Beyond A Doubt
The truth is out there
Bob Carroll -- professor by trade,
skeptic at heart -- is doing his best to find it.
By Blair Anthony Robertson
-- Sacramento Bee Staff Writer Published 5:30 a.m. PST Saturday, Feb. 9,
There is a professor at Sacramento City College who leads a double life.
Some call it dangerous and loathe him for what he does.
Others see him as a hero, a crusader for the truth in an increasingly
So this must be a disguise he's in, smiling and soft-spoken as he begins
a lecture in his philosophy class on "Law, Justice and Punishment." He looks
like the prototypical mild-mannered professor, right down to the khaki pants
and the brown comfort shoes he accents with a black belt.
That's the 56-year-old Bob Carroll everyone seems to know around
here, the one whose doctoral dissertation was titled "The Common-sense
Philosophy of Religion of Bishop Edward Stillingfleet, 1635-1699."
By all appearances on campus, he has been teaching and making few waves
for 25 years. But in the wee hours since 1993, Bob Carroll has been slipping
into the proverbial phone booth and stepping out as Internet superhero
Robert T. Carroll.
The force behind a Web site called "The Skeptic's Dictionary," he has
become a celebrity in the cyber sense, attracting 25,000 [actually, it's
50,000] visitors a month to Skepdic.com.
Online, Carroll is a brash, prolific, provocative, self-assured
know-it-all who takes on all kinds of archenemies.
Online, his belt and shoes always match.
UFOs? ESP? NLP? Feng shui? WHACK! SPLAT! KABOOM!
The site has won numerous awards and was named to PC Magazine's top 100
list. It is stimulating, thorough, entertaining and seemingly infinite, with
writing that is lively and accessible even as it shoots down everything you
might have thought was good and right with the world.
Carroll hammers away at what he calls Amway's "legal pyramid scheme,"
pokes holes in the paranormal, calls "creation science" an oxymoron and
critiques everything from acupuncture and abracadabra to werewolves,
zombies, Nessie and Big Foot.
He gets fan mail and plenty of hate mail, and both kinds seem to inspire
him to press on with his countervailing crusade.
Enemies pepper him with computer viruses to try to shut him down.
Although skeptics have been around for years, the modern skeptical
movement in the United States sprang up about 25 years ago. It was led by
scientists such as Carl Sagan who were frustrated that far-out claims were
seldom challenged in the media.
The Web site is believed to be among the first full-fledged efforts at
publishing in hypertext, meaning Carroll's essays are full of links to
sources elsewhere in The Skeptic's Dictionary as well as the rest of the
"It's an excellent site. I use it quite a bit," said Kevin Christopher of
Skeptical Inquirer, the leading magazine in the field with a
worldwide circulation of 50,000. Christopher says the site is one of the
three best of its kind.
The hypertext numbers within Skepdic.com are astounding and illustrate
how the project Carroll began in 1993 practically became an obsession. There
are 23,044 links on the site, including 13,093 links that take the visitor
to another area within Skepdic.com. The bibliography has grown to a 70-page
list of books and other source materials.
"Man, I can't believe I've looked at all this stuff," Carroll said,
referring to the massive bibliography.
The Web site is such a vast resource that one might think Carroll would
be seen by colleagues as the go-to guy on topics of skepticism and
pseudoscience. But when Sacramento City College had a conference on
skepticism two years ago, organizers didn't think -- or even know -- to
invite the unassuming professor.
The disguise has been working. Unassuming might be an understatement. It
seems Carroll never tells on himself, and hardly anyone on campus knows of
his site, which, thanks to an army of devoted volunteers, has been
translated into eight languages and attracts attention around the globe.
Practically anonymous in the Sacramento area, Carroll has been
interviewed by the BBC, the Associated Press and the Sydney (Australia)
Herald, among others.
When Carroll is asked who might be interviewed to discuss him and his
work, he digs up the name of a Canadian devotee he has never met -- or even
spoken to on the telephone.
