Credulity, Skepticism and Cynicism

You’ve met them. “Oh, those scientists. They get their funding from the government/industry/political think tanks. They’re just producing the results needed to keep their money flowing. They’ll say anything it takes. Besides, it’s not like they don’t make mistakes. Even Newton and Einstein had it wrong.”

You’ve met the others, too. “My friend told me about an Oprah show where she talked to a writer who explained how the universe really works. I always knew it was a special place made just for me.”

There’s no polite way to say it, but it can be said simply. They’re both doing it wrong.

Any of us who present complicated or contentious information to the rest of the world–bloggers, podcasters, journalists, interviewees, teachers–have an opportunity to help people figure out how to interact with it. We can model critical thinking. We can tell others why we trust those we do. We can….

Well, there has to be a fair number of things we can do. If I knew what they all were, I wouldn’t have proposed this topic at ScienceOnline ’10.

C. Trust and Critical Thinking – Stephanie Zvan, PZ Myers, Desiree Schell, Greg Laden, Kirsten Sanford

Description: Lay audiences often lack the resources (access to studies, background knowledge of fields and methods) to evaluate the trustworthiness of scientific information as another scientist or a journalist might. Are there ways to usefully promote critical thinking about sources and presentation as we provide information? Can we teach them to navigate competing claims? And can we do it without promoting a distrust of science itself?

In addition to the crew who’ve signed on to the session, I expect we’ll get lots of good ideas from the session attendees. That’s the grand thing about an unconference. Well, that and the fact that we can start early and finish late, with input on the blogosphere even from people who can’t afford the time or travel to the event itself.

We’re dealing with a spectrum of trust, of course, among other things. See my examples at the top of the post. Trusting anyone to trusting no one. Credulity to cynicism. And not to indulge in reflexive centrism, but the healthiest point in this spectrum is somewhere between the two ends.

It’s easy to spot what’s wrong with each extreme. The credulous can’t account for fraud or for the fact that our brains are are only good at some kinds of impulsive (gut) decision-making. The documentation of cognitive biases and fallacies is not just a creative venture. The cynics can’t account for anyone who doesn’t do science for mercenary reasons (and how many people do?) or for the continuous advance of knowledge. We really do understand more about how the universe works than we ever have, even if we have much, much more to learn.

The problem in getting to that healthy point is two-fold. First off, we need to encourage the credulous how to identify the professionally sympathetic. We also need to help the cynical identify sources of information that they can trust. However, we also need to do this without swinging the pendulum too far and making cynics of the credulous and vice versa.

That may sound like two problems, but it isn’t. It’s teaching people how to sort information and sources. We can still cause a broad swing, nonetheless, if we’re not careful. Finding out that the positive evidence for parapsychology was mostly based on bad research design and not reporting negative results certainly made me cynical for a time, although it mostly now gives me ideas on what to look for in good research design.

The second part of the problem is that, barring severe brain dysfunction, neither the cynics nor the credulous really exist. The spectrum isn’t a spectrum but a rugged terrain. Those people who don’t trust scientists believe the people who tell them where the conflicts of interest arise and those who poke holes in (or near) methodology. The one who trusts all of Oprah’s guests is deeply suspicious of pronouncements from faceless governments, universities and corporations.

Whether we’re right or wrong on a particular topic, we’re all partly credulous and partly skeptical. There is too much information required to make reasonable decisions in modern life for us evaluate it all. Instead, we trust some sources and distrust others and trust still others only on some subjects. We accept some evidence as valid and reject some as flawed or irrelevant. We decide when consensus has been reached among the experts who “count.” And often, we do all that without examining how or why, even if we think of ourselves as skeptics.

Does that mean we’re doing it all wrong or that it’s impossible to do it right? No, or we’d live in the postmodern nightmare my stock cynic at the top of this posts thinks we’re in. It does mean there’s plenty of work to be done, because the problem isn’t a simple one of teaching people how much to believe, but teaching them how to figure out what to believe, instead of basing their decisions on who is saying the things they want to hear or the things that get their attention. It isn’t even necessarily the case that credulity or cynicism aren’t occasionally called for.

