrace new information which may make us feel uncomfortable.