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Skepticism vs Cynicism

by Steven Novella, Dec 19 2011

Joe Nickell has been a working skeptic for a long time, and I am very happy to call him a friend. In writing this post I am reminded of something he said to me that struck me as particularly insightful – (paraphrasing) cynicism is a cheap form of skeptical one-upsmanship. In other words, it’s easy to seem more skeptical than the next guy just by being more cynical. True skepticism, however, is hard intellectual work.

This resonated with me, and brought into sharp focus what has bothered me about many encounters I have had in which someone was chiding me for not being skeptical enough. Sometimes this was coming from a perspective that I would now consider denialism, the specific denial of a generally accepted scientific or historical fact for ideological reasons. At other times the cynical pseudoskepticism was really just paranoid conspiracy mongering. For example, I recently received the following e-mail:

I sort of lost interest in you folks way back when OBL was “killed'” and his body disposed of at sea and photographs withheld, all inviting skepticism but instead skeptics earning nothing but ridicule from your team. I decided you weren’t really skeptical enough about some things, just others. Something about the behavior of otherwise excellent minds in the shadow of a powerful military state with an excellent propaganda apparatus. Except that in this case the propaganda was clumsy, the lies flagrant and out there to see …

The e-mailer is referring to our discussion on the SGU of the killing of Osama bin Laden by US forces. At the time we received many e-mails from those who thought we should taken a more “skeptical” perspective – the position that the US government was lying about the killing of OBL to some extent, and perhaps even entirely. Skepticism regarding the government is a typical context for this sort of response.

This can serve as an excellent example, in my opinion, of the difference between true skepticism and the cheap imitation – cynicism.

My approach to such questions is this: Yes, governments lie and cover up their activities. This includes even open democratic governments, like the US. Covering up information can be put into two general categories. The first is legitimate secrecy. The government is very open about the fact that some information is “top secret” and kept from the public for the purpose of national security. There is, however, an internal process by which such information can be assessed by our elected representatives. No one doubts the existence of legitimate secrecy in the government.

The other category of secrecy is illegal secrecy by individuals or groups of people in the government who are trying to cover up their own crimes or mistakes, or perhaps even mean well (they think they are doing what’s right for the country) but are going outside the system. This too, of course, happens. The Iran-Contra affair seems to be an example of this. The public takes for granted that some of this goes on all the time, at least in the form of spinning events or trying to bury inconvenient information without technically breaking the law. We accept a certain amount of this as “politics” – just don’t get caught crossing the line.

The real question is this: is there a third category, of organized deception and propaganda that is extra-democratic but representing the real way that our government operates, not the aberration of individuals? The e-mailer seems to think that the US government is a “powerful military state with an excellent propaganda apparatus.” This does not reflect reality as I understand it. Our government is deliberately not monolithic. There are different branches with a balance of power. There is also a two-party system, with the parties being in strong opposition politically, each more than willing to expose the shenanigans of the other party. And we have a constitutionally guaranteed free press, which may not always be optimally effective, but collectively it works pretty diligently to expose any government lies.

The OBL killing was an interesting event. The government acted partly out of legitimate military secrecy to carry out the operation. Then there was the question of PR – how to handle the aftermath of taking out a figure like OBL. There were many concerns – proving that he was actually killed, but minimizing the making of a martyr out of him, and not wanting to have any remains to act as a shrine or rallying point. I don’t think the government pulled it off optimally. They left far too much room for conspiracy mongering. But I can at least understand their dilemma.

With regard to this event the cynic assumes the government is lying, and assumes they have nefarious purposes and unlimited ability to carry out their deception. But at the same time they are “clumsy” and stupid, so that anyone can see that they are lying. This is conspiracy mongering, not skepticism.

The e-mailer continues:

“I haven’t been listening since much, and so wondered if your skeptical eyebrows raised a detectable scintilla or so when the elite Navy Sal (sic) Team that killed OBL perished in a helicopter crash.”

The conspiracy theorizing cynic sees this event as confirmation that there is a government cover-up. There is no evidence offered for a conspiracy – just take an event and cast it in as sinister and cynical a light as possible, and criticize any who do not follow you down this rabbit hole of not being skeptical.

The Navy Seals have been busy in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it is tragic but not surprising that they are suffering casualties. We don’t need a conspiracy theory to explain this. Further, while members of Navy Seal team 6, the team that killed OBL, were on the helicopter, the US government told the AP that none of them were the individuals involved in the OBL operation. Of course, this could just be another government lie.

I am open to any reasonable interpretation of events and to actual evidence that a specific interpretation is correct. The skeptical point of view is not to just assume the maximally cynical point of view. The skeptical approach is to evaluate the evidence and the plausibility of various hypotheses.

But as Joe said – you can always try to seem more skeptical than the next guy by short circuiting this process and just being cynical.

58 Responses to “Skepticism vs Cynicism”

  1. tmac57 says:

    Conspriacy theorists are like someone putting together a jigsaw puzzle,where they already know what the final picture is supposed to look like before they go hunting for the pieces that fit. Just discard the pieces that don’t coincide with the image that you are after,and you are bound to see what you want to see.

    • Right. And, I thought the column here should emphasize the conspiracy thinking more than the cynicism. I can be a cynic about the government without being a conspiracy theorist.

      And, I’m surprised nobody’s blogged here yet about … Hypocritchens’ death. (Not my word; saw it on American Prospect, and loved it.)

      • tmac57 says:

        I suspect Shermer is working on something about Hitchens,and SGU is going to talk about him on the next podcast I understand.

      • If it’s Shermer, Hitch’s ‘anti-totalitarianism’ on deliberately smoking in no-smoking areas, rather than being a suck-up to Big Tobacco, will be lauded by him.

      • Wrong says:

        Yay! Let’s insult dead people! That’s never in poor taste, especially when it’s unrelated to the original post.

