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Robert Todd Carroll

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Interview with Richard Cadena of Australia's the Skeptic magazine

What's your opinion of skeptics like Bob Steiner, Michael Shermer and James Randi?

Bob Steiner - He sent me a copy of his book and I liked it so much I recommended him to our staff development people and asked them to invite him up to do a presentation. He does a performance, a mentalism show, and afterwards reveals he doesn't really have psychic powers. Actually, from what I have read of the different ways of trying to persuade people to give up some of their beliefs in weird things, this is one of the best methods. One way, which most of us try, is through argument, and that is usually the least effective. Showing people the magic, or having them learn to do it themselves, are more effective. I have an assignment where my students create their own pseudoscience, my hope is that by creating it from the inside they can see how easy it is to do. I haven't seen Steiner perform, but apparently he demonstrates how he does his "psychic" tricks. Vanassy and Singer, a couple of psychologists, did a study with their students where they had someone come into class and introduced him by saying something like "This is Craig, he thinks he is psychic, but we know he is not really psychic, and he is going to try some tricks on you." In another class he was introduced something like "This is Craig and he is psychic." They tried to see if there was any difference when the students were told that Craig was psychic or not psychic. They found that there wasn't very much difference in the beliefs. Maybe if Craig had demonstrated how he does his mentalist tricks more students would have doubted his psychic powers.

Michael Shermer - I'm not a public person and so I admire anybody that can go on television with James Van Praagh (laughing) or anybody like that. I couldn't keep a straight face; I couldn't possibly do anything like that because I would just break-up laughing. These people are so preposterous to me that I find it very difficult to take them seriously. Yet, I've seen Michael Shermer, who is very good at demolishing people like Van Praagh, unable to move an audience of true believers. You notice that most in the audience don't like Shermer; they like Van Praagh. Why is that? In some ways, debating and demonstrating for true believers is a losing battle, but I really admire those people who go out there and fight it anyway. He has done a wonderful job starting the Skeptic magazine and keeping it going. The series of lectures he has at Cal Tech are really wonderful.

As a professor, you'd be interested in Michael Shermer's book Why People Believe Weird Things.

Well, I have a lot of colleagues who definitely believe weird things. In fact, one colleague is a Ph.D. in History and is an astrologer. You can imagine the conversations we have. He does charts for me and gives me reasons why he believes in astrology. I keep giving him copies of articles Ivan Kelly sends me from Canada. He reads them and we talk about it but I don't really believe I could ever dissuade him from his belief. He is just convinced it works. I try to point out that he is selective in what he mean by 'works'.

Randi - Of course, Randi is one of my heroes. Has been for a long time. I have a lot of admiration for everything he has done and he is still plugging away at 70 years of age. It is a real pleasure to have him on our side. I wouldn't want to have him as an enemy.

You've said in other interviews that you started being a skeptic very young. What started you outwardly expressing your skepticism? I'm assuming that at age 7 you didn't walk around telling people what you thought.

I've been teaching logic and critical thinking in college for some 20 years. I suppose a lot of it started there, where students would bring up issues and questions that needed to be examined from a skeptical point of view. I realised that my responses need to be more systematic than just and opinion here and an opinion there. In an Introduction of Philosophy class, I remember a student coming up to me after the first lecture and saying "I don't think I want to take this class because I don't think this is really about philosophy". I asked, "What do you think philosophy is"? He replied "Well, it should be metaphysics". I said, "We are going to talk about metaphysics". He said "But you didn't say anything about palm reading or crystals or anything like that". In fact, you can look in the phone book under Metaphysics and there will be palm readers and people selling crystals. Bookstores will often feature the same kind of stuff in sections with Philosophy headings. (I remember looking in Tower Books for L. Sprague de Camp's The Ancient Engineers and finding it, with the help of clerk, in the astrology section!)

It started with my teaching, with my classes. I didn't really start writing a lot on this until about 5 years ago. I suppose it was the realisation of my mortality. A couple of people close to me died in a short period of time. I've always found writing to be therapeutic. I found myself writing and collecting other things that I had written and I ended up with the Skeptics Dictionary on the Internet. I happened to be learning about the Internet and constructing a web site at the same time I started doing the writing. The next thing I knew I had 25 articles on the Internet and now it is over 300.

That was in 1993? Yes 1993/94.

Are you still planning on publishing a book of the Skeptics Dictionary?

Yes, I'm revising everything, (I'm up to 'N'). I haven't made a strong effort to send out queries for publishing. (The response I have received from potential publishers has not been encouraging, however.)

Any media contacts for comments? 

I have been contacted sporadically. The Village Voice and others. Mostly over the Internet. A reporter from the LA Times had done an article on DKL (the electronic dowser). He is a science writer who had seen my stuff on the Internet which is why he contacted me for more information. 

If you could eliminate one stream of pseudo-science, for example people would all realise that astrology was ridiculous, which one would you eliminate?

I would get rid of the health fraud people. The way they exploit people and take advantage of people. The harm they do is much more than that of any of the parapsychologists or astrologers.

How do you avoid the frustration of skeptics pushing the ball of Sisyphus?

