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Interview with Nemo Nox of
NN. What is your definition of skepticism? Are you an ordinary skeptic, a philosophical skeptic or a different kind of skeptic? How and why was The Skeptic's Dictionary born? How did the website become a book?
Skepticism is an attitude not a set of beliefs. It is the attitude of the critical thinker who does not accept claims on the basis of authority, intuition, insight, testimony, etc. alone, but requires evidence to some degree of probability before assenting to any proposition. This attitude is especially present with regard to supernatural and paranormal claims, but it is not limited to claims of those types. Even scientific claims should be approached with a skeptical attitude.
The web site became a book when Ted Weinstein, a literary agent who works out of San Francisco, contacted me about creating the book. He gave me some guidelines for coming up with a book proposal and then he took the proposal to several publishers. We had several offers, but selected John Wiley because of its reputation in the field of science text publishing and because they wanted to produce an inexpensive paperback.
NN. What's the connection between The Skeptic's Dictionary and Becoming a Critical Thinker?
RTC. Becoming a Critical Thinker is a textbook for introductory logic and critical thinking courses. It is very general and covers such things as language and critical thinking, the mass media and other sources of information, fallacies of reasoning, inductive and deductive arguments. There is some overlap between the two books but The Skeptic's Dictionary goes into much more detail on pseudoscience, for example.
NN. How many people are involved in The Skeptic's Dictionary project?
RTC. In one sense, there is just me, but in another sense there are many people involved. I've had about ten volunteer translators who have translated all or part of The Skeptic's Dictionary into eight languages. I receive tips, advice, comments, and so on from hundreds of people. And I have received editorial assistance from several people. But I don't have a staff. Nobody works for me and I do all the writing, make all the decisions, and so on.
NN. What kind of feedback do you get? What is the ratio between support messages and hate mail?
RTC. I've just posted a page with almost nothing but positive feedback on it. I don't keep track, but my guess is the ratio is 100/1 support to hate mail.
NN. What is your favorite entry in The Skeptic's Dictionary? Why?
RTC. This is a very interesting question. I've never thought about it. I'd have to say that I don't have a favorite, but that there is a particular cluster of entries that I am especially proud of because together they explain where people go wrong in their thinking about weird things: ad hoc hypotheses, cold reading, communal reinforcement, confirmation bias, Occam's razor, the placebo effect, the post hoc fallacy, the regressive fallacy, selective thinking, subjective validation, testimonials, and wishful thinking.
NN. What is your explanation for the never ending stream of supernatural, paranormal and pseudoscientific claims unsupported by evidence?
RTC. There isn't a single explanation, but the cluster of entries I just mentioned will help explain some of the popularity of these claims.
NN. What kind of unsupported claims annoys you the most? Why?
RTC. I suppose it is the New Age folks and their gibberish about "energy," especially their insistence that quantum physics validates their beliefs in energy medicine. They talk nonsense and yet exude confidence in their gibberish. Very annoying.
NN. Who is winning the race, pure faith or critical thinking?
RTC. Pure faith.
NN. Who are your gurus of skepticism?
RTC. Martin Gardner, Carl Sagan, James Randi, Michael Shermer, Paul Kurtz, Ray Hyman, Joe Nickell, Susan Blackmore, and a few others.
NN. Why is it important to be a skeptic?
RTC. To me this is like asking why is it important to be rational or to be a critical thinker? The answer is simple: the skeptic has a better chance of getting it right, of approaching the truth as far as is humanly possible. All human methods of inquiry are prone to the snares of self-deception, but skepticism is the least likely to be undermined by that all-too-human tendency. Blind faith, following gurus, using insight and intuition, dogmatically following some creed or book, and other such methods have shown themselves to be much more susceptible to self-deception and error than the ways of science and skepticism. No method is perfect, but skepticism is the best of all the imperfect methods we have.