        I’d wonder a) Why the name calling? and b) To co-opt the christian saying “Judge not lest ye be judged.” Do you really want us to go through and see if any of your views are contradictory, or similar?

        I certainly giggled when you used the term “Tobacco facism” after mocking his (Equally silly) term “Islamofacism”. I’d double check on using the word facist correctly, I’m really sick of people misusing it. The Nazis were Facists, Mussolini’s Italy was facist, the USSR was arguably very similar to a facist regime.

        Blowing cigarette smoke in someone’s face? Just being a grade-a asshole, but not a facist. Seriously. Hyperbole and a half.

      • I didn’t call him a tobacco fascist, exactly. But, I did say that Big Tobacco is a quasi-terrorist which, in the U.S. alone, every two days, ad infinitum, kills as many people as al-Qaeda does on 9/11:

      • AS for “speak no ill of the dead,” I think you’re “wrong” on this one. I very much agree with Glenn Greenwald: If you’re going to do that much battle in public, well, then the shoe’s going to pinch a bit on your own obit.

      • Max says:

        The taboo against speaking ill of the dead never stopped Hitchens, and he’d be proud of people who don’t let it stop them.

  2. Miles says:

    I liked your post, Steven. A few thoughts:

    “True skepticism, however, is hard intellectual work.”

    This is probably true, I’m not sure. But everyone who has an ideology, (and everyone has an ideology, even the regulars here who believe they do not) often justify their beliefs in this way. Most of us want to believe that we came to our own conclusions via a process of “hard intellectual work” and that all the others who disagree are intellectually lazy. I might see this attitude a bit more from those who lean politically left, but I see it from both sides, and I’m sure I’ve been guilty of it at some point as well. There’s nothing bad about hard work of course, but it doesn’t mean you are right or wrong.

    “There is no evidence offered for a conspiracy – just take an event and cast it in as sinister and cynical a light as possible, and criticize any who do not follow you down this rabbit hole of not being skeptical.”

    Sure, there is no strong evidence to support the conspiracy. But both views (that there is a conspiracy, and that there is not) operate from a starting set of premises. Just as the conspiracy theorist starts from the premise that the government is likely engaged in intricate conspiracies, you seem to be starting from the premise that the government is not (unless I misunderstand the tone of your article). Both are an ideology, and both views start from a place that can’t be proven. The only non-ideological place to start from, is purely from an “I don’t know” position, which is very hard to do, especially because if you are being truly skeptical and devoid of ideology, “I don’t know” is the only conclusion you can reach after looking at the evidence. And that view tends to not be very useful.

    Science in general is fairly useless without an ideology behind it. Who cares about how the human body works unless we ideologically believe the knowledge to be interesting or believe that it is good to use that knowledge in order to improve human lives? Without ideology, science is just the raw retrieval of information without purpose. Instead of lamenting the existence of ideology, I find it infinitely more useful to accept it, understand it, and recognize how it can lead us astray. I would like to see a day where the word “ideology” isn’t a bad word in the skeptic community, but one that simply comes with trade-offs which need to be understood.

    • Max says:

      Don’t confuse subjective values with objective reality.

      You really should start with an “I don’t know” position, and learn history to form your premises.

      • Miles says:

        “Don’t confuse subjective values with objective reality.”

        I’m not sure what I said to warrant this bit of advice.

        “You really should start with an “I don’t know” position, and learn history to form your premises.”

        That sounds really nice on paper, but has some problems in practice.

        The first, is that such an approach is impossible to apply generally. Do you research every bit of junk you get in the mail before making a judgement about whether it is junk or not? Do you perform a personal analysis of every bit of advice you hear before deciding whether or not to accept it? Do you error-check every research paper or encyclopedia article before accepting its conclusions? When you read a history book, do you fact-check every bit of it before accepting whether or not the author is telling you the truth? I know the answer to this is “no”. We all develop shortcuts in life where we make ideological judgements about things before doing our own scientific research to make a decision. Otherwise, you would be unable to get through an average day of life and make the decisions you need to make on a daily basis. For most of the decisions you make every day, you have to rely on an ideological premise to guide that choice. Doing objective, scientific research before making any decisions in life is impossible.

        The second, is that even when you do make an effect to start from the “I don’t know” premise, it rarely ever works out that way. You can tell yourself you did that, and most scientists do, but every scientist usually have a preferred result in mind before performing an experiment. To think that scientist who puts years of hard research into a hypothesis doesn’t have an ideological tendency to confirm that his hypothesis is correct is naive. That’s half the reason we have peer review in science. Human behavior is driven largely by incentives. Escaping the influence of those incentives is possible, but improbable. My rule of thumb has always been the following:

        If you think that you are being objective, you probably aren’t.

        Human beings are not computers. When we make choices in life, we don’t simply “do the math”. We are a lot more complicated than that, and a lot more imperfect. This is why science is so hard. If human beings were more like computers, science would be trivial.

        So in my view, you have two choices. You can try and convince yourself that you are impartial and objective, making it even more difficult see or admit when you are wrong. Or, you can admit that you have an ideology and that you are prone to confirmation bias, do your best to compensate for it, and get comfortable with the idea of human knowledge being limited and imperfect.

      • Miles says:

        I had several grammar mistakes there. I meant to say “…even when you do make an effort to start from the “I don’t know” premise…”

      • Wrong says:

        Sorry, but the way that science and reason works is not this. The principle of the Null Hypothesis is paramount: Before you can claim an effect or work towards a theory, you must be able to observe an unexplainable (Under the current understanding) phenomena.

        In my view, I found the actions of the US exceedingly odd. So I balanced it up:

        US Lying, Osama wasn’t attacked? Why wouldn’t Al Qaeda deny it? So that ones dead.

