A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

From Abracadabra to Zombies


KXJZ Sacramento Public Radio Insight interview with Jeffrey Callison*** 2nd Skepticality interview *** Skepticality Interview (the interview begins 15 minutes and 48 seconds into the podcast) Skeptical Sunday. World Wide Hoax (SETI institute) *** Radio Interview with Elizabeth Sherwin KDVS (Dec. 2003) (Real Audio-  skip the first five minutes, which are from another show, to get to the interview) *** Radio Interview with Jack and Ali: Spin 103.8 Dublin (Oct. 7, 2003)  (mp3) *** Interview with Nemo Nox (burburinho) *** Interview with Greg Tingle (MM) *** Interview with Richard Cadena of Australia's the Skeptic magazine *** Jan-Ove Sundberg *** Interview with Perry DeAngelis of NEJK *** Philosophers' Web Magazine *** The Sydney Morning Herald *** Sacramento Bee *** Davis Enterprise *** Point of Inquiry *** Token Skeptic *** Skepticality 2012 *** Interview with Stuart Campbell on Consider This (mp3)

FAQ (frequently asked questions)


Q. What's the harm in believing in something if it works for you? If I believe that by doing 50 jumping jacks in a row I will be "cured" of acne and it works, what is bad about that?

Customer satisfaction is important when considering committing yourself or your funds to some device, medicine, or therapy. It isn't the only thing that's important, however. It's true that many unscientific or anti-scientific treatments make people feel better and don't cause them direct harm. Even so, people can be harmed by not getting proper medical treatment that could improve their quality of life and increase longevity.

Furthermore, testimonials are not a substitute for scientific studies, which are done to make sure that we are not deceiving ourselves about what causes what. It is especially necessary to do controlled studies of alleged pain relievers to avoid self-deception due to the so-called placebo effectpost hoc reasoning, or the regressive fallacy. We may not want to question too deeply the felt relief, but we should question the cause of that relief.

Doing jumping jacks to cure acne is appealing to the power of belief. What's bad about it is that your personal perception of having your acne cured may be a delusion. Objective tests may show you still have acne even though you deny it. Or, your acne may go away on its own but you will be deluded into thinking that the jumping jacks did the trick. When somebody else gets the same result doing jumping jacks, you'll be absolutely convinced of the power of jumping jacks to cure acne. When somebody comes along with a case of acne for which jumping jacks don't work, you may blame the failure on their lack of belief rather than on the lack of efficaciousness of jumping jacks for curing acne. But don't worry, their acne will eventually go away and they'll give credit for the cure to some other equally magical activity or to some worthless over-the-counter cream. What's bad about this? Besides the waste of time and money? Well, if you suffer from something serious and life threatening, like cancer instead of acne, your jumping jacks routine may keep you from seeking proper medical treatment that might just save your life. Like many people, though, you may seek proper scientific medical treatment but continue to do the jumping jacks. Some call this integrative medicine, where you integrate science-based medicine with nonsense and then give credit to the nonsense if things work out well.

Harvard University has created a program in “Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter.” Ted Kaptchuk, its director, is studying how patients respond to sham treatments, as well as the importance of patient’s faith in a treatment. In a paper in the New England Journal of Medicine published in July 2011, he described an experiment with asthma inhalers. The real ones improved patients’ lung function by 20%, compared with 7% for the alternatives: a dummy inhaler or acupuncture. But patients judged the effectiveness of the three therapies to be about the same. The deluded ones might continue with their dummy inhalers, even if they're made aware of the fact. Do you really think this will help them? See The believers Alternative therapies are increasingly mainstream. That means headaches for scientists—and no cure in sight.

Faith healers claim they can cure cancer with prayer or by laying on of hands. They can't, but people can be deluded into thinking they've been cured by the emotional experience they undergo. Some of these crackpot faith healers claim they're being persecuted for their religious beliefs when they are forced to obey the laws against fraudulent advertising of medical treatments. They're not being persecuted. They're deluded whiners playing the persecution card. They should be put in jail.

I don't deny that at times self-deception can be pleasant, but it can also be harmful.

Q. You seem to think that everyone who disagrees with you is mentally ill. What basis do you have for saying believers in gods, fairies, astrology, conspiracies, or psychics are deluded?

