Skepticism is a weapon

I always marvel at my ability to be unduly influenced when reading an editorial, op-ed column or blog post that expresses the writer’s point of view with such unyielding conviction that an aura of concrete certainty seems to attach to it.

I will adopt this point of view, I chant to myself, mesmerized by the apparent inevitability of the writer’s argument. This must be the definitive position, I humbly acknowledge. No other argument can refute this.

Then I wake up. Some inner sense, deeply buried but carefully voiced by a decade of writing editorials and another decade of teaching opinion writing, whispers authoritatively in my ear: Denny, it’s really bullshit. You know that, don’t you?

That’s my problem. I often don’t know. And I bet I’m not alone in that admission, either.

Words can seduce. Clever artifice of sentence construction, married to incomplete context and mistress to a well-built lie, can whisper Come hither, you shallow, sleepy mind, and bend to my will.

I slip into this frame of mind, caught between wanting to believe but needing evidence, in the last week of August each year, because I teach opinion writing in the fall semester. Come Tuesday next at 2:30, 13 young men and women whom I’ve taught before and whose writing and thinking I admire will be awaiting instruction in how to write an opinion.

The actual instruction takes less than one minute: Make one point, support it, then shut up — but eloquently. The rest of the semester is practice, practice, practice.

But teaching the most prized quality of good opinion writers — constructing a good bullshit detector — is difficult. That’s because the young are generally caught between naivete and cynicism. Learning to be skeptical is demanding.

Astronomer Margaret Geller, quoted in “The Whole Shebang” by Tim Ferris, said:

I have a strongly held skepticism about any strongly held beliefs, especially my own.

Teaching my young charges to be skeptical about their own beliefs — or their own interpretations of apparent facts — as well as those of others lies at the core of my course. Good opinion writing requires astute navigation through gray waters of conflicting facts and dogma. It’s hard to figure out who’s got the handle on Truth. Said physicist Niels Bohr:

The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.

What I rely on is shepherding them through the distinction between cynicism and skepticism:

A cynic attributes all actions to selfish motives. A skeptic has doubts about expressions of certainty and wants evidence for claims.

That’s easier said than done, because naivete threads itself between both. Hell, I’m 61. I still think TV ads tell the truth. It’s hard work to ferret out the many lies told in politics and commerce instead of simply acquiescing to an apparently Wiser Voice.

So I teach them a frame of mind: Skepticism is a weapon.

Skepticism is a weapon.

Skepticism deflects spin, propaganda, P.R., B.S., press agents, publicity seekers, hearsay, unnamed sources, and anyone with a hidden agenda.

Skepticism is that little voice that tells you you’ll never be a millionaire with little or no money down.

Skepticism is the sneaking suspicion that all aspirin are alike.

Skepticism is a quality shared by truth seekers, freethinkers and realists.

Skepticism demands that proof and facts be unsanitized, uncensored and unembellished.

Skepticism makes the world accountable.

Skepticism is a virtue.

That’s the motto of the late, lamented (at least by me) media watchdog publication Brill’s Content. The advice is a wonderful antidote to being suckered.

This semester, as I teach it to my students, I hope I finally learn it as well.

11 replies »

  1. Dr. Denny,

    I’m glad to see you buttressing this invaluable distinction between cynicism and skepticism. All to often, in American culture, I think healthy skepticism gets dismissed as if it were cynicism. In favor of what? Some sort of just believe what you’re told naivete? A little while back, I wrote about exactly this same topic, taking a slightly different tack to approaching it, in my post “What is Cynicism?”


  2. I particularly like this part of your post:

    “I would suggest, then, that those who critique the darker side of contemporary culture and politics are not cynical at all. They are skeptical and analytical. The true cynic, if the term must maintain its contemporary negative connotation (and it likely will), is the person whom the skeptic critiques. The cynic is the politician or business person who has so much contempt for other people, that he or she says whatever it takes to accomplish their narrowly interested ends. Moreover it is a sort of person who usually exclaims virtue, while exploiting the good will of others. That’s cynical. Yet strangely, in contemporary culture, it tends to be the person who points out this sort of behavior who gets labeled cynical.”

