Skeptical Community Mourns the Loss of Robert Todd Carroll

Susan Gerbic

By SgerbicOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Robert Carroll, philosopher, CSI Fellow, and prominent skeptic widely known for his online Skeptics Dictionary, died from pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer August 25, 2016. He was 71. 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 48 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 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 we were both members of the club no one wants to join. He told me that he had traveled to Switzerland for treatment and that after 5 weeks he was exhausted. 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 the seminary. His doctoral thesis was on the religious philosophy of Edward Stillingfleet, which Carroll later published: The Common-sense Philosophy of Religion of Bishop Edward Stillingfleet 1635-1699.

I asked Mostafa 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 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 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

“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, 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.”

Bob Carroll inspired all who knew him. He created a skeptical Encyclopedia, years before Wikipedia. It became a major go-to source for the world. He had an iPhone app that I heard advertised on every Skeptic Zone podcast weekly. I think I have the ad memorized. Bob was approached by so many people thinking that they were going to change the world with their blog and he received requests all the time from people asking Bob to read their work. Bob’s answers were polite and friendly, advising them to join the GSoW project if they really wanted to make lasting educational changes to topics concerning scientific skepticism. He sent me one such letter where he refers the correspondent to one of his newsletters about GSoW and how the Skeptic’s Dictionary received over 8,000 visitor referrals coming from Wikipedia:

Good luck with your project. Sorry, but I don’t have time to read the hundreds of skeptical blogs that now exist. Good luck getting heard above the din. You might ask yourself if starting a blog right now is the best use of your talents. If you are interested in having an impact while remaining relatively anonymous read the following from one of my newsletters:

‘“So, if you are a skeptic in search of a project, consider becoming an editor of Wikipedia articles. Don’t know where to start? In her interview with Ben Radford, Susan says “I would love to mentor anyone interested in learning how to edit.” I hope those words come back to haunt her.”’

I learned about Bob’s death from an email from his wife Leslie. I’m reprinting it here with her permission.

Dear Susan,

I am very sorry to bring sad news about Bob. He left us Thursday morning, August 25, on a journey to the stars and beyond from whence he came. He was admitted to the local hospital August 22 and was due to come home to hospice care. It was not to be. Our boy took his own path home and died quietly and peacefully, surrounded by family and Bob Dylan songs.

Two years ago, he was diagnosed with Pancreatic Neuroendocrine Cancer, the same rare disease that Steve Jobs had. We both hoped he would be with us longer since this disease is often slow-growing. It was not to be.

Shortly before Bob died, he looked at me and said, “Death is nothing.” When I looked puzzled, he explained that Epicurus had said that while dying was hard, death is nothing. In fact, death was quite something to those of us who loved this complex, bitingly funny, loving man who is no longer.

I apologize for the time it’s taken to let the skeptic’s community know but it’s taken me a while to re-center. As a friend and colleague of Bob’s, I thought you would want to know about his passing.

With sadness..

Leslie Carroll

The number of comments I received after the announcement of his death on my Facebook wall tell the story of Bob’s impact on the lives of our community. Here is a sampling:

“His legacy lives on, as it should, and must.”
– Claus Larsen

“A great loss for our community, and the world at large.”
– Brian Hart

“I used to look stuff up on SkepDic all the time, trying to sort out the real from the woo. This is a loss.”
– Michael Lazarus

“I loved and still love his dictionary. Have spent hours on that site.”
– Dan Green

“His stuff was among the earliest material I referenced when schooling myself on skepticism.”
– Bob Morse

“My copy of the skeptics dictionary is sitting on the shelf. I loved Bobs email[s] also. Going to miss him.”
– Greg LeMunyan

“He put skepticism on the web. A deep thinker. He will be missed.”
– Ray Hall

“The WWW was quite small in 1994 and his efforts carved out a significant part of the skeptic online identity. I remember reading his dictionary when I should have been working at a publishing job.”
– Chris Guest

“So sad to hear this. My signed copy of the Skeptics Dictionary sits on my shelf – I bought it out of the trunk of his car the night before it went on sale. He was at the Skeptics Toolbox that year. What a huge contribution he has made.”
– Jeanine Streeter DeNoma

