Bob Carroll – Defining Skepticism

April 16, 2010

Dr. Robert Todd Carroll is a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and author of The Skeptic’s Dictionary: A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions. He is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Sacramento City College, where he taught Logic and Critical Reasoning, Critical Thinking about the Paranormal, Law, Justice and Punishment, and World Religions. He is also author of the textbook Becoming a Critical Thinker.

Bob is the creator of the popular website, which features numerous essays and book reviews, and the Skeptimedia blog where he provides a commentary of media coverage of pseudoscience and the paranormal. But the focus of the site is the original online version of the Skeptic’s Dictionary, containing hundreds of entries on topics ranging from “abracadabra to zombies”. This is the resource for defining skepticism.

In this episode of Point of Inquiry, Karen Stollznow talks with Bob about the importance of defining the topics of which we are skeptical. They discuss the inadequacies of existing definitions of paranormal and pseudoscientific subjects, and why it is necessary to counter uncritical bias with explanations that are skeptical. However, the damning evidence (or lack-thereof) usually speaks for itself.

Bob reveals the top searches to his site, uncovering the themes that should be of particular concern to skeptics. He explains that his online book is reader-driven, and that user feedback and assistance has molded the shape of this dynamic resource. Even with 600 current entries in this encyclopedia-like dictionary, this is a work-in-progress that will never be finished.

Bob discusses skeptical activism, becoming a skeptic, and how to invent your own pseudoscience to learn critical thinking. As a life-long teacher of this topic, Bob explains that critical thinking needs to be taught, but also needs to be learned critically. We discuss how much critical thinking can or should be taught, and how much is a process of self-learning.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Friday, April 16th, 2010. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m Karen Stollznow point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values and public affairs and the grassroots. My guest is Dr. Robert Tod Carroll, author of The Skeptics Dictionary, a collection of strange beliefs, amusing deceptions and Dangerous Delusions. Bob is a new fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and emeritus professor of philosophy at Sacramento City College, where he taught logic and critical reasoning, critical thinking about the paranormal and other relevant courses. He’s also author of the text book Becoming a Critical Thinker. Bob is the creator of the Web Skeptic, which features numerous essays, book reviews, and has skipped a media blog where he comments on media coverage of pseudoscience in the paranormal. But the focus of his site is the Skeptics Dictionary, containing hundreds of entries on topics ranging from abracadabra to zombies. This is the resource for defining skepticism. Bob welcomes point of inquiry. 

Thanks very much. So you’re probably best known for your Skeptics Dictionary, which has an astounding 600 entries covering, as you say, everything from Abracadabra to zombies with essays and reviews and articles as well as definitions. It’s more of an encyclopedia than a dictionary, in a sense. And to me, it’s a fundamental tool of the skepticism movement. So what inspired you to create this resource? 

Well, I don’t want to bore people for too long, but I’ve been doing it for about 15 years and the Internet was just starting to develop the World Wide Web. 

Around the mid 90s and our local university, in conjunction with Caltrans, put on a workshop to teach people how to take advantage of the World Wide Web. And that was teaching courses at Sacramento City College at the time. Philosophy courses, critical thinking. 

And I just made that my project that I would start something on the Internet that I could supplement my courses with. And then it just grew. 

Certainly has grown. 

Well, I got a tremendous response from people all around the world, which I’ve been living in this little town teaching at the small college. And my influence had been pretty small. And all of a sudden I’m hearing from people in South Africa, Australia, all over the world. And they want to read about this. Want to read about that? I’d like to hear. 

So the next thing I know, 15 years later and I have 600 entries, why do you think it is important to define the topics of which were skeptical? 