So, skeptical and scientific interwebs, share your tricks. What do you do to promote critical thinking? How do you help others figure out who to trust when they aren’t experts in the field? And maybe more importantly, help us learn from an even wider group. What have people done to help you understand what you can trust and what you can’t?

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28 Responses to “Credulity, Skepticism and Cynicism”

  1. December 14th, 2009 at 3:02 pm

    Greg Laden says:

    I was just at an event at which the parents of a baby born a few weeks ago proudly shared that they had researched … and read a lot of papers and stuff … the vaccine issue and decided that their child would not be vaccinated. They know what they are talking about because they did the research. Lots of research. Papers and stuff.

    Is it OK to whack somebody upside the head?

  2. December 14th, 2009 at 3:04 pm

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    Which gives you more leverage in getting the child appropriately taken care of, smacking or not smacking?

  3. December 14th, 2009 at 3:16 pm

    Greg Laden says:

    Passing a law that requires that the child be vaccinated.

  4. December 14th, 2009 at 3:23 pm

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    Wow, getting that passed in a useful form would be painful–specific conditions listed for medical exemptions, careful control over the body that allows ad hoc exemptions–ugly. Which is not to say it wouldn’t be worth doing.

  5. December 14th, 2009 at 3:42 pm

    Jodi says:

    I am SO happy that you guys are doing this, and also SO looking forward to the responses. I have a terrible, terrible time with this, and could use all the suggestions and help I can get. Many people that I know and love are on one of those two extremes and the more I say the more I seem to make them back into a corner and refuse to look around them.

  6. December 14th, 2009 at 3:47 pm

    Jason Thibeault says:

    I use sarcasm in overly liberal doses. It probably doesn’t win me any friends.

  7. December 14th, 2009 at 4:22 pm

    Brunsell says:

    Well, I’ll be tuning in… I hoping to start focusing in on how to promote this type of science literacy in k-12 science courses… I have a few teachers interested in collaborating. The use of classroom blogs is high on the list of tools that we will be using.

  8. December 14th, 2009 at 5:02 pm

    becca says:

    you can get away with questioning almost anything if you’re actually asking questions

  9. December 14th, 2009 at 5:11 pm

    Greg Laden says:

    Stephanie: One form of this law did exist, I think (though I’d have to check) or at least came very close to existing in the 1970s swine flu scare. The relationship between liability, the flu virus, vaccine, congress, the CDC, the Executive Branch, the medical industry, the major parties, and the people of the US is today what it is in no small part because there was a major epidemic scare in the 1970s that turned out to be a few dozen army guys and some Iowa pig farmers with a nasty bug. Somewhere in there Congress wrote and passed a law.

    Becca: I question your use of the concept “to question.”

  10. December 14th, 2009 at 5:14 pm

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    Brunsell, that’s wonderful. I hope you’ll also tune in for Miss Stacy and her students.

    Jason, that’s one of the reasons I asked people to think about what works on them as well. I don’t know how many people are good at this sort of thing, so pulling ideas together from everywhere helps.

  11. December 14th, 2009 at 5:35 pm

    becca says:

    trains coming out of fireplaces, Greg. Trains coming out of fireplaces.

  12. December 14th, 2009 at 5:44 pm

    Anders Brink says:

    The workhorse for this has to be logical thinking. If expert says the temperature will go up 2 degrees while expert B says 4 degrees, then both cannot be right unless you know something about the uncertainty of a result.

  13. December 14th, 2009 at 6:10 pm

    Dan J says:

    I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t have a sense of humor. Self-deprecating humor is a plus.

    When I was in the 8th grade, several of my fellow students and I were invited to take part in a weekly “class” that was not really a part of the curriculum. A professor from Purdue University was going to come to school and have this “class” with us each week. It was more along the line of discussions between us all rather than what we knew of as a regular classroom environment.

