Issue 12: Critical Thinking, Skepticism, and Cynicism
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There is yet another cautionary point. I think, among many people, there is strong enthusiasm in science and a commendable deference to scientific method. But let us be careful to not confuse science with rationality. Dependable science follows rational discipline, but rationality is a far more over-arching topic. Science prefers to limit evidence to that which it deems firmly measurable, and ideally, limited to those observations which can be repeatedly demonstrated in a lab setting with consistent results, to be accepted as true science. But clearly, many of the observations in the world can not fit into the realm of laboratory tests. There is much we see and experience that defies reduction into the scientific discipline of lab measurements.
Some people have an impressive ability to predict and direct human behavior, live, in real time, without the benefit of laboratory analysis. This still falls under the realm of critical thinking and rational assessment. But these situations are not necessarily a critique of science. The scientific method simply doesn't purport itself to be suited to every area of human experience. Humor is beyond the scope of measure, but it still exists and some people are quite good at assessing and creating humor. Aesthetic appreciation is not a science and yet the concurrence of human opinion in recognizing great art is fairly consistent. These are entirely functions of critical thinking.
But some, in their allegiance to science, wish to co-opt the title of skeptic to use it as a bludgeon against those whose ideas and assessments fall outside their commonly held theoretical beliefs. For example, how many huge scientific theories were at first derided and condemned by the scientific community itself before being finally accepted? Alfred Wegener's theory of continental drift in 1915 was roundly scorned until the acceptance of plate tectonics later in the 20th century. George Zweig published his quark theory in 1964 and was accused of being a charlatan. Quarks are now an indispensable part of the Standard Model of our view of the universe. Joseph Lister's sterilization theories met with much ridicule. The idea of "invisible germs" being the cause of infections was scoffed at in the 1860s, but is common knowledge today. So, the presumed role of skeptic often is the cloak that the cynic uses to to obstruct the advancement of science, typically to defend their own authority. This is nearly equivalent to the rigidity of religious doctrine.
Does this mean that we should entertain every story of bigfoot encounters and alien contact? No. Critical thinking is capable of discerning between people who have had a delusional psychotic break and rational thought. Does this mean that every story about bigfoot and aliens is the product of a psychotic break? No. But neither does that qualify a story to be compelling evidence. The skeptic-turned-cynic would use the most doubtful of storytellers as the typical example of all people who have had an extraordinary experience to support their foregone conclusion that it's all a bunch of rubbish to be dispensed with. This then dismisses a body of evidence that, though inconclusive, escapes adequate explanation.
A healthy posture of critical thinking protects against overly skeptical thinking that acts as blinders to categorically shut out evidence, while at the same time, it can efficiently evaluate and follow indicators to a logical direction. A healthy platform of critical thinking is fluid and adjusts its position according to new data available. A well disciplined critical thinker has little patience for conclusions, but prefers the open-ended ever-evolving revelations of close observation.
There is more to the world than science. There are the matters of the spirit and of art. Science is a meaningless pursuit without the fascination of the spirit and the deep appreciation which that engenders. The harmony of its inner workings naturally spills forward in art and poetry. The three go hand in hand — science - art - spirit, because they provide perspective to one another.
Habitual skepticism erodes this bond and robs the natural wonder which compels exploration. Charles Darwin elegantly states, "I am not very skeptical... a good deal of skepticism in a scientific man is advisable to avoid much loss of time, but I have met not a few men, who... have often thus been deterred from experiments or observations which would have proven serviceable."

Tim Sunderman is a graphic designer in the San Francisco bay area who does most of his art without a computer, using traditional techniques in drawing, painting, photography, calligraphy, and even sculpture. He is a graduate of the Academy of Art in San Francisco. He eschews speaking of himself in the third person, as he is here, but doesn't mind too much for shameless self-promotion.