A. Being deluded is not the same as being mentally ill. A delusion is a false belief that cannot be corrected with compelling evidence or sound arguments. Some mental illnesses do involve fixations on false beliefs that no amount of evidence or cogent reasoning can alter. But everyone—not just the mentally ill—is subject to numerous "hidden persuaders" that trick us into believing we know something when we don't. We did not evolve to care as much about the truth of a belief as its utility. Whole nations can be deluded about such things as witches or gods or psychics quite easily with a mixture of ignorance, wishful thinking, communal reinforcement, confirmation bias, and motivated reasoning.

Q. Why aren't you skeptical of skepticism?

A. Skepticism is an attitude, not a belief or set of beliefs. Skepticism involves a willingness to inquire, to investigate, to think critically about any subject. The alternative to skepticism is to accept things on faith and assert them dogmatically. Skepticism is a virtue; irrational dogmatism is a vice. There is no need to defend skepticism. Irrational dogmatism is indefensible.

Q. Why do you think science has the answer to all our questions?

A. I don't. Science can answer only empirical questions and it can't answer all empirical questions. That's why science is so interesting. If it can't answer a question it doesn't give up and declare a miracle has happened. Science tries to figure out a way to answer those questions it cannot now answer. Science isn't infallible and it often gets the wrong answer. Unlike irrational faith, however, science has ways of determining when it has made errors and ways of correcting those errors.

Science has a set of public methods for investigating, debating, arguing, and resolving empirical disputes. These disputes are best dealt with by scientists in the scientific arena. I don't attack pseudoscience or quackery simply because I disagree with the claims of quacks. I disagree with their unscientific and antiscientific methodologies and their inability to resolve empirical issues because much of what they claim is metaphysical, not empirical. I disagree with their asserting they have cures for anything that ails you when their only proof is self-validation, insight, intuition, or testimonials of satisfied customers.

Science can provide valuable information for policy decisions but science doesn't make policy. Thus, those who attack others who disagree with their policies are wrong to consider themselves skeptics and their opponents pseudoscientists. There are some people who call themselves skeptics who specialize in taking sides on both controversial and relatively non-controversial issues, e.g. Steven Milloy's Junk Science Page and Brian and Elisabeth Carnell's Skepticism.net. The Junk Science Page is not about junk science so much as it is about anything that does not support a conservative or libertarian political agenda for businesses and industries that do not like regulations that limit their ability to pollute or poison us or our environment. The Carnell's page is a similar contrarian page regarding environmental issues, especially those involving health. Personally, I think such issues as global warming ought to be left to the scientists to debate. Posting criticisms of global warming or its probable causes is fine by me, but they ought to be posted on a science page, not a skepticism page. Otherwise, you might as well call anyone who disagrees with anyone else a skeptic. This seems foolish, since it makes everyone a skeptic except those people who have no disagreement with anyone, and they're dead so who cares about them.

Q. Why do you think skeptics and scientists should be atheists?

A. What I think is that there is not much reason for anyone to believe in any of the gods of the various religions that have existed or exist now. I also think that we don't need gods to explain anything. Gods are unnecessary. Do they exist? I doubt it but I don't know and, frankly, I don't care. I thought about this issue for about twenty years before coming to the conclusion that the spirit world is unlikely to be real. I then taught and thought some more about this issue for another twenty years and I still see no reason to believe in spirits.

I realize that many people find solace and meaning in their religious and spiritual beliefs. I mean such people no harm and defend their right to believe whatever they want as long as their belief does not include the claim that they have a right or duty to harm or kill those who reject their beliefs. I believe in tolerance and respect for other people's ideas but only up to the point where those ideas include intolerance of others or are likely to bring harm to others. I also consider it disrespectful rather than respectful not to criticize religious and spiritual ideas.

Q. Isn't skepticism (or atheism) a kind of religion with its own faith in science (and reason)?

A. No. As I've already stated, skepticism is not a set of beliefs. Nor is atheism. They do not have elaborate mythologies built around them. They don't involve practicing any rituals, advocating any particular way of life, or worshipping anyone or anything. The acceptance of a scientific theory or a belief based on reason and evidence is always tentative and subject to modification, unlike most religious dogmas. Sure, religions change their opinions on some things. Catholics can now eat meat on Friday. When I was a child to do so meant you'd suffer eternal torments in hell if you didn't get to Confession before you died. Some day, priests may be allowed to marry in the Catholic Church as they are in other religions. But I doubt that the Trinity will be given up any time soon. We use science, logic, and reason in the attempt to root out error, not perpetuate it by disallowing challenges to beliefs, as religions do.

