On Bigfoot and Huevos Rancheros

Susan Gerbic

Craig Foster received his PhD in social psychology from the University of North Carolina. He currently serves as a psychology professor at the United States Air Force Academy. His research interests include scientific reasoning and the development of pseudoscientific beliefs. Craig has presented a Sunday paper at CSICon 2016 and 2017. This year he will be presenting on Friday October 19 at noon.

Susan Gerbic: Craig, it’s great to talk to you again. It’s been so much fun watching you become more and more involved in the skeptic movement. I was at the Fort Collins, Colorado, SkeptiCamp in April and one of Linda Rosa’s slides came up with your face on it. Apparently you are working with her and Jean Mercer on something? But first, tell the readers a bit about yourself. I’ll link to the two previous articles I’ve written on you at CSICon 2017 and 2016.

Craig Foster: Thanks, Susan. Becoming more involved with the skeptic movement has been really rewarding, both in terms of learning new things and in terms of meeting great people. I am glad to have found a community that thinks and feels the way I do.

On the personal side, I spend the majority of my free time hanging out with my family. I sort of enjoy trail running. I am hoping to get back into photography, which I have neglected for years. I am still searching for the perfect huevos rancheros.

Gerbic: Weren’t you planning on attending a Bigfoot conference? What happened with that?

Foster: I developed a research idea involving the Bigfoot conference over two years ago. I contacted the conference director and he was supportive. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out and I put it on the back burner. One of my students, Alexys, learned about the research and became really interested. We turned it into her senior year capstone project. The conference director was still on board, so we dusted off the old survey and we took it to the 2018 Texas Bigfoot Conference in Jefferson, Texas.

Alexys and I had a great time at the conference. The speakers and attendees were, much like the people at a skepticism conference, charming and friendly. Jefferson was delightful, and the food was exceptional.We were also able to obtain enough completed surveys to draw some interesting conclusions.

Gerbic: You are presenting on Friday at noon, and I understand you will be talking about how belief in the paranormal is a normal human characteristic and “believers” are not crazy or stupid. What more can you tell us about your talk?

Foster: The talk is based primarily on the results we obtained from the Bigfoot conference. The idea that belief in the paranormal is a human characteristic is not new. Plenty of skeptics and social scientists have described characteristics of human reasoning that lead people into paranormal or pseudoscientific beliefs. The unique part of our research was examining simultaneously personality factors, social factors, and scientific reasoning factors as predictors of believing in Bigfoot. By examining these broad perspectives simultaneously, we could estimate which ones had more influence. The results have only reinforced my belief that susceptibility to pseudoscience is a human characteristic. Naturally, I will share the results and the implications for skepticism during my talk.

 Gerbic: I want to hear what Jean, Linda, and you have in the works. What else is on your to-do list these days?

Foster: Please. I wouldn’t say that “we” (air quotes) have anything planned. It’s more like Linda and Jean throw some baby carrots in my Knight Rider lunchbox and take me to school. Linda and Jean have long been outstanding advocates for evidence-based health practices. One of the issues on their radar involved connections between the state of Colorado and practices that did not align with contemporary science. They were particularly concerned about attachment therapy, which has a sad history of promoting holding therapy and other concepts that do not jive with contemporary psychology. We met with two representatives from the Colorado Department of Human Services. It was fantastic. They shared our desire to support evidence-based practices, and they have worked with us in a constructive manner. It has provided a great example of what skepticism and persistence can do. Linda and Jean deserve all the credit though. Since that initial meeting they are the ones who have been lending their expertise to the process. I just sit back and learn from those woo hunters.

The main items on my skeptical to-do list involve completing a few papers about pseudoscience and the paranormal. One paper involves the God and sports topic that I presented at the 2017 CSICon. Another paper examines the reasons that anti-vaccination communities gravitate toward claims about vaccines causing harm. That might seem obvious, but I think the details are important.

Gerbic: Well,we have a fantastic lineup this year. Whose lectures are you looking forward to seeing? 

Foster: Massimo Pigliucci’s. My interest in pseudoscience really kicked off around the beginning of 2014 when I started teaching science-pseudoscience demarcation at the Air Force Academy. I wanted to understand how communities can believe and promote scientifically untenable claims. Pigliucci and Maarten Boudry had just published a tremendous volume called Philosophy of Pseudoscience. His work has been enormously helpful, and I am a big admirer.

I am also looking forward to lunch with Paul Offit. I consider myself a generalist when it comes to understanding pseudoscience, but I have spent the majority of time studying anti-vaccination. This evolved out of the anti-vaccination review that I placed in my statistics and research methods sequence. I wanted the Air Force Academy cadets to see proper and improper methods of scientific reasoning in an applied context. It helps that all the cadets have been vaccinated and not a single cadet has combusted spontaneously.

I want to meet The Amazing Randi. Yeah, I said it. Poor guy has this long line of people just wanting to meet him and here I am just adding to his burden. It’s really selfishness hidden under homage.

Gerbic: This will be your third CSICon. When we talked back in 2016, you were the “new guy.” Now as one of the “old folk,” what advice would you give to first time CSICon attendees?

Foster: Ha! Old guy already? I suppose so.

First, I would remind everybody that we are a peculiar group. It obviously isn’t the norm to spend time and money just to engage in discussions about science, critical thinking, and most of all, woo. We need to celebrate our oddness by encouraging a supportive atmosphere. I would like an environment where attendees can walk up to strangers and say “I am here by myself and I could use a wingwoman or wingman” and receive a positive response. That would be pretty sweet.

Second, don’t believe everything you hear. Skepticism often focuses on cognitive processes at the individual level. Consider the slogan “I doubt it.” This pithy little saying provides a fundamental lesson in critical thinking: Don’t be too quick to believe.

That said, the skeptical community has a vital, additional function. When skeptics gather and discuss issues that are important to them, they create a forum where they can scrutinize the claims with which they take issue. This process is critically important because it minimizes the likelihood that skeptics are going to make misinformed arguments. There is a danger in this process, however. Because the process is generally effective, it can be tempting to believe a claim because the skeptical community generally promotes the claim. I understand this temptation. In my experience skeptics are typically sharp and well-informed. Nevertheless, it would be hypocritical to believe something simply because skepticism says that it is so. Skepticism ultimately is united not around any set of beliefs but around the process that creates those beliefs. This creates an odd paradox: Questioning skepticism is supporting skepticism.

Gerbic: The lectures are only half of the CSICon experience. So much more goes on in the hallways, at the bars, and at lunch and dinners. Anyone who thinks they are going to just show up for the lectures and then go back to their room is missing out on so much. We have a Halloween party too; this year’s theme is pajama party. I would suggest attendees follow CSICon on the Facebook group to keep up with people and share photos and conference tips. The past two years, groups of us took over Johnny Rockets and Baja Fresh. Now that we are moving to the Westgate Casino and Resort, we are going to have to find new places to hang out. And everyone is welcome; just pull up a chair and prepare to hangout, no invite necessary.

Susan Gerbic

Affectionately called the Wikipediatrician, Susan Gerbic is the cofounder of Monterey County Skeptics and a self-proclaimed skeptical junkie. Susan is also founder of the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) project. She is a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and writes for her column, Guerilla Skepticism, often. You can contact her through her website.