    I think there were eight or nine of us in this group, and I recall some interesting discussions, involving subjects as tough as capital punishment. Remember, we were in the 8th grade, and this was in 1979/80.

    I really learned more about myself during those weekly discussions than I did about any particular school subject. I think that was the point. I will never forget the professor who came to speak with us during those “classes”. His name is S. Samuel Shermis.

    I don’t think I’ve ever searched for his (Prof. Shermis’s) name in Google before today. Oddly enough, what do I find when I search for him? “Critical Thinking: Helping Students Learn Reflectively” by S. Samuel Shermis (among other titles). I think he knew what he was doing.

  14. December 14th, 2009 at 6:19 pm

    loli says:

    There is a word for these kinds of people who refuse to believe the accepted scientific dogma. It is heretic, and if it were the 14th century we would be able to do burn them at the stake.

    Sigh. It’s not!

  15. December 14th, 2009 at 6:28 pm

    loli says:

    I tried to delete above comment to no avail. Writing on tiny screen makes difficult editing. Damn gphone.

  16. December 14th, 2009 at 7:58 pm

    Jason Thibeault says:

    That’s the problem, loli@14 — I don’t see any of science as dogmatic a priori, though I could see how teaching science as dogma would be easier than teaching the scientific method and teaching what results have come from it thus far. Those intent on diminishing science portray it as dogmatic only because teaching the results of past experiments is easier than duplicating every experiment in a lab.

    As for arguments that work on me — evidence. Always evidence. Or at the very least, sound logic, if rhetorical. I suspect if this was the case for those we’re trying to reach out to, it wouldn’t be a question at all. And I have over the past few years toned down the sarcasm (except where it’s really merited).

  17. December 15th, 2009 at 6:21 am

    a daughter's mother says:

    I don’t know about vaccination laws, but schools used to require a certain list of vaccinations before letting any child attend. What happened to that?

    The biggest part of not thinking vaccinations are helpful is younger parents who’ve never seen measles and its consequences, including world death rates in the hundreds of thousands, or polio, or whooping cough, etc. Steph, you did a very interesting piece on vaccination to protect other children who couldn’t get shots for specific health reasons.

    The argument against several recent theories was that they were called “theories”. Well, if it’s just a theory, we can ignore it, right? This is when I point out to them that gravity is a theory, that it’s a scientific term, and not something Uncle Fred cooked up one night after a few too many. He calls those gems “theories” also. So too many people conflate the validity of both kinds of theory, and the weight they give Uncle Fred’s theories carries over to, say, climate change.

  18. December 15th, 2009 at 8:31 am

    Philip H says:

    it all comes down to two things: semantics and emotion.

    By semantics, I mean that the “accepted” defintion of a term or word among one group does not mean that term is dealt with the same way by another. #17′s comment about “Theory” is a great example. In these cases, asking what another person thinks a word means, and the building from there is often helpful. “So your saying that to you a theory is just an untested idea? That’s interesting, because in science something doesn’t get called a theory without lots of experimental data and skeptical questioning . . . ”

    By emotion, I’m referring to the rhetorical style used by deniers. They manage to avoid discussing facts because they appeal to peoples fears – fears about too much government intrusion, fears about futher economic collapse, fears about people who look different. You can’t answer fears with facts, science, or experimental design. Instead, you have to acknowledge the fear, probe the fear, and offer some possible and more positive outcomes. “So you’re saying you don’t think humans cause global warming because the planet has always warmed and cooled? And you also think the global warming folks are out to take away your SUV because of how much gas it burns? Those are interesting points – the earth has indeed warmed and cooled over long periods of time, but maybe humans are making it warm more quickly this time by doing what we do – driving around, making things, generating electricity. And I totally understand about the SUV – it makes your life more convenient doesn’t it? But what if your town put in trolley cars (we call them light rail now) that meant you could go to the store, the mall, your kids school, all without ever driving that SUV? You’d save on gas bills (which keep getting higher), the air would get cleaner, and you’d meet some great people as fellow riders.”