Well, I don’t know that I’ve defined them or anybody defined. They kind of defined themselves. The mass media plays a big role in. I think where we put our energy know, I think a lot of our interest has been generated in that way today. Most of the focus outside of the sex abuse cases in the Catholic Church seemed to deal with psychics and paranormal. The media is just in love with those kinds of stories. And as a result, we are the skeptical community are responding by trying to put a more rational perspective on what these psychics are really doing, trying to educate people about cold reading and subjective elevation and so on. So I don’t know that we really define our topic so much as the media defines them for us. 

I wanted to ask you about the definitions and explanations that you provide. I would say that existing dictionary definitions of the paranormal and pseudo science are often circular. So if you look up of words like psychic in the dictionary, it’s often defined for Saura style as medium or the definitions are biased. So they assume that a psychic does have legitimate paranormal abilities, whereas your definitions and explanations are biased toward skepticism. So why do you see it is important to present a biased viewpoint? 

Well, when I when I started the dictionary, you know, again, I don’t want to bore the listeners with too much, but I came out of a tradition of philosophy and my background of skepticism was in philosophical skepticism, not that we might call ordinary skepticism. And my area of specialization was 17th century British philosophy, mostly epistemology and philosophy, religion. And one of my favorite writers from the modern period of what we call modern philosophy, which starts around sixteen hundred, was Pyar Bail. And he had written a dictionary called the Historical and Critical Dictionary. There was mostly biographies of interesting people from all kinds of periods, including his own. And one of the most fascinating entries was on Spinoza. And Spinoza was called an atheist whose own time, even though he identified everything that exists with God. That is is tantamount to ageism. You’re looking at the tradition. He came out of was the Jewish tradition. Same with the Christian tradition. To claim everything’s God is the same, the same. Nothing’s God. And in a dictionary was definitely biased in the sense that he would do a biography or an or an entry like, say, Athie ism. And his entry and Athie ism would be an essay. And the essay would question common beliefs about Athie ism. The main one being that atheists are immoral libertines and so on. And so his essay on Athie ism held Spinoza up as the model atheist. And also one of the most moral persons who had ever lives in Socrates. And a bit, Bale actually defied his readers to give him counter evidence to send him in. All the stories they had of atheistic libertines and so on. And I know it was like fifth or sixth edition, a stills note. I’m still waiting for for these stories. And so that’s one reason I called it a dictionary. By the way, I wanted something that was not. I didn’t think of it as an encyclopedia, by the way. That just seemed too grand. But a dictionary with the adjectives skeptic, the skeptic sticks. Stickers not it’s not a dictionary. It’s a skeptic’s dictionary with the aim of providing definitions that were biased. I say this in the introduction to the book. And on the Web site that the definitions are biased in the attempt to provide the best skeptical arguments and skeptical and evidence that might a skeptic might find useful for these topics rather than to be a book that tried to say take something like, oh, I know the effects of electoral magnetic radiation and look at all the pros and cons and come to some conclusion or or go stories and evaluate the pros and cons of this or that. Ghostery mind would rather be something of an essay attempting to show why some of these claims made about, say, ghosts or electro sensitivity ought to be doubted. And in the beginning, I really did focus just on the skeptical arguments against the paranormal pseudoscientific. I didn’t really try to give their side because in my view, if any bookstore you go to the library, if there is a skeptic book in there, it’s it’s right next to 500 books by people who have been abducted by aliens or other books by true believers. We’re just outnumbered and we still are. But over the years, it just became apparent nobody is reading the introduction to my book. There they go to the dictionary, they look up a word and they expect it to be a dictionary. A lot of people. And so I’ve had a good amount of criticism for not being objective or not so much objective as Durrow in presenting the other side. So I would say over the last five or six years I’ve made a an effort on the Web site to be more thorough. And in my view, it’s it’s 10 times more devastating to the other side by doing that, because what looks like in the beginning, there might be a reasonable case to be made for something like, say, acupuncture. The deeper you get into it and the more you learn about it, the more you read the actual studies done. Unfortunately for the other side, the more evidence piles up that this is nothing but a placebo. It will be called placebo therapy. There’s no effect beyond what you might expect from any placebo and you know, along those lines. I was listening to a podcast a while ago where the discussion turned to sources and there seemed to be some idea that we don’t really have a place on the Internet or anywhere else where a skeptic can go and find the sources behind skeptical arguments or or claims on the other side. And that’s one thing I’ve tried to do for 15 years, is to provide at the end of every article, sources, lists of sources. 