        Osama captured? Why say he’s dead? After Abu Gharaib and Guantonomo, no-one will care if you torture a legitimate mass-murderer, and besides, what use is he? By this point, he’s almost certainly not the biggest part of the puzzle.
        As far as I can see, there’s no upside to this scenario.

        Finally, Osama dead? PR win, and the US military/government making mistakes? Not exactly uncommon.

        Of course, I neglect to imagine him as a CIA plant or whatever, or inside job nonsense, but that requires far too many unsupported assumptions.

        So, I don’t see anything there that’s any more concrete than anything else, so I stick to acceptance until more probative evidence comes along. Anything else would be intellectually dishonest conspiracy mongering.

      • Max says:


        When you talk about the motivations for doing science, those are subjective values. That’s different from ideology about how nature works, like “God doesn’t play dice with the world.”

        I agree with your last paragraph.

    • tmac57 says:

      Miles-What definition of ‘ideology’ are you using here?

      • Miles says:

        Having a preference for or against some idea.

      • MadScientist says:

        Then you are using the word to conflate idiocy and science. In science, at least ideally, the preference of belief is determined by the evidence and a rigorous process to find fault with the claims. In pseudo-science people invent scenarios in support of their claims rather than actually attacking the claims as science does. This is why science weeds out the worthless claims while pseudo-science just goes on making up new shit every day.

      • Miles says:

        “Then you are using the word to conflate idiocy and science. In science, at least ideally, the preference of belief is determined by the evidence and a rigorous process to find fault with the claims. In pseudo-science people invent scenarios in support of their claims rather than actually attacking the claims as science does. This is why science weeds out the worthless claims while pseudo-science just goes on making up new shit every day.”

        I read this several times, trying to understand what you are trying to say here.

        I don’t think you are claiming that the human beings who “do science” are not ideological, or not prone to bias. If so, I think I’ll easily win that debate. But I don’t think that is what you are upset about.

        I have a feeling that you are talking about what the scientific community calls “theories” and what laymen often call “proofs”. Maybe you think I’m making the following claim:

        Scientific theories/proofs are simply ideological conclusions reached by human beings.

        If that is the claim you think I’m making, you are wrong.

        One of the problems I run into when talking about science, is that when I use the word “science”, other people hear the word “proof”. But well-established scientific theories/proofs are only one small part of “science” as a whole. There is methodology, philosophy of science, evidence, hypothesis, experimentation, etc.

        For example, there is a lot of scientific “evidence” out there which suggest that certain things might be true. But they do not have solid theories behind them, they are not well-established, or there is other evidence which suggests the opposite. Science is filled with “studies”, and “evidence”, and “observations”.

        There is a lot of correlation evidence found by scientific researchers who have not discovered casual evidence. Sometimes, establishing causality can be impossible.

        Behind a lot of that “evidence” is ideology. This is why some physicists are/were hip to string theory, and some are not. Most of these physicists don’t go around proclaiming that they have proof that they are right, but they do believe their hypothesis is right in their heads, even though they can’t prove it yet. For a physicist to believe that string theory is right requires more than just “looking at the evidence”. It means deciding that one body of evidence is more convincing than all of the evidence that supports alternative theories. That is an ideological choice.

        Einstein believed he was right about general relativity, even before there was much experimental data to support him. That’s because he was ideological (in other words, human). There was evidence to support his ideology, yes, but not enough to know he was right. But he had decided that he was probably right long before there was much experimental data to “prove” it. The thing is, for every good scientist that does in fact turn out to be correct about their hypothesis, there are dozens more who do not.

        Science is difficult.

        Humans are prone to “confirmation bias”. Which means that when we find evidence to support our own beliefs, we consider that evidence to be “better” than evidence which does not support our beliefs. But what happens when there is evidence on both sides of an argument? People, even scientists, fall back on ideology.

        Economists still debate and disagree over the causes of the great depression. There is “evidence”, evidence which is factual, to support conflicting theories. Each side throws up there hands and says “Look at all this evidence I have! All this data! See!? I MUST be right!”, to which the other economist replies “I have data too, and I find my data more convincing than yours!” The problem is, no experiment can be done to determine which evidence is better. The economy is too complicated. Other branches of science are like this as well. Medicine and environmental science come to mind. Sometimes the systems we are trying to study are so complex, that we can’t run a controlled experiment to determine causality and separate the relevant evidence from the irrelevant evidence.

        What you get in this case is a mix of scientific research, studies, and ideology. Human beings, the human mind, economics, etc. Anywhere it is difficult to pin down causal relationships, you have scientific research being done, evidence found for multiple theories, and people who support different theories claiming that the others are wrong.

        Sometimes, every once in a while, we get really strong, scientific theories, where all the evidence lines up beautifully, there are no contradictions, and the theory is virtually irrefutable. Those cases may be the holy grail, but they are very rare. Getting to that place is extremely difficult and it doesn’t happen often.

        Maybe you have a different definition of science. Maybe you only consider something to be scientific until it reaches that “irrefutable” stage. Maybe things like string theory aren’t considered “science” to you yet. But whatever you want to call all those other mounds of evidence that have gaps, its pretty hard to deny that human beings fill those gaps with ideology until they can be filled with something stronger. After all, we’re only human.

    • MadScientist says:

      You don’t understand science. The only ideology is “don’t believe something just because someone said so”. For science as a whole there is nothing sacred (although individual scientists have their own cows).

      • Miles says:

        You don’t understand science. The only ideology is “don’t believe something just because someone said so”. For science as a whole there is nothing sacred (although individual scientists have their own cows).

        And did you use science to determine what I do and do not understand about science? I’m sure whatever method you used is sound, so I’ll just trust your expertise that I do not “understand science”, whatever that actually means.

