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Critical Thinker Explains Skepticism vs. Cynicism

• October 13, 2011 • 4:00 AM

Professional skeptic D.J. Grothe explores the difference between skepticism and cynicism and describes how fooling some of the people some of the time is a bad idea all of the time.

Several Skeptic’s Café columns have invoked the work of MacArthur Foundation “genius” James Randi and his James Randi Educational Foundation, or JREF. This nonprofit “promotes critical thinking by reaching out to the public and media with reliable information about paranormal and supernatural ideas,” and is one of the key players in the world of skeptical and critical thinking.

In honor of International Skeptics Day (October 13), we turn the tables on the president of JREF, D.J. Grothe, who routinely interviews skeptical thinkers for his podcast series “For Good Reason,” by interviewing him for Skeptic’s Café.

Miller-McCune: Who is D.J. Grothe and what is the James Randi Educational Foundation?

D.J. Grothe: I’m formerly a professional magician, so I have strong interests in deception and self-deception, and in what magicians may have to say about how easy it is to believe nonsense, especially harmful nonsense like psychics and other pseudoscientific and paranormal claims.

JREF was created in 1996 by the famous social critic and magician James Randi. He has single-handedly exposed some of the most egregious frauds in our society, like the TV faith healer Peter Popoff and the Israeli magician-turned-fake-psychic Uri Geller, among many others. Inspired by Randi’s work, our foundation provides educational resources to teachers to bring skepticism and critical thinking into classrooms, supports skeptical grassroots campaigns on topics like homeopathy and vaccines, and provides programming about skepticism online, at workshops, and at conferences for the general public.

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M-M:  People use the word “skeptical” in everyday talk, but often don’t really use it correctly. How do you define “skepticism”?

DJG: To me, the word is best understood by looking at its roots: it comes from the Greek word “skeptikos,” which just means to inquire or to find out. We say that skepticism is the best way of finding out the truth and is precisely the opposite of just saying “no” to others’ beliefs. On the other hand, a knee-jerk rejection of others’ beliefs is more akin to cynicism, not skepticism, and is rather closed-minded.

Skeptics who work with JREF are quite open-minded, but after decades of looking into various claims, we have found no evidence that any of these supernatural, paranormal or pseudoscientific beliefs hold up under scrutiny. In my experience, skeptics are critical thinkers who have a real desire to learn the truth about these sorts of questions.

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Skeptic's Cafe

SKEPTIC'S CAFE
Peter Nardi discusses how to use our critical skills to avoid scams, respond to rumors and debunk questionable research.

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M-M: As an educator, I feel that “critical thinking” is something we are in desperate need of developing in our society and educational institutions. What does “critical thinking” mean to you?

DJG: Critical thinking is continuous with skepticism – and with science, for that matter. It is simply thinking critically about claims and issues. As an example, think of going car shopping. Smart and savvy people will get a mechanic to take a look at a used car before they buy it, or lift the hood and kick the tires themselves to make sure it is a good deal. So why not also take a very close, skeptical look before buying someone else’s opinion, to make sure that it is worth it and holds up under scrutiny? This is skepticism and critical thinking — believing only those claims for which there is good evidence. Skepticism should be widely applied in one’s life to all the claims heard on a daily basis, not just in one specific area like the paranormal, even though at JREF we focus on paranormal and pseudo-scientific claims.

M-M:  I’m an amateur magician and see how misdirection is a technique used frequently by politicians, the media, advertisers, and many others in everyday life. What role do you see misdirection playing in today’s cultural climate?

DJG: Very important question — I think it is used quite extensively. The magician and the skeptic have a lot of say when they see the “smoke and mirrors” used in politics or the media, especially when it comes to emotional issues like taxes, social welfare and national security. People get distracted from the important issues of the day by being placated by mass culture, as well as being scared by things like terrorism or disasters. This is not to say that things like terrorism are not real threats, but I think these issues are often used by politicians to keep the electorate from focusing on other important issues.

M-M: Debunking psychics, scam artists, and urban legends may sound trivial to some people, given the scope of these other social problems in today’s society. How do you respond to these critics?

DJG: Some people think the skeptic’s work is trivial, but we think beliefs matter very much. If the majority of people believe in the claimed supernatural ability of a TV preacher to heal their illnesses, there are real-world effects: the believers won’t go to real medical doctors. The same is true for belief in homeopathy, or the belief that vaccines are dangerous — there is absolutely no scientific evidence for these harmful beliefs. If military officials believe that the ADE 651, which is nothing more than a glorified dowsing rod, actually detects bombs and then the device is used in theaters of war, it isn’t only that some fraudster gets rich by selling a fake product that enrages us as skeptics, but that real people could die as a result of putting faith in these phony bomb detectors. Skepticism is like a beautiful marriage of consumer protection and science education, and all for the public good.

M-M Often I find that skeptical thinking ends up being about placebo effects, unscientific methodologies, and faulty sampling. So how do you respond to people who say that the traditional scientific method is just one way of seeing the world and a method that may not be suitable to other ways of knowing and understanding reality?

DJG: We hear this a lot. Of course, one doesn’t conduct a scientific experiment to see if he or she is actually in love with a partner, for instance. But the methods and content of science are the best ways of knowing how the world really is. So if someone says, “Throw out the science, I have new truth — but unfortunately it cannot be proven, you’ll just have to take my word for it on faith,” that is a very good reason to be skeptical. And we are even more interested when people say they have demonstrable evidence that their way of knowing or that their supernatural claim is real. If it holds up under scrutiny and proper evaluation, they’ll change the world and win a Nobel Prize. And if it doesn’t hold up, I don’t want people to be hornswoggled into believing harmful nonsense.

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Peter M. Nardi
Peter M. Nardi, Ph.D, is an emeritus professor of sociology at Pitzer College, a member of the Claremont Colleges. He is the author of "Doing Survey Research: A Guide to Quantitative Methods.”

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