    I appreciate the distinction you make. Thanks, Jay.

  3. Dr. Denny,

    Glad you liked some of my thoughts on cynicism. I meant to also mention that I think your point is very well taken about being skeptical about one’s own beliefs and interpretations. All too often, we are skeptical about others, only for the purpose of confirming our beliefs in our own basic assumptions.

    I just got into a debate along these lines with a widely read blogger, who provided a very astute analysis of Republican and right wing militaristic rhetoric, but seemingly only in order to show how bogus the right is and how correct people on the left are. Much of this blogger’s comments, to this end, read like a cheering squad. The blogger seems to encourage this by making personal jibes against anyone who disagrees with them. Even those who are basically sympathetic to the bloggers point of view.

    I’m constantly frustrated with this self-certaintly amongst liberals and progressives (something which certainly exists on the right as well). In the end, all the hand wringing often seems to be more about denoting the other as bad and therefore secondarily oneself as good (what Nietzsche calls the morality of resentment). What is lost in the process are real political ideas, real dialogue, and anything that might get us out of the politically polarized status quo. Indeed, perhaps more skepticism about ourselves would help us listen better to those we disagree with.


  4. Impressions in response to your article:

    Opinion writing as a spiritual journey.

    It’s amazing how the greater the conviction the writer or speaker presents, the more likely we are to believe him. Authoritarian types (people with what I call an Ayatollah complex) count on that (as do sales people, of course).

    Jay, Regarding “I’m constantly frustrated with this self-certaintly amongst liberals and progressives (something which certainly exists on the right as well).”

    On an absolute level that self-certainty is to be shunned. But showing self-doubt in front of conservatives is like flashing your soft white underbelly to them.

  5. Russ,

    I’m not sure I was advocating self-doubt. Instead I was thinking of something more like being skeptical about and open to critique of the things that one takes most for granted, for the purpose of opening dialogue with others (with whom one might have more in common than one assumes, or likes to admit).

    Perhaps that’s naive. I don’t know. I think I do know that the kind of name calling and attacking and polarization, which passes for debate between the two sides of the American political spectrum, only leads to more of the same. At the same time, I think the theater of this kind of polarized debate is exploited by other (wealthy, corporate) interests, while people are distracted by being caught up in their deeply entrenched political identities.

    But maybe I’m just setting myself to get smacked down by conservatives, while I whistle my skeptical tune.


  6. “I think the theater of this kind of polarized debate is exploited by other (wealthy, corporate) interests, while people are distracted by being caught up in their deeply entrenched political identities.”

    Can’t disagree with that!

  7. Dr Denny, you are right that you are not the only one who reads something and thinks “Holy Shit, this changes everything” but then when the shock subsides, reads some more and finds out a bit more and then says “well, actually it doesn’t.”
    The amount of bogus stuff and half truth stuff is not diminishing in our lives and a good BS meter is an essential. Good luck with fitting your students out with reliable models of detectors, the avalanches that they will have to deal with will severely test them.

  8. I used to teach an economics and strategy class and your statement – Make one point, support it, then shut up — but eloquently – isn’t so very different from mine: You can state any opinion you like, you just have to prove it.

    And, yes, I too believe that a strategy should not just be proven to be correct and possible, it should also be elegant … a thing of beauty.

    People are too ready to accept the opinions of people who they feel they “should” believe and offer nothing but cynicism to the people they believe they “shouldn’t”. As you point out, cynicism isn’t the same as scepticism.

    I have no problem with other people’s self-certainty. Would you choose to believe someone who wasn’t confident of their own argument?

    No, that isn’t the problem. What we must have is a permanent level of scepticism in the face of both certainty and dithering.