        I may not understand it, true. But I do know a few things about it. At least I think I do. One of the things I know is that “science” is not a conscious life-form, and therefore cannot not hold things to be “sacred”. I cannot recall where I said or implied this, but since you seem to think I did, – and you obviously understand science much better than I do – it stands to reason that I must have said or implied it somewhere. So thanks for straightening me out on that, as I must have been seriously confused.

        On a more serious note, I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess that this is the sentence of mine that evoked your straw-man:

        “Science in general is fairly useless without an ideology behind it.”

        By this, I do NOT mean that science == ideology. Nor does this statement mean that science is a process of believing “something just because someone said so”. Do you really think that this would have been my claim? I find that statements like these are a good way to gauge how much others are willing to listen to the merit of your arguments, or simply tune you out because they don’t like the music. When someone either intentionally misrepresents what you say, or genuinely misunderstands what you mean to be something that is obviously stupid and crazy (that I would seriously think science is just” believing in things because someone said so”), it’s a pretty good indicator that they have no interest in evaluating the content of your argument anyway. So I’m guessing that the following clarification is unnecessary and will fall on deaf ears.

        But just in case…

        What I’m saying, (and I attempted to make it clear by using examples), is that science isn’t good for anything unless it is actually applied by human beings. Even if that application is simply entertainment or satiation of curiosity, it has to be applied toward something for it to be of any use.

        And for a human being to apply the fruits of science -even if only to feel good about understanding the world around us- requires ideology. It requires that a human being think that it is a “good thing” to understand the world around him/her. It requires that human beings believe that understanding how the world works is a good use of time. And that belief is an ideology.

        Let me put it this way. Make list of the reasons why science is important. Put anything on it you want. Here are few random things:

        -It feels good to understand things.
        -Robots are useful.
        -Lasers are cool.
        -Growing food more efficiently is a good way to help keep my children alive.
        -It’s nice to be able to treat illnesses and injuries.
        -Transportation is nice.

        All of those reasons are ideological reasons. Again, I’m not saying the knowledge that science gives us is ideology. I’m saying that the reasons we want that knowledge are ideological reasons.

      • Wrong says:

        I’ve seen this before: Science denial via Slander I call it. Accusing unspecified people of an undetailed or proven confirmation bias. That’s a slanderous poisoning of the well.

        You can’t assume that scientists are making mistakes based on ideology, especially since scientists come from all different ideologies.

        Do you expect a Libartarian, Socialist, Liberal, Republican scientist to share similar ideology?The same Muslim, Christian, Bhuddist, Atheists? These guys aren’t going to see eye-to-eye. Australian, American, European, Asian?

        Everyone has different ideologies, and everyone believes different things, but the thing is, science is self correcting in this regard-you make a mistake, and someone will catch you, because they won’t agree, and because to do so improves their standing.

        It comes down to the type of thinking that scientists are a cabal of like-minded individuals. No, they’re a group of like-trained individuals, and believe all different things. Don’t claim an effect until you can prove it, here we go with the failure to pass the Null Hypothesis again.

      • Miles says:

        “I’ve seen this before: Science denial via Slander I call it. Accusing unspecified people of an undetailed or proven confirmation bias. That’s a slanderous poisoning of the well.”

        What science am I “denying” exactly? If you are going to accuse me of being anti-science, can you at least have the decency to point out the scientific idea that I have denied?

        “You can’t assume that scientists are making mistakes based on ideology, especially since scientists come from all different ideologies.”

        The logic of this statement is a non sequitur. It does not follow that I “can’t assume that scientists are making mistakes based on ideology” because they “come from all different ideologies”. It’s a bit like saying that I can’t assume all human beings eat food, because human beings like all kinds of different foods.

        Scientists are human beings. They are not super-beings or gods. This is pretty common. I’ve never seen it explicitly stated, but there often seems to be this implicit tone behind a lot of the comments here that scientists are some kind of higher-evolved species of humans that are not subject to self-interest and biases that are experienced by their lesser-evolved, non-scientist brethren. I think it’s because many of the people here look see scientists as the “heroes” of society, and so some of you naturally start to elevate them into something super-human.

        Well, good or bad, scientists are cut from the same cloth as the rest of us. They have their own self-interests, biases, and personality flaws just like the rest of us. That is the whole point of the scientific process. It’s designed to compensate for those flaws. But the scientific process has be followed by human beings, and self-interested, biased human beings sometimes fail at that process.

        We have a saying in computer science: “Garbage in, garbage out.” The scientific process is the same way.

        “It comes down to the type of thinking that scientists are a cabal of like-minded individuals. No, they’re a group of like-trained individuals, and believe all different things. Don’t claim an effect until you can prove it, here we go with the failure to pass the Null Hypothesis again.”

        A “proof” would require something that is beyond the capability of either of us. I wouldn’t ask you to “prove” that scientists aren’t subject to group-think. That would be ludicrous.

        Instead, would you settle for some evidence? Evidence and logical arguments are the best I can do. I don’t think anyone at this blog can do better. It probably won’t change your mind, because let’s face it, that’s not the way the human brain works. Once we have an ideology, we tend to stick with it. But here goes…

        First, I’ll offer the “climate gate” incident as evidence that scientists are biased and subject to group-think just like the rest of us. Before you go throwing up your hands and yelling that those documents are not evidence against AGW, calm down, I agree with you and I’m not saying that. But they do show that scientists can be self-interested, and engage in the same in-group, out-group social filtering as any political party. They show that scientists are in fact just human beings that sometimes let their ideology get the best of them.

        Next, I’ll offer the case of Daniel Shechtman, who won the Nobel Prize for his work in discovering “quasicrystals”. Shechtman was written off and treated as a nut job by his peers while working on his discovery.

        Here is a quote from Daniel:

        “I was thrown out of my research group. They said I brought shame on them with what I was saying,” he recalled, adding that the doyen of chemistry, the late Linus Pauling, had denounced the theory with the words: “There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists.”