In the World Wide Web, relationships grow out of ideas and expressions,
not interpersonal contact. Tim Boettcher, the Canadian in question, is a
45-year-old computer programmer from Edmonton who became so engrossed
reading The Skeptic's Dictionary five years ago that he volunteered
to proofread the site.
"I thought it was an honest effort to get at the truth," said Boettcher,
a fundamentalist Christian who thinks Carroll occasionally goes too far in
challenging some aspects of religion. "If you're skeptical, there's not a
lot of information out there to help you. You're often bombarded with New
Age philosophies and quack healing."
Boettcher is unusual as skeptics go. Most leading skeptics are atheists
and agnostics. Asked what he thinks Carroll is like in person, Boettcher
replied, "I expect him to be a curmudgeonly old fellow who doesn't put up
with a lot."
A recent visit to Carroll's classroom found the professor to be calm and
patient and hardly the curmudgeon. He lives in Davis in a cozy middle-class
neighborhood. He likes Celtic music, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Van
Morrison. He likes to play golf and enjoys sipping 12-year-old single malt
The cramped desk in his study where he does the bulk of his writing has
an oak veneer. The opposite wall is lined with hundreds of books. His wife's
computer has a screen saver that rotates photos of their grandkids. When he
gets his picture taken, he asks if there is a lens that will make him appear
In the 1960s, he attended the University of Notre Dame, entering the
seminary for a short time in his junior year before dropping out. "I
thought, 'God help us if this is the crew that is going to lead us to the
New Age.' "
He gradually stopped following Catholicism, then stopped believing in God
altogether. Some readers of The Skeptic's Dictionary write him
wondering if he believes in anything at all, and if not, why he even bothers
getting out of bed in the morning.
"There is nothing dull about a life without fairies, Easter bunnies,
devils, ghosts, magic crystals, etc.," Carroll writes in his FAQ (frequently
asked questions). "Life is only boring to boring people."
Carroll may not be boring, but neither is he animated, brash or brimming
with confidence, at least not on the outside. But the Internet is a
liberating medium, and on Skepdic.com Carroll leaves behind any inhibitions
and real-life reticence. He becomes a witty, relentless attack dog who seems
to have opinions about everything.
For instance: Under the heading "WWJD (What Would Jesus Do)," a movement
that began in Holland, Mich., Carroll answers the question himself: "Jesus
would not ask anyone what to do. He would tell them. He would command them.
And if they disobeyed, he would threaten them with eternal damnation."
* Feng shui: "... another New Age 'energy' scam with arrays of
metaphysical products from paper cutouts of half-moons and planets, to
octagonal mirrors to wooden flutes, offered for sale to help you improve
your health, maximize your potential and guarantee fulfillment of some
fortune cookie philosophy."
* Haunted houses: "It is not clear why Satan or ghosts would confine
themselves to quarters, since with all their alleged powers they could be
anywhere or everywhere at any time. ... In the case of Amityville, the real
devils were George and Kathy Lutz, who concocted a preposterous story made
into a book and a movie, apparently to help them out of a mortgage they
couldn't afford and a marriage on the rocks."
* Karma: "... a law for the passive, for those who will not disturb the
status quo, who will accept whatever evil is done as 'natural' and
In 1992, when the World Wide Web was new and raw and still relatively
empty, events came together that inspired Carroll to "publish" a book in
cyberspace. His best friend and his father-in-law died in the same week.
Carroll began writing with abandon.
"I just felt totally focused," he said. "It was like the deaths of these
two people had forced me to start looking at everything and not take
anything for granted. All these times I had said that someday I am going to
do this or go there, I decided to just do it."
Those who want their debunking on paper are in luck. Carroll's agent is
working out a deal with John Wiley & Sons Inc. to publish the book in
hardcover. Carroll doesn't plan to get rich from writing about this stuff.
All skeptics know there's more money in fooling people, in getting them to
suspend common sense, than there is in setting them straight.
[The book is now available from