Skeptical not cynical

Written by Blake KoehnFebruary 12, 2021
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Skeptical: Not easily convinced; having doubts or reservations
Cynical: Believing people are motivated by self-interest; distrustful of sincerity or integrity

Being skeptical to new information is often a very reasonable and healthy approach. The trouble arises when you adopt a cynical view and disregard potentially beneficial information due to personal beliefs or attitudes towards the source of information. Below is a "detection kit" offered by Carl Sagan that I recently came across that may be a helpful when analyzing information.

Carl Sagan "Baloney Detection Kit"

  1. Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.”
  2. Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
  3. Arguments from authority carry little weight — “authorities” have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.
  4. Spin more than one hypothesis. If there’s something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives.
  5. Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours. It’s only a way station in the pursuit of knowledge. Ask yourself why you like the idea. Compare it fairly with the alternatives. Find reasons for rejecting it or others will.
  6. If whatever it is you’re explaining has some measure, some numerical quantity attached to it, you’ll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses. What is vague and qualitative is open to many explanations.
  7. If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work — not just most of them.
  8. Occam’s Razor. This convenient rule-of-thumb urges us when faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well to choose the simpler. Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified.


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