Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Skeptic or cynic?

I am a skeptic, and I try not to be a cynic. Skeptics accept the scientific method and rational thinking as the best tools with which to evaluate claims and get closest to the truth. Skeptikos in Greek means to inquire, or find out. This can be hard work; being a cynic is easy.

The skepticblog refers to cynics as cheap skeptics. Cynics often dismiss things out of hand, usually without a rational explanation, and often with an ideological agenda. This may take the form of denialism, and is usually very negative as it is not constructive and falls short of offering a solution. I would class conspiracy theorists as cynics: unscientifically bending the story to fit their world view.

More than this, cynics distrust not only the information presented, but also the motives of those behind the information. Skeptics question the idea, not the person. This area can be murky however, because in previous blogs I have talked about Conflict of Interest, which is basically saying that financial incentives (motives) drive biased (erroneous) results. There is considerable evidence to support this (one example).

So does that make me a cynic – one who discards claims out of hand without scientifically evaluating the evidence, AND one who questions the motives of the researchers? I would like to think that I am not guilty on the first count, but I believe that it is reasonable to question the motives of researchers when there is good evidence that financial incentives lead to biased studies. To ignore this would be naïve (un-skeptical).


  1. Dr. S - you bring up such a good point: is it a slippery slope from being (wisely) skeptical to becoming a cranky cynic?

    But with all we hear and read almost daily about "good evidence that financial incentives lead to biased studies", how can one NOT slide down that slope? Consider that former NEJM editor Dr. Marcia Angell herself once wrote:

    "It is simply no longer possible to believe much of the clinical research that is published, or to rely on the judgment of trusted physicians or authoritative medical guidelines." ( )

    For patients like me, who would genuinely love to believe that what our physicians are reading about in prestigious medical journals is actually TRUE, this kind of insider's bombshell opinion of untrustworthy medical research (and those who profit financially to say what they're saying about it) is truly discouraging.

    To help slow down my own downward slide, I keep this quote (sorry, don't have the author's name anymore) taped inside my bathroom cupboard door: "Cynicism is what passes for insight among the mediocre".

    Or could that just be a motto-gone-viral courtesy of Big Pharma!?

    Ooops, was that my cynical voice out loud?

    1. Thanks cz,
      Your view as a patient is interesting, as it is my opinion that the patients are part of the problem in that they share the biases of the medical profession. They want the treatment to work as much as the doctor does. This is great for the placebo effect, but can lead to a lot more disappointment than expected.
      For more on the topic of the failure of research, readers should read my blog titled: Don't believe the hype, or the research:

    2. Excellent blog post - thanks for that. It does seem to fuel the flames of scientific bias as the culprit in unreliable data!