And they’re not all skeptical sources, though. If you’re looking for that, I can’t I mean, I don’t want to brag, but I can’t think of a better place to go than skeptic’s dictionary. I agree. 

There are thousands of references, not my material, it’s not it’s not what I’ve written. It’s a way to access and find out what other people have written about these subjects. 

And you say on your site that the dictionary is not aimed at the true believer. So why is that? And who is the book aimed at? 

Yeah, well, a read originally it wasn’t like I said originally, I wrote the dictionary for four skeptics. 

It wasn’t written to try to combat the true believer. And in some way, that’s still true. Although, like I said, I’ve in recent years devote a lot more attention to handling the strongest arguments that the true believers have and trying to throw a critical eye on them rather than just providing these skeptical arguments. But there’s another issue, too, that it relates to what I was saying earlier about making sure you get the use your time effectively. There are times when you are probably just wasting our time trying to argue with a true believer. And there are other times when even though you, you know, you can’t change the true believers mind, there is still value in in arguing with them. For example, there’s a story that Ray Hyman tells about testing something called Applied Kinesiology, which I’m sure most of the listeners are familiar with, where supposedly you can tell by muscle resistance whether say something held in the hand is good for you or bad for you or or whether some piece of jewelry you’re wearing is protecting you or not. And chiropractors actually started using this a lot and he got a group of them. Ian Wallace Sampson got a group of them to agree to a double blind controlled experiment where they didn’t know what the people were holding in their hands. And of course, they did great when they knew what they were holding in the pretest. But when they did the blinded test, they did a little bit worse than chance. And I’m reading Ray Hyman’s response. You said one of the chiropractors who and well, see, that’s why we don’t use double blind experiments. They don’t work. And Ray thought he was kidding and he wasn’t kidding. And I think one of the things you have to accept as reality is that there are a lot of people, maybe most people and maybe most of us most of the time don’t base our beliefs on evidence. Our beliefs are generated by emotions and feelings. And the evidence comes later. It’s looked for and packed on later. And that’s why it’s so selective. And sometimes people even get driven to make stuff up to support their beliefs. But I think if you’re along with these kinds of people, it’s pointless to continue the discussion. But if you are doing a debate or if you’re writing, I think it’s valuable because there will be some people who will be looking at what you write or attending the debate who are open minded, who haven’t made up their mind yet, who aren’t yet committed to a belief on whatever the topic might be. And that’s where the value of the skeptic comes. And you you hope that by presenting the evidence and the arguments in as fair and unbiased and comprehensive way as possible, that others, especially young people, will see who’s got the best position. 

I wanted to ask you a question about culture, because I know that the dictionary has been translated into other languages, including Russian and Japanese and Korean, Spanish and even Estonian. So given that a lot of these beliefs and practices are often culture specific. Have any of these translations posed any cultural challenges at all, or did you have to include new entries? 

Well, yes and no. That there hasn’t really been a major issue, but it’s just been wonderful to be contacted by people like a man name. Antonio Englis was one of the first. He was from Portugal. And eventually course, he got married at Children’s when he had to kind of give up the Portuguese translation. But Renaldo Cordeiro in Brazil has taken it up and has been just expanding it for years. Herman Ball in Belgium has done a Dutch translation. The Quebec skeptics have done a French translation. These are online and George Monstrous in Greece has done a Greek translation is a very nice site, Vladimer. Look, Nare in Slovakia has done a Slovakian translation. And others have done bits and pieces, the Swedish skeptics have a wicky skeptics, Dick Harry Wicky, that’s been really gratifying because none of these people are compensated. They’re they’re all doing this gratis. That’s just amazing. But I’ve had a couple of cases where I’ll get a request. One was on Lopsang, Rahmah, Lopsang Lahmar or whatever his name is. This British character who claimed he was a guru of some sort and rean had been reincarnated. And because it was very popular in his calls ravening, which when it was, I said, sure, why not? And then eventually I ended up writing an entry on Lopsang Road. But most of my stuff is probably pretty provincial. It’s pretty much stuff that Americans would be interested in, though. A lot of the topics are universal. People are interested in werewolves and Nessy all over the world and their local equivalents. 


