Doubtful Crumbs

The Blurry Line Between Skepticism and Cynicism

We are living in an age of low trust. Without trust, many problems in public policy confront us – polarization, disinformation, and roadblocks to progress in public health. Unhealthy cynicism begins to crowd out the healthier approach to inquiry, skepticism. The advice to trust, but verify, gives way to broad claims that everything is rigged and facts cannot be trusted.

This is especially true right now in matters of health. Public confidence in the medical system is at a record low after a dropping by a quarter between 2021 and 2023. Thus it should not be surprising that “Americans are not sure what is true in an age of health misinformation.”

Skeptics and Cynics Regarding Obesity

This has been a year of great progress in obesity care. With the availability of new, more effective medicines for treating obesity, wide swaths of the public are waking up to something we have known for decades. Obesity is a complex, chronic disease and treatment – if it’s grounded in science – can make a tremendous difference for a person’s health and quality of life.

But along with that progress, we have also seen quite a bit of both healthy skepticism and nihilistic cynicism. The skeptics have questions, but remain curious. What will the long-term outcomes be? How well does the value of these new medicines line up with their prices? Will people be able to maintain better health with them? How do they fit in with other options for obesity care, like metabolic surgery?

Cynics merely reject it all. “I can’t believe any research funded by big pharma” is a rationalization we often hear. It makes no difference if it’s peer-reviewed in the world’s best medical journals.

Cynics tell friends and family that these new medicines will inevitably be a disaster for health. To cynics, obesity care guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics is “terrifying.”

Skepticism, Cynicism, and Disinformation

Skeptics are doubters. Cynics are disbelievers. Curiosity is the difference. When cynics discard curiosity, they open themselves up to disinformation and conspiracy theories. Alan Bensley and colleagues found a correlation between acceptance of disinformation and cynical or intuitive styles of thinking. In contrast they found indications that skeptical thinking predicts resistance to disinformation.

Questions, doubts, and skepticism have value – so long as we remain curious.

Click here for Bensley’s research on skepticism, cynicism, and belief in disinformation and here for perspective on the distinction between skepticism and cynicism. For more on the value of curiosity, click here.

Doubtful Crumbs, painting by Edwin Henry Landseer / WikiArt

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December 3, 2023