Q. Why do you only criticize New Age and Eastern religions. Why don't you expose frauds like Joseph Smith (Mormonism), Jesus of Nazareth, and Muhammad?

A. The major religions have been criticized in detail by many scholars and non-scholars (religious advocates attacking other religions for not being the "true" religion). There is no lack of critical articles on the major religions. In any case, my site is not primarily an anti-religious or anti-theist site. My entries on atheism, devils, exorcism, faith, gods, and miracles will have to suffice as oblique criticism of the major religions. Furthermore, there are many sites on the WWW run by ex-Mormons, ex-Catholics, ex-Muslims, etc., which criticize the major religions.

Many New Age spiritual notions attempt to unite non-Western notions such as chi or karma with some butchered ideas about quantum physics or some other scientific idea. The traditional religions don't usually try to persuade their followers of their scientific basis. Their beliefs may be just as irrational as those of any New Age cult, but they don't hide behind nonsensical jargon lifted from the latest physics paper. If you're looking for a detailed critique of the doctrine of the Trinity or the Incarnation, or a blistering review of the life of Joseph Smith or Muhammad, you'll have to go elsewhere. As I said, I'm indifferent rather than hostile to religion.

Q. Why do you criticize "complementary" and "alternative" medicine (CAM) only (aka "integrative medicine")? Why don't you have entries that are critical of the questionable claims, practices, and errors of medical science, such as vaccination or circumcision? Doctors commit malpractice. The FDA approves of drugs that turn out to be harmful, even deadly at times. Why don't you criticize the AMA, the FDA, and the pharmaceutical firms?

A. I don't oppose naturopathy, homeopathy, traditional Chinese medicine, therapeutic touch, aromatherapy, and other types of CAM simply because some people who follow AM will be harmed by it. Some will be harmed by CAM and many people will benefit from it, but the entire benefit from CAM comes from the so-called placebo effect, which includes the reduction of stress hormones due to the calming effect of good ritual, "bedside" manner, promise of relief, and desire of the patient to be helped and to please the healer, classical conditioning, and the illness running its natural course. Some are actually harmed by an accepted CAM healing technique e.g., certain kinds of chiropractic. Many are harmed by not seeking science-based treatment known to be effective. Also, CAM therapies are based on irrational beliefs such as chi, vitalism, water with selective memory, and spirits. Much of the thinking in CAM is magical thinking, but when science is used it is either misused or misunderstood. For examples, see my entries on acupuncture and homeopathy (especially my exchange with a medical doctor who is also a homeopath). Dozens of acupuncture studies demonstrate that sham acupuncture is just as effective as true acupuncture, but defenders of acupuncture still maintain that acupuncture "works," i.e., has efficacious healing properties.

In any case, it does not follow from my criticism of CAM practices that I think scientific medicine is flawless. I criticize scientific medicine when it's appropriate to my task. (See here, here, here, here, here and here. I criticize Big Pharma from time to time. See here and here.)  I do not criticize alternative health practices simply because their practitioners err or misdiagnose or cause harm to people. I criticize them because I believe their methods are fundamentally unsound and incapable of weeding out error. When doctors operate on the wrong side of the brain or prescribe a medicine that ends up almost killing a patient, that is a tragedy. But such tragedies don't make surgery or prescribing pharmaceuticals irrational or unreasonable.

Furthermore, CAM practitioners often do not care that their methods are irrational or unreasonable because they deceive themselves into thinking that what they are doing is justified because "it works," i.e., they have seen the results (confirmation bias) and they have a lot of satisfied customers (the pragmatic fallacy). A lot of medicine works because of what is misleadingly called the placebo effect, and a lot of science-based physicians are probably deceived by results just as CAM folks are. These fundamental human tendencies to confirmation bias and self-deception are common in all human thinking but are guarded against by scientists by requiring specific logical and scientific tests of causal claims.

I do not believe that scientific medicine is infallible. I would criticize scientific medicine if it were fundamentally flawed, i.e., if it were based on irrational or unreasonable assumptions. There may be specific procedures that most medical doctors follow or recommend that turn out to be harmful or useless (e.g. diet for peptic ulcers). Nevertheless, I would not reject all medicine because of errors made by medical doctors. It would be foolish to reject science because of errors made by scientists. I reject "alternative" science not because it makes mistakes but because it is fundamentally irrational and unreasonable.