Well, as you say, the the dictionary’s reader driven, so it seems as though it’s expanding according to need. I found this quote of yours. It was an interview I think you did with the Sydney Morning Herald where you said that the one thing that fascinates me the most is how intelligent people think they can’t be fooled by charlatans. And alternatively, I’d like to say that being fooled doesn’t necessarily make a stupid but from your research over the years. In what ways are skeptics fault? 

Well, I think we’re fool the same way everybody is fooled. All of us, I think, make the mistake of giving too much weight to our personal experience and not enough consideration for remembering some obvious things like the self is pretty biased observer of the self and maybe shouldn’t be trusted so much when we’re trying to evaluate what we’re remember, what we think we perceived and want. That’s one of the hardest things I’ve had as a teacher and as a writer to combat is this tendency to think skeptics have it as much as anybody to just be cocksure about personal experience and what it means. A stock answer to many questions is, well, I know it because I I’ve seen it. You ask a doctor, well, how do you know waving your arms over somebodies head cures an illness. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it in my life. How do you know that you can assist bullet wounds with prayer? I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it. And and, you know, almost the time they’re they’re talking about some faulty causal reasoning and making connections. They’re really not justified in making and maybe falsifying their memories and and so on, so forth. But all of us have this this problem. None of us has a perfect memory. I mean, we have to rely on it to get through life, but we shouldn’t consider it infallible. And it’s tough to convince ourselves that what we remember maybe is not being remembered correctly or what we think we perceive. Maybe we were wrong in our interpretation of our perception. I don’t think any of us is immune to making bad connections based on emotional responses. None of us are immune to false memory. None of us are immune to misperception. Skeptics are not exceptions to the rule. 

Indeed, sir. As a professor of philosophy at Sacramento City College, I read online you said once in an interview that you would sit your students a task where they would create their own pseudo science. I love this idea. What kinds of practices did they invent for this project? 

Now, what I remember was color therapy. It was a take off on a lot of alternative therapies where I guess there’s something similar in aura therapy where people claim that people have different auras and these auras are different colors and different colors. 

Dan, for this, that or the other thing, I’ve got to store up the street that says color therapy and there’s a color therapist that does exist. 

Yeah. That was the interesting thing about it, that there really is such things up. A student that he was inventing it, but it really does exist. 

A couple of psychologists, but Ossian Singer, I think of their names who were trying to figure out why students believe some of the things they do. And Binaggio Singer found or maybe something they wrote, led me to as someone who found account into my memory that goodness that there was some evidence that there was some success in getting people to change their minds about pseudoscientific things if they came out from the inside and if they had to actually create their own pseudoscience. So I. Right. And I found it a fun exercise. 

So you’ve taught classes in critical thinking and you’ve also written a text book called Becoming a Critical Thinker. And I found that the text doesn’t spoonfeed skepticism to the reader. It seems to be a book that teaches critical thinking, but also teaches the reader to learn critically as well. So how much of critical thinking should or can be taught and how much should be a process of self discovery? 