        Matt Ridley quotes yet another case:

        “In the 1840s, Ignaz Semmelweiss’s lonely battle to get the medical establishment to accept that doctors were spreading childbed fever from mother to mother cost him his job and his sanity (though his prickly personality didn’t help). Alec Gordon, a doctor in Aberdeen, Scotland, had failed in the same quest five decades before.”

        How many of these would you like? I can go on and on…

        Remember, I’m not saying that science is bad, or that scientists are bad people, or that there is some conspiracy that scientists are all colluding to mislead the public or keep alternative ideas out of the practice.

        I’m saying that scientists, just like Democrats, Republicans, Pundits, and Priests, have their own ideology, biases, and interests, which sometimes affect their ability to do “proper science”. And why would we expect anything more? Scientists are just human beings.

  3. Max says:

    Cynicism is the conclusion, not a way of getting to the conclusion. Sometimes it’s the right conclusion, sometimes it’s the wrong conclusion. Someone who’s cynical about everything jumps to the conclusion even when it’s wrong.

    • tmac57 says:

      That’s an important point. A person can prematurely jump to a conclusion that coincidentally turns out to be correct,but that is short circuiting the intellectual process necessary to establish facts. The danger in that approach,is that confirmation bias might lead you to believe that your powers of reasoning are much better than they really are.

    • Wrong says:

      An excellent summary of the issue Max.

      Actually, I had a friend who did this. I knew more on a subject than he did, and told him something, and upon being told he was misinformed, he decided to get rather argumentative. In the end, he told me that I was asking him to rely on faith like a religious person, and that I wanted him to abandon his “Skepticism”. In truth, that’s the stupidest thing I’ve heard. I take it that the things I read or hear from trusted sources are true, unless proven wrong. No, it’s not the greatest skeptical approach, but it’s an act of good “faith” and makes life easier.

  4. Max says:

    Considering all the leaks about Neptune Spear, like the loss of a Black Hawk, use of a stealth drone, the fact that OBL was unarmed and had two phone numbers sewn into his clothing, you’d think that someone would mention if OBL wasn’t actually killed.

  5. I am not starting with the premise that the government never engages in cover up or conspiracies. I outlined the kinds that happen above, and even gave a specific example (Iran Contra).

    What I challenge is the assumption that the government has a police/propaganda state level of control. This may be true in some countries, but the evidence is overwhelming against it in the US.

    First off – we have a free press. They might not always get all the facts, they have their own agendas, etc. – but they are not puppets of the government.

    Second – the government is not momolithic, nor is there any evidence of a shadow government that is really in control. I do not think that the public typically gets the full behind the scenes information about what goes on at the highest levels of government. This is partly due to legitimate secrecy, and partly politicians covering their asses. But different politicians and parties are in real and legitimate conflict, and they would expose the shenanigans of their opponents – and this happens regularly.

    That is what the evidence shows us, and is a reasonable starting point. But in any specific case I will listen to whatever he evidence shows, but not simple cynical assumptions. That’s the point.

    • Miles says:

      I agree with your point Steven. I also dismiss the idea that America has some kind of “shadow government” controlling things behind the scenes, and for the same reasons you do. I don’t begrudge your point of view, nor do I disagree with any of the methodology you used to reach your point of view.

      My only aim was to suggest that, for better or worse, you have a preference, or a “world-view”, or a “starting premise”, just like the rest of us. The fact that it would take some very strong evidence to convince you of the existence of a shadow government (and rightly so in my opinion), indicates that you have a bias which leans toward a “shadow government” not existing. I’m biased in the same way.

      To put it another way, I have a feeling that it might take less evidence to convince you that refined sugars can cause diabetes than the amount of evidence it would take to convince you that a shadow government is secretly controlling our nation. Right or wrong, good or bad, there is a bias/ideology in place here.

      The very phrase “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” is a statement of ideology. We both know that you cannot simply dismiss something as being untrue on the grounds that the claim is “extraordinary”. Yet, we can probably agree on the inherent wisdom in having an ideological assumption that if the claim is extraordinary, it’s inherently more likely to be false than true, therefore requiring much stronger evidence than would be required to convince us of a less “extraordinary” claim. That very bit of advice is ideology at work, and in my opinion, a pretty good one.

      My comment wasn’t a refutation to your article, but simply an opportunity to talk about ideology, which is often treated as a dirty word in the skeptic community. That’s why I headed my comment with “A few thoughts:” instead of “Here is where I think you are wrong:”.

      • Wrong says:

        I stopped at the “Biased towards the shadow government not existing part”. If someone makes a claim or proposition, unsupported, and unlikely, you don’t take it as true. That’s not a bias. Especially not an ideological one. I take a different view to Novella, and I do see governments like the US as being overly militaristic, secretive, and in my view, they’re as bad as the enemy they fight. I’d put Bush and Osama in the same category. But I still won’t start believing in a cover-up or conspiracy, however much I may suspect it or want to believe it, because that’s crazy talk, I have no proof.

        If I told you there was an invisible, intangible, undetectable, pink (Yes, invisible, but it’s pink because that makes it sillier) fire-breathing-dragon in your garage, would you take that at face value? If I told you leprechauns, Santa, the Easter Bunny, or similar exist, would you believe me?

        It’s not cynical, or biased, or anything to doubt my claims in these cases, because I’ve made an assertion, and as such, the burden of proof lies with me. If you don’t substantiate your claim, your claim must be assumed false, unless we want to get extremely neutral and agnostic (We don’t know anything and can’t know anything, because we can’t eliminate anything type thinking).

        Now, some propositions, the existance of an overarching secret government, or that of a divine creator may seem more rational or likely, since we’re hard wired to look for connections and conspiracies, and there’s some evidance that we look for higher powers. But that doesn’t eliminate the fact that until some proof which is positive is provided, they’re as substantial as Sagan’s Dragon.