And, while I haven't posted anything on circumcision, I have written about vaccinations.

Q. Is your objection to the placebo effect that people are not consciously choosing to believe in something, that they are accidentally choosing to believe in it because they have been led "astray" by the sellers of the product or practice?

I think that people attribute power to the placebo when, in fact, the placebo has no power to heal. People get better after undergoing treatments that are essentially not efficacious because their illness or pain has run its natural course, they got additional treatment that was efficacious, regression to the mean, selection bias, classical conditioning, or a host of other factors including reduction of stress by being given hope of relief in a clinical setting by a comforting healer. These other factors have been studied by scientists and I review them in my article on the placebo in the SD.

Q. Aren't you a hypocrite? You criticize others for making money from their schemes and ideas but you're doing the same thing by selling your book and other products on your web pages.

A. I don't criticize anyone just for making money. I criticize ideas and schemes and note, where possible, how much money people are spending on these ideas and schemes. I don't begrudge anyone an honest living. Where I think someone is making a dishonest living, I won't hesitate to indicate that. I also think it is worthwhile to note that skepticism is not where the big money is. Publishers are much more eager to publish books with occult, supernatural, or miraculous claims than they are to publish skeptical books. Websites on occult topics far outnumber the skeptical websites. The market, in other words, favors the other side. Many people have noticed this and are taking advantage of it. Some of them might have less than noble motives for pushing their particular brand of ascientific thinking. This is a minor point but worth noting. I wouldn't dwell on it.

Q. Why don't you have entries critical of literary and political theories such as Marxism, postmodernism, deconstructionism? There's a lot of nonsense being claimed in these areas.

A. I can't do everything and I can't be everybody's advocate. I have chosen to restrict myself to claims related to the occult, supernatural, paranormal, and pseudoscientific, or to frauds and hoaxes. I don't see my task as criticizing every bit of nonsense that comes down the pike. There are advocates and critics galore in politics and academia, not to mention the Sunday pundits, who debate this kind of stuff endlessly. Anyone interested will have little difficulty in finding material pro and con for social, political, or literary theories.

Q. Why don't you have entries on urban legends?

A. The Skeptic's Dictionary is not an attempt to ferret out every false or questionable claim, not even those with widespread adherence. The occult, the paranormal, the supernatural and the pseudoscientific more-or-less define the limits of my inquiries here. I have, however, collected a list of false beliefs that are widely held and often presented in the mass media as true. I call these suburban myths and the list keeps growing. For urban legends I refer everyone to Barbara and David Mikkelson's wonderful site: snopes.com.

Q. Without a god, anything goes because there are no absolute moral rules. How do you respond to the charge that atheism is the cause of the current moral decay?

A. I don't know of any studies that show that atheists commit more murders, rapes, robberies, or molest more children than theists. All the evidence supports the fact that non-religious people are at least as moral as religious folks. Theists are often child abusers, rapists, and murderers. Some theists might find it hard to understand why an atheist would be moral if the only reason the theist is moral is out of fear of punishment for violating a divine command. Since atheists do not base their morals on fear of punishment in this life or an afterlife, we are not likely to run amok just because we don't fear divine retribution. Truth be told: if gods exists, anything goes. If you study history, you are likely to find that theists can rationalize just about any behavior, no matter how immoral. Some god is always on their side, no matter how evil their behavior. There is also the problem of sexual repression, a common perversion of religion, and all the problems it causes, but I won't go into that here.

Q. Do skeptics believe there is a reason for existing?

A. Some do. Some don't. I believe that any purpose to a person's life is given to that life by that person. In other words, if you choose to do meaningful things, your life is meaningful. If you choose to live a meaningless existence, then your life is meaningless. For me, one of the most meaningful things I can do is share what I've learned with others. I find the idea repulsive that some creator would make me for some purpose and the only meaning in my life would come from fulfilling that purpose.

A reader commented on the above paragraph: How does this belief differ from the placebo effect, aka what you believe is what happens?

