Links and articles about technology, design, and sociology. Written by Rian van der Merwe. Follow @RianVDM
Popular science, and the difference between skepticism and cynicism
I’m a big fan of Clive Thompson’s writing, and in The Hidden Truth of Counterintuition he explores the increased popularity of what he calls “a seemingly unending series of tomes claiming to upend everything we believe about talent (Talent Is Overrated), decisionmaking (The Upside of Irrationality), motivation (Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us), personality (The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement), and dozens of other subjects.” He ultimately believes that the popularity of these books is a good thing:
Perhaps our willingness to have our basic beliefs overturned is a sign of intellectual health. This mindset is, after all, key to the scientific method. Copernicus, Newton, and Einstein were all purveyors of a “hidden side” to reality, right? (The Principia could have been subtitled Why Everything You Know About Gravity Is Wrong.) Good scientists understand that there’s a good chance today’s knowledge will eventually be proven wrong. And the really good scientists welcome that prospect — they’re thrilled by it.
Even though I usually agree with Clive, In this particular case I’m going to side with Callum J Hackett’s counterargument entitled The Popularity of Counterintuition:
First, it’s important to distinguish between two conceptions of “skepticism” that are often conflated. There is ‘Skepticism’ as a mode of rational inquiry — the kind that relies on logic, evidence, and varieties of scientific consensus — and then there is ‘skepticism’, almost synonymous with ‘cynicism’, that is a mere compulsion to question everything, no matter what logic and evidence underpins it. This is an undiscerning, shotgun skepticism — it questions sound scientific knowledge as much as bad ideas, and is perhaps the cause of problems like climate-change denial in reasonably well-educated people.
If the readers Thompson is talking about have any kind of skepticism, it’s only cynical skepticism — it’s not driven by the urge to reveal the truth without bias, it’s driven by that same urge which craves the unmasking of conspiracies wherever they can conceivably exist.
I recommend both articles, if for no other reason than to witness how it’s possible to disagree respectfully with another human being on the Internet.