I’ve asked several people from the skeptic community for their thoughts on Bob’s legacy…

Ben Radford: “I only met Bob Carroll twice, but he was a prominent figure in skepticism for me. He was thoughtful, intelligent, and a great explainer. His Skeptics Dictionary was one of the first skeptical books I bought, and I consider it essential reference reading along with Randi’s encyclopedia, Martin’s Fads and Fallacies, and a few others. When I found that he had created a website based on the book, I was delighted and often linked to it in articles I’d written. The entries were not comprehensive or too academic, but then they were not meant to be; Bob’s goal was more public outreach and less preaching to the choir. I was honored on occasion when I found myself referenced in his work, and we exchanged a few correspondences over the years. Between his teaching and his books and website, he educated many thousands of people over the years, and his legacy lives on. I’ll miss him.”

Harriet Hall:
“If skepticism had a Bible, it would be the Skeptic’s Dictionary. I refer to it constantly. Robert was thorough and meticulous about checking his facts and providing references. His critical thinking skills were without equal. The Dictionary is an invaluable resource on pretty much every topic of interest to skeptics.”

Richard Saunders:
“I have lost count of the number of times I have used Bob’s work as references. It was so good to direct people to his website for concise reliable information. It was and still is one of the better sites on the Internet for skeptics and believers too.”

Brian Dunning:
“It’s a pretty rare occasion that I’m researching some paranormal or pseudoscience topic that I don’t find Bob Carroll had already found everything I’d found, and more. Sometimes I’ll find something incredibly obscure that I’m sure nobody else had ever turned up; and nine times out of ten, Bob had. And that tenth time, Martin Gardner had. Between the two of them, I don’t think there’s a single unturned stone left in the world.”

Sharon Hill:
“I can’t count how many times I consulted The Skeptic’s Dictionary for a reference or overview of a topic. It was my primary source to link to regarding a skeptical view of a topic, the closest thing to a Wikipedia of skepticism that we had. I only met Bob once so didn’t know him personally, but I will miss his passion for this work. I’m so grateful to have this legacy that remains.”

Tim Farley:
“When I first got into skeptical topics, The Skeptic’s Dictionary was an absolutely crucial resource in my education. As I put together my own website What’s The Harm? I linked to Bob’s site whenever possible to provide background and supporting material. He was always a friendly and gracious person when I encountered him at skeptic conferences, or asked him a favor over email. Just a few months ago I found a minor factual error that had crept into one of his articles, and he quickly fixed it and thanked me for the input. The entire skeptical community will miss him.&rdqou;

Derek Colanduno:
“I got to meet Bob only a couple times, we had a lot of fun the times we did get to actually sit down and discuss his work, and his future plans for what he was doing. Bob had a great, popular, segment on my show, Skepticality. When he told me he was diagnosed with cancer it was terrible. Even though I hadn’t been able to see Bob for more than a couple years, it still kills me a little inside when I think I cannot reach out to him anymore to know what he is thinking about, or what his next, cool, idea would be to promote critical thinking and the skeptical mindset to the public.”

Barry Karr:
“One of the best responsibilities I have as CSI Executive Director is to write the letters to the people who have just been elected as either a Fellow or Consultant to the Committee. I remember being simply delighted to be able to send such a letter to Robert. He had spoken at CSI conferences and had taken part in our Skeptic’s Toolbox, but it was his tireless work on the Skeptic’s Dictionary that really shined for us. It is such a wonderful resource for all things skeptic’s need to know, kind of a one-stop oasis of knowledge. I so looked forward to his regular “The Skeptic’s Dictionary Newsletter” not only for the updates on existing entries, but for his take on new topics and claims. When it showed up in my in-box it was always “What does Bob say about it!?” Truth be told there was also a bit of a thrill when Bob would mention an article in the Skeptical Inquirer, or one of our events. You know how the saying goes that you don’t know how much you miss something until it’s gone. I am not sure that is totally true, he is missed dearly already.”

I know Bob Carroll was exceptional to his family and friends, and I want everyone to know that he was very special to the skeptic community as well.

Thank you Bob; you showed us the way. We will continue from here.

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.