      • Miles says:

        “It’s not cynical, or biased, or anything to doubt my claims in these cases, because I’ve made an assertion, and as such, the burden of proof lies with me.”

        It is an bias. It is ideology. It is the exact definition of ideology. To say that “there is no positive evidence for X, therefore I don’t believe in X” is a preference for some idea, which is the exact definition of ideology.

        The problem is that you automatically assign negative connotations to the word ideology. You automatically think ideology == bad. The point I’m trying to make is that ideology is neutral. There is “good” ideology, which helps you accomplish your goals and illuminate the word around you, and there is “bad” ideology which does the opposite.

        But your has been so biased over time to automatically think of ideology and bias as a bad thing, that you just can’t come to grips with it existing within a skeptical thought process. And that’s sad because you are missing out on having a better understanding of how humans make decisions and solve problems.

  6. tim says:

    If you ask a conspiracy nut they will tell you THEY are the skeptic. Ask a Creationist, or ID propagandist, and they will claim to be the one who is being oppressed and their point of view targeted maliciously. They always are guilty of what they claim to be the victim of. ……or something like that.

    • Miles says:

      Agreed, Tim, but, all groups do that. Creationists, conspiracy-theorists, faith-healers, skeptics, scientists, liberals, conservatives, anarchists, libertarians, doctors, psychics, musicians, communists, socialists, etc. Every group has a tendency to believe that they are evaluating the evidence carefully and correctly, and everyone else is wrong. That trait is not unique among creationists and conspiracy-theorists.

      You might be able to argue that this tendency to think of yourself as being objective and everyone who disagrees as being subjective is more prevalent in some groups than others. I think that’s a matter of statistics and I wouldn’t know (nor do I put a lot of stock in the validity of statistics).

      I’ll just leave you with this little gem of a quote from Paul Krugman’s blog today. This is one of the other liberal commentaries who believes, much like Paul Krugman, that liberals are scientific and objective, and that conservatives dogmatic ideologues with psychological issues, and comments like these are pretty typical no matter what kind of group you are dealing with:

      “It doesn’t matter to the conservative mind, which is different at some fundamental level regardless of education, position, and even when faced with the obvious. There is some sort of mental monkey trap present, the trap where a properly sized hole is cut in a coconut, the coconut tied to stake, and a peanut placed in the coconut. When the monkey grabs the peanut it cannot get its hand out, and is held by the trap as it won’t let go of the peanut. In the case of conservatives the peanut is dogma, and a refusal to let go of it regardless of circumstances. This is evident in many, many situations besides economics, and it seems to be the conservative way of thinking how the world works. I guess that is why so few are represented in the basic sciences.”

      • MadScientist says:

        I’ve always wondered if the Monkey Trap were an urban legend. I’ve seen monkeys do all sorts of things to get food, but never seen them do anything which might suggest that the trap would actually work. In fact I’d imagine that if a monkey got a hand trapped in a coconut the monkey would simply whack the coconut against something to break it – there’s no need to let go of that peanut. Come to think of it, the Monkey Trap isn’t even among the few methods I’ve seen people use to live trap monkeys.

      • tmac57 says:

        To paraphrase Bertrand Russell, one might have the perspective of:
        “I have an ideology.
        You are dogmatic.
        He is a pig headed fool”

      • tmac57 says:

        Miles,you have certainly expended a lot of time and energy on your comments here,so I deduce from that that you have a message that you want skeptics to take away from your efforts.
        Are you trying to tell us that we are hypocrites,because we don’t acknowledge that we are subject to the same cognitive traps that we point to in the objects of our criticisms?
        Does it rile you that many, if not most skeptics are not conservative politically?
        Do you consider yourself to be a ‘skeptic’ in the sense that this blog is about?
        Do all of the things about ideology and bias,and doubt about certainty that you wrote about above,apply to yourself to the same degree that you believe that it applies to whomever you had in mind when you wrote it,and if it does,then how are we to evaluate the value of what you wrote?

      • Miles says:

        “Miles,you have certainly expended a lot of time and energy on your comments here,so I deduce from that that you have a message that you want skeptics to take away from your efforts.”

        Well, the “message” of each of my comments are within that particular comment. It would be nice if those messages were read and considered, sure. But I don’t presume to think that everyone is really that interested in what I have to say, if that is what you mean.

        “Are you trying to tell us that we are hypocrites,because we don’t acknowledge that we are subject to the same cognitive traps that we point to in the objects of our criticisms?”

        I’m not particularly concerned with hypocrisy, no. I suppose I am mostly frustrated with the way that science gets misused and invoked simply to dismiss evidence that one doesn’t like.

        “Does it rile you that many, if not most skeptics are not conservative politically?”

        Well, considering that I’m not conservative, no, it does not rile me. I’m a libertarian/classical liberal, so I’m equally hated by conservatives as I am by liberals. I wouldn’t expect there to be an even-distribution of political views in the skeptic community, that would be too neat. But I do get frustrated when anyone who isn’t a liberal is labeled as “anti-science”, simply because one is not a liberal.

        I also don’t feel particularly alone. There are other libertarian-leaning skeptics out there. Penn & Teller, Michael Shermer, Ronald Bailey, and Matt Ridley to name a few. I think if you asked the typical subscriber of Reason magazine to listen to Skeptoid, he would agree with all of the content and feel very comfortable with it.

        “Do you consider yourself to be a ‘skeptic’ in the sense that this blog is about?

        I do. I don’t spend much time posting comments bashing people who believe in homeopathy because I see it as a personal waste of time. I don’t really have much to add to those kinds of posts. Ghosts don’t exist and 9/11 wasn’t a conspiracy. I don’t really have much more to say about that.

