23 August, 2006

The difference between cynicism and skepticism

I watched an interesting, if disturbing, documentary on BBC2 last night, about the case of an alleged child abuse ring in the Orkney Isles. This case highlights the problems that arise when people refuse to question their assumptions, but also illuminates a key difference between the often confused concepts of cynicism and skepticism.

The facts are provided by an accompanying article for the program on the BBC website:

In 1991, five boys and four girls, aged between eight and 15, were taken from their homes on South Ronaldsay.

The children, who could not be identified at the time, returned to their homes two months later when legal action was thrown out by a sheriff…

…The raid was organised after social workers questioned members of another family - the W family - whose father had been jailed for sexual abuse.

They became fearful there was a child sex ring and ritual abuse taking place on South Ronaldsay.

The documentary interviewed some of the children, their parents, and other Orkney locals who were involved in a public campaign for the return of the children, as well as some of the people working for the social services at the time. The behaviour of this latter group during the incident was, to say the least, somewhat questionable. Dramatised transcripts of the interviews they had with the children showed that they placed intense pressure on them, pushing the subjects to ‘remember’ abuse even in the face of strong denials that anything had happened.

The whole thing was a giant trap of self reinforcing credulity. A real case of abuse – the father of the W family – was suspected of being only the tip of the iceburg, thanks to the belief (freshly imported from America) that a large proportion of childrens’ behavioural problems had their roots in unreported physical and sexual abuse. The social workers believed that more people were involved. If the children denied it, they were just repressing the horrible memories, and needed to be pushed to remember them. If the parents denied it, well of course that’s what they’d say! At no stage was the possibility that there was, actually, nothing to uncover even briefly entertained. Even now, after the allegations were dismissed and they were strongly criticised for their handling of the case, the social workers are struggling to accept that they got it wrong. Some are even struggling to get that far: one is as fervent in her beliefs now as she ever was, saying:

"But people saying things didn't happen doesn't affect me in the slightest.

"Because that's my experience of what people always say. I'd be very surprised if they said it did."

One thing that struck me about this case was that the social workers appeared to have a very dim view of human nature, perfectly prepared to believe that large numbers of people were involved in the abuse of children. This is interesting, because a common accusation levelled at skeptics who question the effectiveness of homeopathic remedies, astrology, psychics and other woo is that we only reject these ideas because we have such a negative and suspicious worldview. ‘It’s easy for you to pick holes,’ they say, ‘why can’t you open your mind and give it a chance?’

In Orkney social services, however, we had an environment where there were suspicions of widespread abuse, and the lack of skeptical thinking meant that the optimistic scenario – that there was none – was not given air. This highlights an important point: skepticism is not negative thinking, it’s critical thinking - the rigorous examination of all ideas, particularly ideas you are predisposed to believe. Whether these ideas are positive (‘Some people can read minds’) or negative (‘most parents abuse their children’), the important question for the skeptic is always: based on the evidence, am I justified in believing that?

In fact, I’d argue that skeptical thinking is as much a guard against kneejerk cynicism as it is against unreasoning credulity. Look at my reaction to the recent terrorist arrests. My cynicism leads me to suspect some political theatre, but fortunately my skepticism prevents me from treading too far down the road of the conspiracy theorists; people who are so convinced of the murky agendas of the US that they’re prepared to believe they fabricated the whole thing (see some of the comments here, for example). Caught in a pincer movement between the cynics and the credulous, villified by both, the skeptic can only hope that one day, everyone will have read The Demon Haunted World, and joined us in the reality-based community.

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