Skeptical or Cynical
This morning, I found an article on The Street by Johnathan Blum titled The Digital Skeptic: You could have a 100 MPG Vehicle Right Now. It concerned a new engine technology patented by Doug Palmear that supposedly produces a 400 HP V8 engine that gets 100 MPG. The supposedly in mine … Blum seems to believe in the technology. The technology was first discussed back in 2009 and Palmear has been unable to get funding to develop his engine. Palmear says the car industry is unwilling to invest in an engine that costs several thousand dollars more than current engines. As a natural skeptic, I tend to question quantum improvements, whether they are in the number of home runs hit per year or the MPG achieved by a V-8. I began to search for more articles and found a shortage of explanations of how Palmear had achieved this remarkable improvement, and where there were explanations they were often conflicting and, while I’m not an automotive engineer, they sounded suspiciously like snake oil to me. Not surprisingly, green sites gushed about the technology and lamented the short-sightedness of the Department of Energy for not funding Palmear. There were numerous sites screaming hoax, including the GM Insider site which included comments by several automotive engineers. One asked, Why are people so ready to believe one man can do this with old technology when thousands of automotive engineers have not been able to come close? That is a good Skeptical question. Some commenters offered the Cynical answer that the car industry doesn’t want such an engine. Or maybe it’s the oil industry.
My father was not a man for sitting me down to lessons on how to navigate this world. As he worked several jobs for most of my childhood to give us a better life than he had, most of his lessons were taught by example … honesty … the value of hard work … the importance of learning. But I do remember him specifically telling me this: Bud, when someone tells you something they’ve read, go back and read it for yourself so you know what it really says. In doing so, he taught me to be Skeptical, having a healthy tendency to question or doubt things that don’t sound quite right. I don’t think he was suggesting I be Cynical … he wasn’t questioning people’s motives as much as their ability to clearly discern the facts from the printed word. I am always Skeptical and I try hard to trust human sincerity or integrity, that is, not be Cynical. I don’t have an opinion yet on the Palmear engine but I remain Skeptical. I’m surprised by the number of sources that aren’t given the facts I’ve been able to gather. Many seem more ready to make the Cynical assumption that the powers that be are suppressing poor Doug’s marvelous invention than to skeptically consider that it might not work or be practical. Am I Cynical for thinking that’s the case? I hope not.
There’s a point here and it has nothing to do with Doug Palmear. I believe that being Skeptical is a good thing … in this world where everyone has access to media, doubt is a good and Skeptical doubt can be overcome (or at least tempered) by facts. Unfortunately, online, healthy skepticism is often replaced by rampant Confirmation Bias, that uniquely human trait by which we look for information to support what we believe or want to believe. The problem with Confirmation Bias is that when others who believe differently point out facts that conflict with ours, we are forced to question their motives, that is, become Cynical. I suppose there’s not much chance that this little blog can change things, but I think that if we are to thrive as a species, we need to be more Skeptical and less Cynical. You were right, Dad.