I probably should have done more homework before adopting my blog-associated moniker “Skeptical Observer with Dirty Hands,” but yesterday, after using it for three years, I decided to research the terms a bit. I have been a bit concerned about possible confusion between skeptical which, to me, sounds very healthy and positive and cynical which seems to imply something gloomy and negative. So, I just wanted to see if I was on a sound basis using skeptical and make sure I could offer a well informed explanation of the difference between skeptics and cynics in case I am accused of being the latter.
It’s not exactly Webster’s Unabridged, but here are definitions for the two terms from thefreedictionary.com. The first definition of skeptic fits me perfectly. I always want to see the data, and I want to know where it came from and who generated it and how it was generated. I have seen enough “generally accepted conclusions” overturned during my 70 years that I just take them all with a grain of salt. We would all be better off if everyone did the same.
skep·tic also scep·tic
1. One who instinctively or habitually doubts, questions, or disagrees with assertions or generally accepted conclusions.
2. One inclined to skepticism in religious matters.
a. often Skeptic An adherent of a school of skepticism.
b. Skeptic A member of an ancient Greek school of skepticism, especially that of Pyrrho of Elis (360?-272? b.c.).
1. A person who believes all people are motivated by selfishness.
2. A person whose outlook is scornfully and often habitually negative.
3. Cynic A member of a sect of ancient Greek philosophers who believed virtue to be the only good and self-control to be the only means of achieving virtue.
Unfortunately, being a skeptic according to that first definition makes one subject to being considered a cynic by a little phrase in cynic’s second definition, habitual negativity. A skeptic does not jump on bandwagons nor does he or she “go with the flow.” A skeptic is always questioning and resisting and asking for the data and that can be very frustrating to people with agendas and to bandwagon riders. Such persons might turn to the questioning skeptic and say accusingly, “You are too cynical! Get with the program!” Well, I am going to at least try to avoid being scornful with my negativity.
I am definitely not a cynic by cynic’s first definition because I know lots of folks who are motivated by their love and care for others. Unless, that is, you may want to argue that such folks are really selfish because it is their love and care for others that pleases them most and that actions so motivated are therefore selfish. That argument, in my opinion, would be extremely cynical.
Take a look at the second definition of skeptic. I am an orthodox Christian subscribing to the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. I understand those creeds to be flawed human attempts to explain and understand the unexplainable. So, I don’t really understand them, but am not skeptical about them. It is a matter of personal faith. I am skeptical, however, of the Mormon, Seventh Day Adventist, Jehovah’s Witness, Buddhist, Muslim and other non Christian faiths and of Scientology and even of some “Christian” practices such as snake handling and self crucifixion and seeing images of the Virgin Mary in toast. I don't mean to be critical or pass judgment on those beliefs and faiths; I favor tolerance but am just not jumping on those bandwagons. So, I’m not sure where that leaves me but apparently rating at least a 1.5 out of 2 on “skeptic” and maybe 0.5 out of 2 on “cynic,” granting that for some folks at least, perception is reality.
Being an engineer and having spent very little time contemplating the Greek philosophers, I am just going to ignore those third definitions.
Now, about that “dirty hands” thing. When I wrote it, I was thinking of the fact that I enjoy hard physical work and often have very dirty and sometimes even bleeding hands as a result of such effort. (We had to make a run to the drugstore yesterday for more band aids.) Arm’s length managing or supervising were never very appealing to me, and more diligence about wearing gloves would be well advised in my case.
But there is a second implication, having to do with guilt. We always remember Pilate ostentatiously washing his hands after turning Jesus over to be crucified, and I suppose that may be where the association comes from. And, as a Christian, I have to confess my guilt, my condition of dirty hands, and my need for forgiveness. So, I suppose one can interpret the “dirty hands” phrase either literally or theologically and not be out of bounds.
So, I am sticking with the moniker.
Skeptical Observer with Dirty Hands