Robert Todd Carroll
Interview with Dr Julian Baggini of Philosophers' Web Magazine (September 1997)
PW: When did you realise you were a Skeptic?
Bob Carroll: I suppose I should have realized it when I about 7 years old. I had my doubts about Santa Claus. We lived in Illinois, where the winters are much more severe than in San Diego where we moved when I was ten. I saw some oranges in the refrigerator on Christmas eve and counted them. The next morning each of my three sisters and I found an orange in our Christmas stockings. I went back to the refrigerator and found no oranges. I inferred that my parents had put the oranges in our stockings. I realize now that I made a hasty conclusion, but I hadnt had much experience yet.
P.W. Describe the genesis of the dictionary.
Bob Carroll: In 1993 I became an internet user and quickly realized the potential for writing a book in hypertext using HTML. I had experimented with writing hypertext several years earlier (using a program called HyperPad). I started putting together a number of articles, mostly using materials I had written for my classes in critical thinking and other introductory philosophy courses. I suppose the idea for a "Dictionary" came to me because of my familiarity with Pierre Bayles Historical and Critical Dictionary, not that I ever envisioned anything as encyclopedic or as scholarly as Bayles work.
From the beginning I wanted to provide more than just definitions and skeptical essays. I wanted to provide readers with references to the best skeptical literature available. Thus, I have tried to provide at least one significant skeptical reference for each entry. In addition, I have put together a bibliography of skeptical literature arranged by topic. Thanks to Amazon.com, readers are able to order books directly from my bibliography.
PW: Is there/will there be a paper version of it?
Bob Carroll: I hope so. I am working on a proposal for a print version to
send out to agents.
PW: Is there any connection between philosophical and ordinary skepticism?
Bob Carroll: Not really. I dont think either entails the other.
Philosophical skepticism entails the notion that any particular claim is doubtful in the
sense that it cannot be known to be absolutely certain. Philosophical skepticism does not
entail the notion that any particular claim is doubtful in the sense that the evidence
against it is greater than the evidence for it.
PW: How much are you drawn, if at all, to philosophical skepticism?
Bob Carroll: I consider myself a philosophical skeptic. I do not believe absolute truth or absolute certainty is possible in empirical or metaphysical matters. I believe a priori truths are truths by definition and agreement, not discovery. I believe all grounds for any dogmatic philosophy can be undermined by skeptical arguments.
PW: You describe yourself as a positivist, and many of your attacks in the Dictionary seem to be based on a broadly verificationist and falsificationist criteria of meaningfulness . Such views have been widely criticised. How do you defend your approach against the major attacks on positivism?
Bob Carroll: In the Skeptics Dictionary I describe and dismiss positivism in two sentences. The description of positivism is given along with about a half dozen other terms related in one way or another to naturalism. I would hope no one would take my description of positivism as final or complete. ("Positivism is a philosophical attitude which holds that metaphysics, more or less, is bunk. Positivists don't deny the existence of supernatural phenomena; they maintain that it is a waste of time to try to understand or speak of such things.")
In the Dictionary, I write "For the record, I consider myself a naturalist, an atheist, a materialist, a metaphysical libertarian, and a positivist." By calling myself a positivist I meant no more than that I think it is a waste of time to try to understand or speak as if one understands supernatural phenomena.
As for "attacks" of mine which are based on verificationist and falsificationist criteria of meaningfulness, I am afraid I must plead ignorance. Perhaps you could point me to which "attacks" you have in mind.
PW: People tend to associate philosophy with a generally skeptical outlook, and this association is usually seen as an irritating quirk of philosophers. How do you feel about this impression, and the probability that you're contributing towards it?
Bob Carroll: I was not aware that people tend to associate philosophy with a generally skeptical outlook, nor that they are irritated by this. The impression is unjustified. Any skeptical philosopher who uses a vehicle such as the internet to publish his or her views will most likely contribute to such an impression. I dont have strong feelings about this. Those who are academics and who study philosophy in its entirety will discover that most philosophers have been dogmatists, not skeptics.
PW: Wendy Grossman (Founder of the Skeptic magazine and Philosophers' Magazine columnist) gets irritated that people confuse skepticism with cynicism. Although different, there is a fine line between the two. How do you stop yourself going over it?
Bob Carroll: Why should anyone stop themselves from becoming cynical when their investigations as a skeptic keep turning up incompetence, fallacy, fraud, deceit and error? Of course there is a difference between being skeptical and being cynical, but the two are not mutually exclusive. One does not have to choose between them. Simply because not all skeptics are cynics does not mean than none should be. If people get irritated or confused about the difference between skepticism and cynicism that is their problem. It does not behoove the cynical skeptic to put an asterisk by each cynical claim to announce to the world that he knows his cynicism is not an essential ingredient to his skepticism.
PW: Apart from the obvious targets, such as astrology and crop circles, more mainstream practices and ideas such as the Myers-Briggs test also come under attack in your dictionary. Such ideas are widely taken to be based on sound scientific method by experts in that field. Do you ever feel as a skeptic your trespassing on others' fields of expertise?
Bob Carroll: No. As a skeptic I dont feel there is any field of expertise I should not trespass on. However, in the Skeptics Dictionary I have restricted my interest to matters occult, paranormal, supernatural, fraudulent and pseudoscientific. Whether I have crossed a line with entries on Amway and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is not something which concerns me very much. If I think there is enough deceit, fraud and pseudoscientific theorizing going on, I will risk being wrong even if I am deemed by others to be ill mannered or inappropriate.
PW: I read an article on homeopathy in one of Britain's better papers recently. It headlined with a "scientific backing for homeopathy" message, outlined the case for and only briefly dealt with objections to the research at the end. Is this typical in your experience, and how do you feel about and account for this kind of reporting?
Bob Carroll: Such reporting is rather typical. The same thing is happening with Francine Shapiros defense of her Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing, the therapy she claims is "new" and very successful with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Its happened again and again in psi research. Related to this is the kind of letter recently published (Sept. 1997) in Physics World which claims that positive results of controlled experiments in telepathy are generally ignored by skeptics.
My response is to advise that those who think single positive results are impressive
should reflect on how the scientific community dealt with the cold fusion claims of
Fleischmann and Pons. They were greeted with both skepticism and with attempts by others
to duplicate their experiments as best as possible. Even when others seemed to duplicate
their experiments, many remained skeptical, even those who had done the duplications. Had
further inquiry determined that the results which seemed so promising were due to cold
fusion rather than to faulty equipment, the scientific community would have hailed rather
than assailed Fleischmann and Pons.
Bob Carroll: Religion. It is distressing to get letter after letter from people who cannot find any meaning in their lives if they do not have a belief in some god and an afterlife. Many of the letters also indicate a belief that one must choose between a god and science. Many misunderstand the nature of science and say they choose a god because science cannot answer all their questions or explain everything to their satisfaction. They prefer certainty and hope even if based on little more than self-delusion and wishful thinking.
Robert Todd Carroll