Well, when I got into critical thinking long before I got into skepticism, it was put there for me. Skepticism was one of many tools that a critical thinker must have. And in the critical thinking book, I make a distinction that many other writers about critical things you make between a healthy skepticism and an unhealthy skepticism. We’ve seen unhealthy skepticism in recent years with what’s now called denialism, where its borders on pathological, where you deny the Holocaust happened, you deny there’s any global warming. But some of these movements, I think, are sincere, like the 9/11 deniers and the AIDS deniers. They really take skepticism to a what I would call a pathological state. There’s a healthy skepticism where you don’t trust your own senses. You don’t trust your own memory, completely suspend judgment on the reliability of those things as you would suspend judgment on claims that authorities make. And you don’t just believe them because authorities are making them. You find try to find things out for yourself. That’s a healthy skepticism. And the other characteristics of critical thinker would be open mindedness and and humility. At least those are the ones I emphasize. You can teach critical thinking to very young children without even talking about ghosts or or the paranormal or or gods or the supernatural. They’re really not necessarily connected because skepticism is a set of tools. It’s not a set of beliefs. And so you can teach people to think critically and to be skeptical without having been very young people, without having to worry about all that. Parents get excited because they’re questioning their teachers or they don’t believe in God anymore or whatever. But I’ve I’ve seen universities that are Bible colleges claiming that their leaders in teaching critical thinking and what they mean by critical thinking is teaching people to prove the Bible’s true. Well, that’s not my definition of critical thinking. We had a group in Sacramento. And I think they were home schoolers. And they they claim they were teaching their kids critical thinking because they were teaching them to be critical of evolution. OK, well, I’m going to do you know. 

Well, this is a bit more of a personal question, but when I invited you to be on the show, we had the following exchange. I invited you to be on. And you said that you’d like to be on to chat SA with me about how to get rich and famous as a skeptic. So I’d joked that you didn’t have anything to say in you said good points. If we talked about the money we make from skepticism, we might set a record for shortest interview ever. Well, that’s true. I just want to ask you about skepticism or skeptical activism in general. And just to ask, since you pointed out the work that you do for skeptical activists like us, we tend to work for for love, not money. But many people feel like us. Many people feel underappreciated and underpaid and become very burnt out, doing skepticism quite quickly. So obviously, there are a few jobs in skepticism. There’s some money to be made if we have a product. But do you think that skeptics should be paid for this skepticism? 

I think everybody should be a skeptic. Yeah, and whether they were paid or not, I think it’s the healthy way to approach life. As far as the skeptical activism goes, I mean, I think there’s it’s a wonderful thing to have seen over the last 15 years, the growth of the skeptical movement to to see all the bloggers coming out now there. And when I first started, there were only a few. Now there are hundreds of podcasts. The Web sites. But there’s a lot of room for a lot of different kinds of things. You know, some people like to do presentations and talk. Some people like to go on television. Some people like to write and stay in their pajamas all day and just work at the computer. 

That’s me. Yes. 

People like to go to pubs. Yeah, it’s wonderful to see all these different possibilities. And I always think of skeptics as like cats rather than dogs. We’re not really pack animals, but we’re social animals. And like anybody. Most people, anyway, we we get a rush from conferences and meetings with other other like minded people. 

I guess chemically, it gives us more serotonin, oxytocin or something, but it gives us a boost. I guess the way church does work, religious people might be some parallels. 

Yes, sir. So just lastly, as someone who’s devoted so much time to skepticism, what would you say to people who do feel burnt out from their activism? 

Well, I don’t know what I can say to anybody about being burned out because I’ve been burned out myself from time to time to get away from it for a while. 

Well, Bob, thank you so much for joining me. It was a pleasure talking with you. 

Well, thank you. Karen. 

Thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry. Bob Carroll’s books becoming a critical thinker and the Skeptics Dictionary are available through our Web site to participate in the online conversation about this show. Please join our discussion forum at point of inquiry dot org. The views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry. Dot org. 

We have inquiries produced by Adam Isaach in Amherst, New York, and our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Mike White on Today Show also features contributions from Debbie Goddard. I’m your host, Karen Stollznow. 

Karen Stollznow