Cynicism - Friend or Foe?



I watched a program recently from Penn and Teller debunking commonly held beliefs.  Their program on alternative health tackled magnetic therapies, reflexology, and chiropractic.  While I see some benefit to their efforts, the general tone was cynical and was not intended to be a fair or balanced look but an entertaining smear job.  I watched a recent Bill Mayer show and was equally impressed that he is entertaining, occasionally funny, but nearly always cynical and not looking to be balanced, open to new views, or comprehensive. 


This is a common theme among many entertainers who fall under the general category of comedians, political satire, cynics, critics, and skeptics. In the Penn and Teller episode they took to task the idea of magnetic therapy because there is no iron in the blood, and so it could not possibly attract blood to a wound site and promote healing (a common claim).  In their mind this was all there is to know.  Yet, science has shown that our bodies are full of electrons and electromagnetic fields - no iron required.  Our brains are full of them as each neuron (and we have trillions of them) has an electromagnetic field.  Is it possible that magnets may affect those fields? 


My point is not to debate the benefits, but to provide a perspective that cynicism is not a mindset that is intended to create new knowledge or creativity, but in fact the opposite.  It is designed to shut down curiosity, exploration, and finding new knowledge.  We can debunk false concepts, sure, but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.  By avoiding cynicism, we remain more open to discovery and new knowledge – and that is certainly a good thing for everyone.


What can you do to balance the pervasive influence of cynicism?  Here are 3 suggestions: 

  • If you enjoy the cynical shows recognize them for what they are – a singular view designed to entertain, not to inform.  Take the entertainment but don’t let that be how you determine what is true, or accurate, or complete.  

  • You would be no worse off reducing or eliminating those shows, simply don’t consume them.  Seek entertainment that has no guise of informing you or being “real”.  Seek news from the most balanced sources you can.  If you feel strongly one way or the other this becomes even more important as balanced news that is designed to inform, but not reinforce any particular philosophy, is an important way for you to keep an open mind and enjoy the light of a better-informed opinion. 

  • Lastly be self-aware of your own proclivities toward cynicism.  Remembering that cynicism by design shuts down dialogue be aware when you slip into that mode.  Being mindful and intentional you can catch yourself and step back and take a higher path e.g. deep listening, inquiry, seeking to understand before being understood.  

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