    Or something like that.

  19. December 15th, 2009 at 10:04 am

    Greg Laden says:

    DaMo: I think you are correct. The couple I saw yesterday will only be able to avoid vaccination until school. They may at that point opt for home schooling to avoid the vaccination, but then the child will have to get vaccinated on entering college, or perhaps getting health care, or joining the army, or something. In the mean time, she will serve as a vector for those awful diseases that we don’t really need to have re-surging now and then, but at least, as a home schooler, will probably not infect too many people.

  20. December 15th, 2009 at 7:20 pm

    a daughter's mother says:

    Greg, not so sure about not infecting others if home schooled. I knew such a family in my town, met regularly with other home-schooled kids to get socialized, went to church, went to the mall like all good American kids do, even went to China. (They of course stayed as insulated in American settings as possible, ate American foods, and so forth, but that’s a whole ‘nother point.) Anyway, those home schooled kids are not necessarily isolated.

    Meanwhile, I’m going to try to track down my very own H1N1 shot tomorrow, now that everybody can get one. Seems that lots of high-risk folks are declining to get one. There might be a Darwin award there, but it’s just too common an occurrence.

  21. December 17th, 2009 at 8:04 am

    Mike Haubrich says:

    This article from The Humanist magazine by Julia Galef is an excellent discussion of what is happening in the area of an understanding of science in the public and why people are willing to get it so wrong.

  22. December 17th, 2009 at 9:34 pm

    khan says:

    I find it almost impossible to wrap my brain around the idea that a certain number of people think that infectious disease is a good thing.

  23. December 18th, 2009 at 6:35 am

    a daughter's mother says:

    Khan, You apparently think that those folks use logical thinking. “I am afraid of vaccinations and won’t subject my children to their alleged terrors” does not translate in their minds to “therefore infectious disease will increase and it is a good thing”. Their thinking stops at the belief that they are protecting their children. They don’t look past that to the likely consequences of their behavior (now my child could catch that disease), much less the likely outcome if millions of other parents shared both their fears and their actions, thus paving the way for increased spread of disease. They’ve never watched a child struggle to breathe through whooping cough, or born a deaf child due to their catching German measles during early pregnancy, or lost family members and neighbors to diphtheria, or had fertility problems due to adult mumps, or suffered the agony of shingles, or had classmates who walked with crutches and leg braces after polio. They have no experience to give a context to whether diseases are a good thing. They are the willfully ignorant. Pity them. Fear them.

  24. December 21st, 2009 at 5:32 pm

    Lou FCD says:

    Just some quick rules of thumb to help narrow the field:

    If it comes out of the mouth of a Republican or a member of the clergy, it’s most likely a heinous lie.

    If it comes out of the mouth of any other politician, it’s most likely just wrong.

    If it comes out of the mouth of a faithhead, just give them the finger, it’s most likely inane.

    If it comes out of the mouth of a science journalist, it’s most likely twisted beyond recognition.

    If it comes out of the mouth of a physicist and you think you understand it, you are totally clueless.

    If it comes out of the mouth of a biologist, it’s probably too cool for words.

    If it comes out of my mouth, just laugh and pretend like it’s funny.

  25. December 21st, 2009 at 5:36 pm

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    Going for cynicism, then, Lou?

  26. December 21st, 2009 at 6:03 pm

    Lou FCD says:

    I prefer to call it the benefit of experience, but cynicism works for me.*

    (*Note, I may be heavily influenced by the vast amount of stoopid I’ve missed over the course of the semester, on which I am now catching up in large doses.)

  27. January 28th, 2010 at 10:04 pm

    Jim Lippard says:

    People who admit and correct their mistakes tend to be more reliable than those who refuse to do so and issue a stream of excuses to reinterpret their errors as non-errors.

  28. January 29th, 2010 at 3:49 pm

    uberVU - social comments says:

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