I replied: Choosing to do meaningful things, such as helping those less fortunate than yourself or devoting your life to trying to find a cure for cancer, has no similarities to the delusional notion that what happens is what you believe. It should be obvious to anyone who has read what I've written about the placebo effect that it is not true that people can get rid of health problems just by believing some magical activity will do the trick. Your idea that "the placebo effect" is bringing about things by believing them may be a popular understanding of that expression, but as I have noted above, it is not one I share. You can give a person with a headache a dummy pill and claim it has medicinal powers. The person's headache will go away. You are wrong if you think it went away because the patient believed the dummy pill was good medicine. It went away because headaches resolve themselves most of the time.

Q. Why do you hate Amway?

A. I don't hate Amway. But I am still fascinated that the Amway entry in The Skeptic's Dictionary has been one of the most popular entries for more than a decade. I added an entry on multi-level marketing. I am not going to do separate entries for other MLM schemes, however. Not all MLM programs are created equal. Before getting involved in one I recommend you look at the Consumer Awareness Institute.

Q. Do you think that science, logic, and rational analysis can help you understand such things as love or laughter?

A. Yes, to a large extent, but as with anything requiring experience, the internal perspective is not reducible to that of the external observer. Feelings and moods can be studied scientifically, but there is a subjective element to all experience that transcends science. Transcending science is not the same, however, as transcending nature. Subjective experience does not transcend nature and to think that because something can't be reduced to the terms of an external observer one has opened the door to the supernatural is a delusion in my view.

Science can even study science or religion.

Q. Skeptics are so negative. Why can't you be more positive?

A. Being negative can be very positive. There is a difference between being nihilistic and being negative in the sense of being cautious and critical before believing a claim or accepting an explanation for something. A nihilist denies the value of everything. Many religious people are nihilists since they deny the value of anything in this world. The leaders of religions often reject family, reproduction, the joys of the body, the pleasures of art and nature. Many saints reject this world and live as hermits or join monastic orders, rejecting human society. Think of it this way: are you being "negative" when you tell a child not to play in the street or when you criticize a neighbor who gets drunk in public? Being critical and cautious, rejecting ideas, behaviors and beliefs, is often very positive in its effects. What many people call "negative" thinking is just critical thinking that causes them discomfort.

It is true that many people think skeptics are taking something away from them, while their healers and ministers provide them with hope. Fair enough. The hope that such people are peddling is too often false hope. Such people can cause real harm. Look at the moronic desperation exhibited by those who think The Secret and its so-called law of attraction provides guidance to the good life! Some people want to believe in positive thinking so much that they are willing to abandon all critical thinking to make their dreams come true.

Q. Real skeptics are agnostic; you have strong opinions and beliefs. How can you call yourself a skeptic?

A. The word 'skeptic' derives from the Greek word skeptikos (thoughtful or reflective), and a skeptic is often thought of as an inquirer, one who carefully considers things. Philosophical skepticism comes in two flavors: the Pyrrhonists and the Academic Skeptics. The former focused on providing ways to cast doubt on any proposition. Their main concern seems to have been to refute any dogmatism by demonstrating that there can be no absolute certainty. The most radical maintained that one cannot even be certain that nothing is certain. The Academic Skeptics were not as radical and argued for a mitigated skepticism and maintained that while absolute certainty is impossible, some propositions are more probable than others.

However, nothing in particular follows from accepting that apodictic claims are impossible to demonstrate. It does not follow, for example, that because nothing is certain one should suspend judgment on all claims and believe nothing. Nor does it follow that because nothing is certain one should follow the customs and traditional beliefs of one's society. Nor does it follow that because nothing is certain any belief is as good as any other belief. Nor does it follow that because nothing is certain every belief is an equal act of irrational faith. Though each of the above inferences has been drawn by various people, none of them is a valid logical inference from the proposition nothing is certain.

My choosing to believe some things and not believe others is not a direct consequence of my philosophical skepticism. I accept that nothing is certain, but the only thing that seems to follow from that is that none of my beliefs are absolutely certain, i.e., without possibility of error. Probabilities are the best we can hope for and probabilities seem to be sufficient for daily living and for science. Those who have a need for absolute certainty may not accept this but I believe their rejection of probability as sufficient for human purposes is based on feelings and emotions, not thought.