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Everyone would like to believe that their opinions are reasonable and to some degree accurately aligned to reality. However, the criteria by which people measure the accuracy of their opinions can be broadly scattered. It is generally agreed that more responsible opinions are held to rigorous accountability to carefully measured observations. This is one of the foundation points of the scientific method. And for general purposes, this is a prudent way to base one's beliefs, and consequently, to conduct one's actions. To an opposite extreme, there are some who base their opinions on the dictates of a social group, like a religion, a military organization, or other typical authority structures. For the purposes of trying to establish a reliable platform of critical thinking, or the criteria and guidelines that create the means for firm understanding, we can quickly eliminate the method of accepting authoritarian dictates as a means of critical thinking.
For some, a prescribed system of beliefs is a substitute for analytical thought. It certainly cuts down on all that pesky effort of trying to figure things out. Further advantages of conforming to the dictates of others is the ability to divest responsibility from the self to the group, to defer ownership of one's actions to the old military standby — "I was just following orders." Another benefit is to enjoy the protection afforded by the acceptance into a larger group. But in almost every case, that protection is paid for by a typically thuggish requirement to not question things, to not get out of line, to not think for yourself or comment on the group's inconsistencies.
There is a reason why group participants are called followers, and it is not because of their tendency toward free thinking. A good measure of the lack of critical thought within a group is the rigidity of the belief system and its resistance to being questioned. Therein you will likely find a very sensitive vault of denial that will react with fierce emotion to block the light of rational introspection. Rigidity is an indicator of the amount of fear invested in a system of thought, and the greater the emotional defensiveness, the less effect logic and reason will have as a form of illumination to persuade a follower. When certain people were confronted with the evidence and empirical observations that pointed to the overwhelming likelihood that the earth revolves around the sun, the response was not a careful examination of the evidence with a reasoned rebuttal as to where the heliocentric theory may be wrong, but the knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathers' threat of death for contradicting a religious belief.
And this response is not that far from the contemporary efforts in the United States to countermand the incontrovertible evidence and body of observations that support the fact that life evolves over generations by genetic alterations. In some states, there is the appalling practice of putting religious tenets, particularly regarding the "creation" of life, into school textbooks and then labeling them "science". This is such an incredible abrogation of the responsibilities of education officials that one is easily convinced that they are devoid of any capability of critical thinking. And yet, for all their contempt for science, they eagerly try to wear the guise of science because they feel that it gives them a certain authenticity or credibility. Its very hypocrisy reveals the irrationality that underlies the limitations of their logic.
One is reminded of the "cargo cults" of the South Pacific during World War 2 where industrial powers would arrive in large airplanes and buy the favor of the indigenous tribal islanders with exotic food and supplies. And when they left, never to return, the tribes would build airplanes of grass and palms to emulate the behavior of their benefactors. But they had no knowledge of altimeters, internal combustion, the manufacture of wheels, and a couple other key components necessary for flight. And this is not very different from those who would don the mantle of "creation science" without the basic understanding that science is built on measured observations, not beliefs.
Indeed, we have seen in the past year, particularly in Republican election campaigns, blatant declarations that they will not be held to facts, that somehow facts are inconvenient impediments to their agenda. And there are those who applaud such declarations of freedom from being held accountable to reality, for they feel the same pressure to alter their opinions if facts are allowed into the conversation.
But this brings up the main point of this article — a well-formed platform for critical thinking can not be created on the basis of being anti-illogical, or anti-religion, or anti-emotional. I have seen a lot of this, particularly in social media, where, behind the insular mesh of the internet, one can comfortably take pot shots at belief groups that one disagrees with. But this has the net effect of allowing that group to define your position by the emotional motivation to polarize one's self against your opponent. In other words, to demonstrate how anti-religion one wants to project their position, they must use whatever arbitrary position that belief system adopts, and then orient their opposition according to those beliefs. It is futile to build rationality in reaction to the position of irrationality.
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Critical Thinking, Skepticism,
and Cynicism
Tim Sunderman
Vhcle Magazine Issue 12, Life/Politics