        “Do all of the things about ideology and bias,and doubt about certainty that you wrote about above,apply to yourself to the same degree that you believe that it applies to whomever you had in mind when you wrote it,and if it does,then how are we to evaluate the value of what you wrote?

        Of course they apply to me. I’ll be the first to admit that I let my ideology get in the way of evaluating things with an even temperament sometimes. I tried to read a Naomi Klein book once, and it literally made me sick to my stomach. That’s not an insult to her, but to me. The fact that I could experience physical pain because I’m so extremely uncomfortable with socialism isn’t behavior that befits a skeptical mind, so I do what I can to compensate, knowing that it’s a weakness.

        You evaluate the value of what I write the same way you evaluate anything else you read. I don’t know what your process is, you tell me. I would assume that what I write has to pass through some kind of bullshit detection, then get sifted through the ideology filter, and at some point facts and opinions are weighed according to strong or convincing you find the opinions and how relevant you find the facts. Honestly, I don’t know, I’m just taking a stab at some of the things that may be important to your evaluation process.

      • tmac57 says:

        Thanks for some honest answers.I appreciate that.

  7. Phil says:

    In this case any skepticism I had disappeared when Al Queda basically confirmed OBL death. Where is the conspiracy exactly?

  8. MadScientist says:

    The government was careful to check that they got the right guy, even doing DNA tests – or so it’s claimed. Now with DNA tests there’s no point in showing the analysis – this will not keep conspiracy nuts from saying the sample wasn’t from the person it’s claimed to be from. However, the terrorists admit that their leader is dead and we see no more videos or hear any more recent recordings by Osama – these are all consistent with the claims of the US government. But then maybe the guv’mint staged the whole thing and Osama was never even a terrorist! Oops – I apologize for channeling Michael Moore.

    • warren says:

      Additionally, if the U.S. did say they killed him and he showed up later, they stood a ton to lose. Sure, people could always say the U.S. conspired with OBL to fake his death…it never ends.

  9. Well said, Steve. Believe, don’t believe—that’s all neither here nor there. The question for skeptics is, “What can we demonstrate?

  10. d brown says:

    Not believing anything is our biggest enemy. Why try and do anything about anything? “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away. —Philip K. Dick, author” “Conservatives are not necessarily stupid, but most stupid people are conservatives.” – John Stuart Mill

  11. d brown says:

    We have a free press?? Only if you own it. The mass media only prints what the right people say is true. The mass media still attacks people who point out what anybody can see. If they would look. But the media will not look at what the owners say not to. There are five big trusts that own what you read, see or hear. And Wall St. owns them.

    • Miles says:

      I just read what you wrote, d brown. Are you owned by Wall St.?

    • Wrong says:

      I giggled. The press is free. That’s it. It’s also owned by a variety of different interests. Wall Street is not a unified group. That’s uneducated liberal thinking. It’s made up of many individuals and corporations, and they don’t necessarily like each other or believe the same thing. So that takes care or that.
      Finally, didn’t the New York Times help post and redact the Cablegate (I hate the gate scandel label cables? That is not the action of a restricted press of the kind you talk about.

  12. d brown says:

    NO THEY DON’T OWN ME. but they stopped printing my letters after I privately pointed out the lies in their delusional Al Gore stories. and never have again.
    “The uniformity of the US media has become much more complete since the days of the cold war. During the 1990s, the US government permitted an unconscionable concentration of print and broadcast media that terminated the independence of the media. Today the US media is owned by 5 giant companies … More importantly, the values of the conglomerates reside in the broadcast licenses, which are granted by the government, and the corporations are run by corporate executives—not by journalists—whose eyes are on advertising revenues and the avoidance of controversy that might produce boycotts or upset advertisers and subscribers. Americans who rely on the totally corrupt corporate media have no idea what is happening anywhere on earth, much less at home.”

    Paul Craig Roberts, Ronnies former Secretary of the U.S. Treasury (2/19/09)

    • Wrong says:

      Ahah! So we would be better off trusting the politicians and the government to print their information through the press which is corrupt so we can read it! I see. Look, I have no doubt of corruption and bias in the media. MSNBC has a definate left lean, and shows like those run by Maher have the same. Fox News is a rabid cult of crazy right wing nuttery, and Glenn Beck is a very scary man. But that doesn’t mean that the whole thing needs disregarding. If you refuse the media, even if it isn’t perfect, then you know even less. And as Mr Roberts didn’t seem to realise- 5 Giant Companies is not 1 Giant Company. 5 companies trying to one up and shut down each other? I’d say that the competition there makes it less corrupt, not more.

      • Janet Camp says:

        Wrong, I think that perhaps you are too young to remember a much “freer” press–or at least one that actually did NEWS. There is good press out there, but not the MSM that reaches the great majority of people. The “debates” are a good example of this–in that they are not debates at all, nor do any of the “journalists” ask worthwhile questions. I like Brian Williams, he seems like a great guy, but it makes me puke to listen to him (and the others) talking at the geriatric demographic that his “show” is trying to reach in a tone of voice suited to a pre-school. The local claptrap is even worse.

        Newspapers aren’t much better, and are appalling when it comes to their science reporting–the whole MMR/Wakefield debacle being a good example–with its false equivalency reporting.

        Books remain the best and freest of commercial interests, but what percentage of Americans read non fiction (or read books at all)? Self-help doesn’t count as non-fiction.
        Even books suffer from limits on what “sells”. I hear and read about many books on political subjects on the BBC that are never published in this country because they are assumed to have no audience.

        I think you are too easily dismissing dbrowns assessment, although he/she may be going a tad far–but just a tad.

      • Miles says:


        You seem to be pretty quick in jumping to the conclusion that there has been a general decline in the quality of news media over time. This is different from making a claim that you simply don’t like the content of current news media, and I wonder if you are confusing the two. If you still claim that there has been some objective decline in quality, how are you measuring this quality?