That is where one's philosophical training comes in. You have to be a stoic. You have to have an attitude, and I have this attitude, I will explain things to you and argue with you but if you think you can walk through walls then you go ahead and walk through walls. I'm not going to lose any sleep over it. It is frustrating to think you can't reach a large number of people. On the other hand, you're not going to be very healthy if you lose sleep over it. You have to be indifferent to how people respond to you. You can't control other people's reactions or responses to you. You can only control your response to their response. I know this frustrates a lot of people I deal with because they think I don't care. My attitude is: I care, but not in the way you care. I had one student, a rabid Muslim, who followed me everywhere. He would follow me to my office after class. He would follow me down the hallway. He believed he had to bring me around to his belief in God or something bad would happen. I kept telling him "Just leave me alone. I'm glad you're concerned, I'm happy you are worried about me but GO away." I'm not going to follow anyone down a hallway. I give people my arguments and my positions and if they want to follow it fine. If they don't want to follow it that's fine too.

A lot of Skeptics don't 'do' God. They don't choose to talk about that.

Even though I have entries on God, angels, miracles, faith, etc., in the Skeptic's Dictionary, I get criticised for not doing enough. I probably get at least 1 or 2 suggestions a week asking why I don't go after Christianity, Islam, Mormonism, etc, etc, etc. So whatever you do, you are not doing enough from some people's perspective. I know what you are talking about. For a long time CSICOP (Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims Of the Paranormal) was criticised for pretty much steering away from anything religious. I think they have changed a bit in that direction. I think part of it is philosophical. There is one religious tradition that basically says, "I am not claiming that this is science, I don't have hard evidence for these supernatural claims." This is different from someone who claims, like a creation scientist, "this is science, there is evidence for supernatural beliefs." I think skeptics have every right to go after such people as the creation scientists with all our talents and skills. I think people who don't claim their religious views are scientific have the right to be respected and not be attacked, as long as they don't make highly improbable empirical claims. They are not pseudoscientists because they are not claiming that they are scientists at all. Of course, there is obviously a positive side to religious institutions. Some people, apparently, wouldn't control their behaviour if they didn't believe in God. So we are just thankful that such people continue their beliefs in the Almighty.

What is the name of the course you teach?

It's called Introduction to Logic, but it is mostly a course in Critical Thinking. 

Is it a required course or an elective?

If you transfer to the California State University system from a Community College, you have to take at least one 3-unit course from a selection of courses that are called Critical Thinking courses. My course is one of those required electives.

That sounds like a great requirement. No doubt you run into people in your class who have pseudoscientific beliefs. Can you see a difference in the students based on the type of subjects they are studying?

Science students are usually pretty hip to pseudoscience. There is an interesting mix because the Community College in California is based on an interesting concept: anyone who "can benefit from instruction" may attend. Not only do we have kids coming out of high school who haven't got a clue what they want to do but we have some really sharp students who see us as an inexpensive way to get 2 years of education before they transfer to University, as well as vocational and re-entry students. Some are community people who are retired and just want to take a philosophy class.

The college that you teach at, are they aware of your skeptical views and your Skeptical Dictionary? Do they have any opinion of it or is it viewed as your private life?

Now this is serious, really serious. I believe that the people at my college don't know anything beyond their own door. They probably have no idea what anybody does outside of their classroom. Outside of a few colleagues that I'm pretty close with and who know about the Dictionary I would say the vast majority haven't got a clue about anything I or any other instructor does.

There are other professors who teach Introduction to Logic?

Yes

And they would teach it differently than you?

Sure. We aren't told what book to use or how to teach the course, we are trusted to do the job of teaching the course. There are about 8 or 9 of us teaching. Most of us are doing a critical thinking approach but we may not use the same books although we cover the same areas. I don't teach a scepticism class. I don't think critical thinking is identical to scepticism. Scepticism is part of critical thinking. To be critical thinker you have to have a healthy scepticism but scepticism is just one aspect of critical thinking. (Laughs) I probably emphasize it a little more than maybe some of my colleagues do.

What part of critical thinking would not be encompassed by skepticism?

Some if it is pure psychology. To give you one example, in my class I always start off talking about things which hinder us from thinking critically. Psychology has made some contributions here with "confirmation bias" as talked about by Francis Bacon in the early 17th century. How it is a natural human tendency to find, not just to look for but to find, confirming instances of what we believe. Whatever we are taught or whatever theories we have, we find it easy to find support for them. A lot of people don't recognise that, how easy it is find 'proof' or support for whatever you believe. Bacon pointed out that you have to look for negative instances. Now, he didn't know how to look for negative instances. His method doesn't really work for figuring out negative instances but modern psychology and science has developed a number of techniques to make sure you do take into account negative instances. Controlled, randomised, double-blind tests. The studies on confirmation bias. That is not really skepticism as much as it is a positive guide to restrain yourself from making rash judgements.

I know you aren't at the forefront of publicly speaking about skepticism, but do you have any plans to speak at the Skeptics Society Cal-Tech lectures or visit Australia for one of our annual conferences?

I have no plans. I'm open to the idea but at the moment I have no plans. I spoke to a small group of Humanists in Sacramento a few weeks ago but that is it.

Well, if you ever get a chance to visit Australia we would love to have you give a talk.

I would be interested, especially since one of your members wrote me and said he was the member of a golf club in Melbourne that is extremely nice.

There are some fantastic golf courses in Melbourne.

I think every skeptic should play golf. It keeps you humble. 

ęcopyright 2002
Robert Todd Carroll
Last updated 11/21/10