Wall art of a little girl blowing bubbles shaped like question marks

Skepticism vs. Cynicism

“While skepticism is healthy, cynicism—real cynicism—is toxic” (“Astroturfing: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver”).

As defined by the Oxford English Dictionary:

  • Skeptical: Not easily convinced; having doubts or reservations
  • Cynical: Believing that people are motivated purely by self-interest; distrustful of human sincerity or integrity

When it comes to information you encounter in your personal, professional, or academic research, a skeptical approach can be productive. For example, information skeptics might take a moment to fact-check, verify, or investigate a source before using or sharing it.

However, when skepticism turns to cynicism and deep distrust, research can become unproductive. Information cynics may feel powerless to identify reliable and useful sources. That is, while learning to question everything, they have begun to believe nothing—even highly-credible sources of information.

“Without feeling empowered to sort fiction on the web, a lot of students are merely cynical and believe they can’t trust anything” (Caulfield, qtd. in Young; emphasis added).


“Astroturfing: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.” YouTube, uploaded by LastWeekTonight, 12 Aug. 2018.

Cynical.” Lexico, Oxford.

Image: “Painting on wall of girl blowing question marks” by Matthew Paul Argall is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Skeptical.” Lexico, Oxford.

Young, Jeffrey R. “Can a New Approach to Information Literacy Reduce Digital Polarization?” EdSurge, 22 Mar. 2018.


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Introduction to College Research Copyright © by Walter D. Butler; Aloha Sargent; and Kelsey Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.