I hope it is obvious that by 'probability' I do not mean 'mathematical probability.' The mathematical probability that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow may be zero, but the probability upon which humans may reasonably rest their expectations is very, very high. Epistemologically speaking, I cannot say with absolute certainty that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow. But, if I am driving east in the morning, I will bring my sunglasses and not feel in the least that I am acting on faith or that I could just as well get where I want to go by heading west.

Finally, the word 'skeptic' is used today to refer either to one who instinctively or habitually doubts, questions, or disagrees with assertions or generally accepted conclusions or one who doubts the existence of a god and the claims of revelation or a philosophical skeptic, i.e., one who believes that absolute knowledge is impossible and that inquiry must be a process of doubting in order to acquire approximate or relative certainty. Each of these meanings is consistent with the practice of systematically rejecting as highly improbable occult, supernatural, paranormal, and pseudoscientific claims.

Q. Real skeptics are open-minded; you are closed-minded towards beliefs in the occult, supernatural, and paranormal. How can you call yourself a skeptic?

Being open-minded does not mean that one has an obligation to examine every crackpot idea or claim made. I have spent years examining occult and supernatural claims. When someone says they've been abducted by aliens, but they have no physical evidence of their abduction, I feel no need to investigate the issue further. If their only proof is that they can't remember what happened to them for a few hours or days—a common claim by alleged abductees—then my hunch is that there is a natural explanation for their memory loss. For example, they're lying because they don't want anyone to know where they really were, or they passed out from natural or self-induced causes; they then dreamt or hallucinated.

When someone claims to be a god or to hear voices he says come from a god, I assume he is mistaken or a fraud. Am I closed-minded? I don't think so. However, many years ago, when I heard for the first time about UFOs and alien abductions, I would have been closed-minded had I not investigated the matters. I have also studied many cases of people who claimed to be gods or reincarnations of dead persons. So, when a young man in Texas who thinks he's a god shoots at federal agents, it neither surprises me nor does it instill in me any urge to investigate the man's divinity claim. Am I closed-minded? Again, I don't think so. Once a person has studied an issue in depth, to be open-minded does not mean you must leave the door open and let in any harebrained idea that blows your way. Your only obligation is to not lock the door behind you. If someone claims to have alien body parts or vehicle parts, by all means let's examine the stuff. If someone is turning water into wine or raising the dead by an act of will, I'll be the first to reconsider my opinion about human divinities.

An open-minded person who is inexperienced and uninformed will need to be willing to investigate issues that an experienced and informed person need not pursue. An open-minded thinker must find things out for herself, but once she has found them out she does not become closed-minded simply because her opinion is now informed! So, the next time you hear some defender of astral projection, past-life regression, or alien abductions accuse a skeptic of being "closed-minded," give thought to the possibility that the skeptic isn't closed-minded. Perhaps she has arrived at an informed belief.

The notion that the real skeptics are the ones doing paranormal investigations has been put forth by a group led by Rupert Sheldrake. They call themselves the Association for Skeptical Investigation. However, scientists have been trying to prove the existence of psi for over 150 years. While there has been no progress in parapsychology, all the other sciences have progressed exponentially since 1850. The scientific community has every right to be skeptical of parapsychology.

Q. Your arguments are always one-sided. You never give the arguments in favor of such things as ESP, miracles, or takionic immortality toe rings. Why? To be fair, shouldn't you be giving both sides of the issue?

A. If I had written a different book, say one called A Critical Thinker's Approach to Weird Beliefs, my arguments would be different. In that case, I would have presented the best arguments from any side on an issue and let the reader decide which argument, if any, to accept. But I didn't write that kind of book. I wrote a book that would provide the reader with the best skeptical arguments and references to the best skeptical literature on occult, supernatural, paranormal, and pseudoscientific claims. Non-skeptical materials on these matters are abundant. My purpose is to provide some balance in an otherwise unbalanced publishing world.

I have, however, invited critics and proponents of opposing viewpoints to send me feedback. I have posted many of their remarks and my responses to them. So, while I did not write the book to set forth the best arguments pro and con on the issues, these postings provide a taste of how I handle criticisms of my views and arguments in defense of the paranormal, etc.

In addition, I have incorporated many entries into the book that should help the critical thinker who is examining not just my arguments and opinions but those of "the other side." A list of these entries may be found at Logic & Perception.

