Robert Carroll, philosopher, CSI fellow, and prominent skeptic widely known for his online (and print) Skeptics Dictionary, died from pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer August 25, 2016. He was seventy-one. In his last hours, he was surrounded by family and Bob Dylan songs. His legacy lives on through his work, his writings, his inspiration, and in the thousands of students who sat in his classroom where he taught critical thinking skills. Our heart goes out to his family, especially his wife of forty-eight years, Leslie; daughters, Jennifer and Allison; sons-in-law, Rodney and Daniel; and his grandchildren, Olivia and Flynn.
Before there was Wikipedia, there was The Skeptic’s Dictionary. It was conceived and managed by this one amazing person, Robert Todd Carroll. He started it in 1994 after taking a community education class with his wife, Leslie, learning about the Internet, email, and HTML.
Carroll earned his PhD in philosophy in 1974 from the University of California at San Diego. A professor of philosophy from 1977 to 2007 at Sacramento City College, Carroll initially began the Dictionary with rewritten lectures from his classes. Over time, the website http://skepdic.com morphed into the workhorse it is today with more than 85,000 hyperlinks and 5,500 files. It receives more than 400,000 visits a month. In 2003, it was published in book form by John Wiley and Sons.
In 2010, CSI made him a well-deserved fellow. Starting in March 2012, Bob appeared on the Skepticality podcast with a regular segment called “Unnatural Virtue.”
When Bob discovered his cancer in 2014, we talked briefly about it, as I had battled the same disease. He didn’t feel depressed, just tired. He asked me, “Did you ever get to the point where you were tired of being tired?” Yet he continued maintaining the website and writing his popular newsletters. Only in May 2016 did he announce that he was stopping due to health reasons.
Mostafa Mahmoud, an editor for our Guerilla Skepticism on Wikipedia project, published a long overdue rewrite of Carroll’s Wikipedia page in May 2016. Readers will enjoy learning about the Bob Carroll few knew. He was raised Catholic and, for a time in college, even entered a seminary. His doctoral thesis was on the religious philosophy of Edward Stillingfleet, which Carroll later published as The Common-sense Philosophy of Religion of Bishop Edward Stillingfleet 1635–1699.
I asked Mahmoud why he felt so strongly about wanting to rewrite Bob’s Wikipedia page, and I think his response explains completely why Bob Carroll is so important to us:
When I was 15 and grappling with Islam, the internet was my only chance at some rational and impartial reading material in Egypt. That’s when I first came across skepdic.com. Carroll’s article about Satan particularly fascinated me. The article was written in an amusing satirical tone, mocking fears that had been instilled in me since infancy. Yet, it still managed to feel analytical and thought-provoking, it spoke to me deeply at the time. This article was all the more special for me because of how hard it was to find people with a sympathetic point of view before the explosion of social media. Since that day I’m still yet to emerge from the rabbit hole that’s skepdic.com.
I was fortunate to be able to tell Carroll just how big of an impact he had on my life a few months before his passing. Surely thousands of others have similar stories, thousands who were affected by a stimulating piece of writing from the man’s prolific career. His writing brought skepticism to the internet. However, its value doesn’t just lie in its entrepreneurial status. More than twenty years after its inception, skepdic.com still houses some of the most intriguing and provocative skeptical arguments around. Nowadays, because of the efforts of Carroll and people like him, truth seekers all around the world can traverse any geological or intellectual barriers set by their environments—that’s the sort of legacy he leaves behind.