        It seems to me that there are more varied sources of information than ever before, and fact-checking that information is easier than it has ever been before. I really don’t want to go back to the 50’s, where your choices were 3 TV news networks, or 3 national newspapers and that was it. And good luck trying to fact-check any of those. What were those people going to do? Go to the local public library and look up Vietnam War casualties in Encyclopedia Britannica?

        I think it’s pretty hard to argue that things have gotten worse instead of better, so I’d like to hear how you are measuring this quality.

        Finally, even if you are correct that quality has declined, would you point the blame at some kind of market-failure the way d brown does? I think a more likely cause would be consumer demand. The TV pundits you mention, Glenn Beck, Bill Mahr, and others like Anderson Cooper and John Stewart are so popular because that is what the majority of consumers want to watch. There is no conspiracy here, as d brown suggests. It’s a simple matter of the market pandering to the desires of consumers.

      • Wrong says:

        Exactly the message I was trying to get across. Thanks.

        I find it highly amusing that in the article concerning conspiracy theories, someone tries to insert their own in the comments.

      • Wrong says:

        Oh, I certainly agree that the mainstream media is full of rubbish. Celebrating celebrities, nonsense gossip articles, sports reports and nonsense. The news is full of rubbish and nonsense, and is of a generally low quality. This is undeniable. It’s also got nothing to do with freedom.

        I’d also say that has nothing to do with what dbrown has said. He’s assuming the entire media is corrupt, which I believe to be factually unsupported and mistaken. The media is not one body, and it is not one which is informed by one perspective. If you can’t see that, then you are being wilfully ignorant. There are all manner of points of view out there, and while they might be spouting mostly filler, they’re not all the same.

  13. Evan says:

    Miles, you and Steven may be ‘biased’ towards the world view (against the existence of shadow govt) because of the evidence that exists or doesnt exiat for such a position. But does that necessarily make you ideological about that position?
    Taken to the extreme, what you saying is that any conclusion necessarily becomes ideology or bias. For example, someone may hold a belief in the existence of gravity. But is it right to say they are ‘biased’ towards the existence of gravity or that they have an ‘ideological’ belief in gravity? These words have serious connotations, and they only should apply in certain contexts.
    I think the word ‘ideology’ and ‘bias’ are dirty ones in the skeptical community precisely because of connotations with error, prejudice, and unfair partiality. In fact these can even be the definition of bias. But this is different from having a world view at all, particularly one based on solid evidence.
    So basically I think its the wrong language to use words such as ‘bias’ and ‘ideology’ in this situation.

  14. d brown says:

    “Other details are equally eye-opening. Pew Research judged the levels of knowledgeability (correct answers) among those surveyed and found that those who scored the highest were regular watchers of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show and Colbert Report. They tied with regular readers of major newspapers in the top spot—with 54% of them getting 2 out of 3 questions correct. Watchers of the Lehrer News Hour on PBS followed just
    behind.” NOT BY ME! “If this were a single instance of such bias, it would be insignificant. Alas, the Times has had to apologize to its readers for its credulousness in believing the lies it was fed by the Bush Administration vis-à-vis its ruinous war in Iraq. It has also apologized for accepting the unfounded accusations of conservatives against the Clinton Administration about alleged atomic spying, during the Wen Ho Lee investigation. The Times still owes an apology in a more significant case as well: Seth Mnookin’s Hard News reveals that in an unpublicized report by Marty Baron, then the Times’s associate managing editor and now editor in chief of the Boston Globe, he described the paper’s coverage of the Lewinsky scandal as characterized by “repeating sensational reports…without confirming them,” relying on “passive voice…as a substitute for sourcing,” “speculation” and “overstatement based on evidence seen or heard.” In almost every case, the victim was Bill Clinton.
    So the so-called liberal New York Times terms itself too tough on Clinton, Democrats and liberals and too easy on Bush, Republicans and conservatives. As a result, it ends up misleading its readers, but it changes nothing about its coverage”

  15. Max says:

    Here’s a cynical Soviet joke:
    A hare runs like mad through the woods when a wolf stops him and asks, “Why are you running?” The hare answers, “Haven’t you heard? They’re arresting and castrating camels!”
    “But you’re not a camel,” the wolf says.
    “Sure, when they arrest and castrate you, try and prove you’re not a camel.”

    Obviously, this satirizes the presumption of guilt in a police state, but it also describes cynics. When they assume you’re a paid disinformation agent, try and prove you’re not.

  16. Meg says:

    Very well said. Definitely a distinction that needs to be made, especially in today’s political climate. Lots of people out there with very little information are making very cynical, very counterproductive assumptions about government that have no basis in reality. Cynicism isn’t going to fix anything; skepticism will.

  17. Carlos Vidal says:

    For me the difference between a skeptic and a Cynic is simple: the skeptic questions; the cynic judges usually with a touch of sarcasm.

  18. blick says:

    Cynics are often very different from skeptics in that they are not really skeptics. In fact they doubt when doubt is not necessary and usually they doubt for a purpose: that of discrediting doubters and critics. For example, many cynics doubt that a person can act out of the goodness of their own heart. That is because they believe all people are selfish. But then they push that further and target people who seem to do good deeds or have good intentions to ridicule them or “prove” they are not sincere. Often this is a form of denialism, yes. So cynics about global warming, for example, will call themselves skeptics but they have an ideology: that of defending the free-market or the right of corporations not to be regulated, for example.

    This raises another issue, that of definition of ‘ideology’. Ideology is not just about ideas, it is about politics. An overly or unduly ideological person is one who defends a certain principle in spite of its merits or in order to defend the principle for its own sake. E.G.: communists are called ideologues when they defend communism, in spite of its shortcomings. The same can be said about those who defend the “free market” in spite of all its shortcomings and in spite of the fact that there really is no such thing.