Q. What good is skepticism? What value is there in being skeptical?

Carl Sagan's essay on the Baloney Detection Kit in The Demon-Haunted World says it best. I think skepticism is most valuable when seeking and evaluating information. Doubting claims that might prove harmful seems to be one good reason for being skeptical. Being willing to investigate claims rather than accept them on faith is a virtue. Requiring evidence and logical reasons is recommended.

Q. Didn't Descartes, with his cogito ergo sum, prove that at least some things are absolutely certain, e.g., that I exist?

A. Descartes thought he proved that it is absolutely certain that the god of Abraham [AG] and the Christian theological tradition exists and a whole lot of other things. See his Meditations on First Philosophy. Many of the claims that Descartes claimed were absolutely certain are referred to as analytic claims: their truth is a matter of convention and depends entirely on semantics or syntax, not empirical discovery. Other claims Descartes thought were absolutely certain, such as the claim that "God [AG] exists," are neither absolutely certain nor analytic. "2+2=4" is true for certain definitions of '2', '+' '=" and '4' and false for other definitions, e.g., adding 2 raindrops to 2 raindrops does not give 4 raindrops, and mixing 2 liters of water with 2 liters of alcohol does not yield 4 liters of liquid. Words or signs rarely have meanings independent of other words and signs. Whether a statement is true or not depends on what it means, and what it means depends on its context—especially the context of its interconnectedness with other words or signs—and the background against which the meaning of the words and signs are learned.

Q. How do you respond to criticisms of skepticism like that of Robert Anton Wilson, who labels skeptics as "irrational rationalists" and accuses skeptics of launching a "New Inquisition"?

A. First, I would say that Wilson doesn't distinguish between a philosophical Skeptic and an ordinary skeptic. Second, I would agree with what Carl Sagan wrote in The Demon-Haunted World: "no skeptic compels belief....New Agers are not...being called up before criminal tribunals, nor whipped for having visions, and they are certainly not being burned at the stake" (p. 301). Being open-minded shouldn't mean being gullible. There is little virtue in being so uncritical as to consider every idea the equal of every other idea. Reasonable people learn from experience and distinguish ideas that have failed from those that have passed rigorous empirical tests. Reasonable people don't believe things just because they are possibly true. Reasonable people distinguish probable from improbable ideas and notions. Reasonable people trust impersonal testing such as control group, double-blind studies, and have learned from experience the dangers of wishful thinking, communal reinforcement, confirmation bias, cold reading, and subjective validation. One does not become irrational or an inquisitor by criticizing and challenging claims that are near zero in probability. The charge is especially ludicrous in an age where an ordinary skeptic is not nearly as likely as a channeler or a medium to be a guest on a popular television program such as Oprah Winfrey or Larry King. Skeptics are certainly not persecuted, but they are not considered mainstream entertainment and they do not get nearly the hearing that New Age or UFO stories get. The real Inquisitors had the backing of the people, as well as the backing of the Church. Most scientists might be skeptical of most paranormal and supernatural claims, but that kind of skepticism has no weight or authority in science. In any case, the vast majority of people are not sympathetic to skeptics but with those we criticize. If skeptics are engaging in an inquisition it is the strangest inquisition imaginable, run as it is by no central authority and led by people the masses don't recognize and would ignore or shout down if they did recognize.

Q. How do you get out of bed in the morning? I mean, if you have no faith, what can you hope for? If you can't pray to a god, how can you deal with life's tragedies? If you can't believe in fairies, ghosts and magical things like crystals and mermaids, how can life be interesting for you? If we don't live forever, why don't we just kill ourselves right now and be done with it, since our lives are meaningless anyway? Yours seems to be a cold, dull, sad existence, void of any magic.

A. I'll be blunt in responding to those who say they couldn't find any reason to live unless they could live forever. That view is about the most pathetic position anyone could ever take on any subject whatsoever. If you have the slightest ability to perceive and feel and understand the world around you, you should be filled with wonder and joy at the opportunity to explore it for whatever amount of time you have. To say I don't want to live unless I can live forever is like a spoiled child saying he won't eat anything except pizza and ice cream. I can understand why some people might prefer death and an existence in a spirit world to suffering on Earth. But I will never understand why a healthy human being would prefer death now rather than later unless he or she is assured of immortality.

R. T. Carroll - July 31, 1997
last updated 12/09/2010

further reading


© Copyright 1994-2016 Robert T. Carroll * This page was designed by Cristian Popa.