The Challenge of Belief

Susan Gerbic

Image By: Brian Engler

James Alcock is a professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, Canada. He is also a fellow and member of the Executive Council for the Committee for the Skeptical Inquiry and one of the original faculty lecturers with the Skeptic’s Toolbox. He will be presenting at CSICon on Friday, October 19 at 9:00 am.

Susan Gerbic: Jim, great seeing you at CSICon 2017. That was a blast. But what a great lineup this year! For new readers, this is the conversation with Jim before CSICon last year. Catch us up, Jim. What have you been doing this last year?

James Alcock: Hi, Susan. Over the past year, I have dedicated most of my time to completing my new book, Belief: What It Means to Believe and Why Our Beliefs Are So Compelling, which was published by Prometheus Books in April of this year. 

Gerbic: You are going to be speaking at 9 am on Friday, October 19, starting the conference off right. Your talk is called “The Challenge of Belief: Fact, Folly, or Propaganda.” Reading over the summary, this talk is very relevant to today’s social media climate, fact-checking, peer review, “alternative facts,” and more. Please don’t forget us at GSoW who are page by page attempting to bring Wikipedia up to snuff. It’s a slow process, but we just added our 605th Wikipedia page. Only about ten-thousand more to go! Seriously, tell us about your talk. It’s a lot to explain in a thirty-minute lecture.

Alcock: The talk draws from material in my book. Many of our beliefs are created and shaped by what other people tell us, and so when we are misled, deliberately or not, we are left with beliefs that do not reflect reality. Worse, research shows that once we have come to believe something, the influence of that belief is not completely erased even if we later find out that it is distorted or false.

An important part of critical thinking is to scrutinize the reliability of our sources of information. This is made much more difficult when there are deliberate attempts by people in power to denigrate what have traditionally been trusted sources by referring to them as purveyors of “fake news.” Added to that difficulty are the many new information sources that are not subject to the usual journalistic standards and that often deliberately slant their reporting in service of some political or religious agenda.

Gerbic: As I said, what a great lineup at CSICon this year. Are there people or talks you are really interested in seeing?

Alcock: I have always enjoyed all the talks that have been presented at CSICon in the past, and I am sure the same will be true this year. I am particularly interested in hearing Stephen Fry, Steven Pinker, and Timothy Caufield. However, I also look forward to presentations by people whom I’ve heard speak before, including, of course, James Randi, Richard Dawkins, Susan Blackmore, Banachek, Massimo Polidoro, Paul Offit, Massimo Pigliucci, Joe Nickell, and yourself. Gee, did I leave anybody out?!! I’m sure that the other speakers will be equally edifying.

Gerbic: There are names on the list that I have never heard of before, but as I do these interviews I’m so impressed with the work they are doing. You were involved in the skeptic movement from the beginning; you have heard Asimov, Steve Allen, and Sagan. That must have been amazing.

Alcock: I have been fortunate, as a result of my involvement with the skeptic movement, to have met so many outstanding people, some well-known, others not. Of course, listening to the people you mention has been an unforgettable experience.

Gerbic: Jim, when I was in New Mexico a few weeks ago, a few of the CSI fellows were thinking that maybe it would be a good idea to get the fellows more involved in growing attendance at the grassroots level. The idea is that we could ask all the fellows to voluntarily visit two of the small events a year. They could be a local group or something you stop by when traveling for work or vacation. Just hanging out with the group at a Skeptics in the Pub event or sitting in on the lectures at a SkeptiCamp or a monthly lecture. Get a photo taken with the organizers, and we will find a place on to keep a blog or something showing the photo. The idea is to encourage attendance and give support and encouragement to the organizers. As a member of the Executive Council, your opinion matters a lot. If you love the idea, it was mine; if you hate it, then blame Ben Radford. I haven’t been able to come up with a catchy name yet. I’m open to ideas.

Alcock: I certainly think this is a good idea, although there may be some difficult practical considerations to address. I guess the first thing to do would be to provide fellows with some sort of list to allow them to identify geographical locations that would be convenient for them to visit while traveling. Of course, making themselves available to speak to groups in their own vicinity is much easier to facilitate. I also think many fellows would be hesitant to make the first approach to a local group, even though they might cheerfully respond to an invitation. Perhaps the CSI office could serve as a coordinator: fellows, after being shown a geographical list of groups, could inform the office of when and where they might give a talk and then the office could suggest to the particular local group that it invite the individual.

Gerbic: We had great attendance at the last two CSICons. In 2017, they had to bring in more chairs to accommodate everyone, and we were almost over-full. But this year it’s being held at the Westgate Hotel and Casino, and I’m told we can double attendance and still have room to grow. For first-time attendees, it’s a great idea to follow CSICon on Facebook to see where people are, what’s going on after the lectures, and photos, photos, photos. I look forward to seeing you again, Jim!

Alcock: And I too look forward to seeing you in October, Susan.

Note: CSICon speaker Kenny Biddle credits James Alcock (and others) in this interview as being an important part of learning about skeptical thinking. “I kept learning, soaking up information—knowledge, research techniques, tips, and tricks—from authors such as Ben Radford, Joe Nickell, James Randi, James Alcock, Richard Wiseman, and the great Houdini.” It’s great to see everything come full circle. At conferences like this, you can meet the people who inspire you.

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.