Science and Skepticism vs Cynicism

Tony Tonev
Aug 5, 2019 · 3 min read
Pictured: actual science being scientifically scienced

Hello, my name is is Tony, and I’m a cynic in recovery. Jokes aside, I’ve been thinking a lot about what is the difference between skepticism and cynicism. I love science, and skepticism is an important part of science. However, when skepticism crosses the line into cynicism, it becomes toxic.

Science by its nature can never prove anything. It can only disprove things, and when we try hard and fail to disprove something, we have pretty good confidence that it is true (but not proof!). The term null hypothesis simply means that there is no effect. If your theory is that flying squirrels don’t just glide but actually fly, the null hypothesis would be that they’re just falling slowly. Scientists try to reject the null hypothesis. If they fail to reject the null hypothesis, that’s evidence for the alternative hypothesis. The alternative hypothesis in this case is that flying squirrels can actually fly.

Yes, I picked this example just as an excuse to add cute flying squirrel pictures

Now imagine that you’ve discovered a specific species of flying squirrels that you believe actually does fly. How do you test this? You would have to observe and measure the animal’s height before and after they jump. What if you measure that they jump off a branch and reached a higher branch (with a sufficient sample size)? Is that proof that they can fly? No! Because there might have been an upward wind current that pushed them up, and that’s still gliding, not flying. So you would have to also measure the wind speed and direction to take that into account. Once you’ve taken all factors into account that you can think of, you would try to publish a paper telling the world, “Hey, look! I found flying squirrels that actually fly!” And still, some wise-ass reviewer might come back and say, “Well, you didn’t take into account XYZ. How do you know that’s not causing it instead?” But if you are able to dismiss all objections that anyone can think of, then finally we believe your alternative hypothesis. Scientists believe in something new only reluctantly when all other known explanations have been exhausted and fallen short. This beautiful process of self-antagonism has taken us from leaches and bloodletting to MRI machines and LASIK surgery.

You have to balance skepticism with an open mind, hope, and faith.

What does this have to do with cynicism? While a gullible person always believes, a cynic never believes, and a good scientist strikes a perfect balance, or better yet simultaneously believes and actively tries to disprove their own beliefs. A cynic assumes the null hypothesis is true and moves on. It’s mental laziness. A person like this might be great at cutting through bullshit, but they can never make a discovery. While the null hypothesis may be true 99 times out of 100 or even more frequently, the 1 time it’s wrong is where all of the exciting breakthroughs are. A good scientist is panning for gold to find that 1%, and ultimately they’re an optimist. They believe they’ll find something despite the odds and often they do!

I couldn’t resist including another picture of this handsome boi

This scientific mindset does not come naturally to humans. Confirmation bias makes us look for evidence that agrees with our current beliefs and ignore evidence to the contrary. But to be a good scientist and human being, you have to be open to new ideas and new possibilities. You have to balance skepticism with an open mind, hope, and faith. Because science is always incomplete and evolving. It never claims to have all the answers, but it’s the best methodology anyone has come up with to understand the world we live in.

So, stay skeptical, stay open-minded. Yes, at the same time!

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