The Keeper of the Skeptic’s Dictionary: An Interview with Robert Todd Carroll

Kylie Sturgess

From The Skeptic’s Dictionary, Volume 15, No.5, May 2016:

“It would probably be more fashionable to go out with a bang rather than with a whimper, but at this time, this is as good as it is going to get. Thanks to those who stuck with me over the past fourteen years. I wish you the very best in your search for facts, truth, scientific knowledge, and a life based on reason and self-examination.”

Robert Todd Carroll was an American writer, academic, and fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. Carroll is best known for his contributions in the field of skepticism and philosophy, particularly as a teacher and author of books such as Becoming a Critical Thinker: A Guide for the New Millennium, The Skeptic’s Dictionary, and The Critical Thinker’s Dictionary—texts that also had popular online versions.

This is an edited version of an interview I conducted for my podcast, Token Skeptic, in 2011; I spoke to Robert about the origins of the Dictionary and how it evolved over time.

Robert Todd Carroll: The Skeptic’s Dictionary began back in the early ’90s. I live in the town of Davis, California, and I was teaching logic and critical thinking at a community college, and my city got a grant from CalSTRS, which is a state organization, to teach anyone in town how to use the Internet, how to use email, how to write webpages, et cetera.

My wife and I took the classes because we were going to get one year’s free Internet connection for doing it, so we did—and my project was The Skeptic’s Dictionary. I had been doing a lot of handouts for my students on science and pseudoscience and logical fallacies, so the first twenty or thirty entries were all about logical fallacies, the nature of science, scientific reasoning, control group experiments, pseudoscience, and so on.

Once I got on the Internet, it was impossible to stop! It was like this giant locomotive going down a hill. I’d get emails from all over the world, which was of course kind of exciting at first. Well, it’s still exciting, but it got overwhelming after a while! Things like, “Would you look into this,” or, “What do you think about this?” Well, that’s interesting… somebody cares what I think! Next thing you know, I’ve got 700 entries and it’s fifteen years later!

It just got more and more interesting to me to start exploring the paranormal. In fact, I ended up about probably twenty-five years into my teaching career before I created a course called Critical Thinking About the Paranormal. When I started out, all of us in philosophy, I would say, considered the paranormal like, who’d waste your time with that? It was just like—that’s so silly that no one would waste their time with that, but by the time I finished teaching, I found that it was a great way to introduce critical thinking concepts using the writings of people like Gary Schwartz and Dean Radin, contrasted with The Skeptic’s Dictionary, to explore, with content, some of the ideas that we tried to teach in the critical thinking class.

I’d always been interested in philosophy of religion. That was the area I did most of my doctoral work in, and then that just led off into all kinds of topics in the supernatural. I’ve never really had a great interest in cryptids or cryptozoology, but things like Bigfoot and the chupacabra and a few other things all caught my eye, so I did a few on those.

Alternative medicine then would seem to creep in. No matter where I was going, I’d run into these really weird ideas about health that just seemed to me like people were just making stuff up. Where do they get these ideas? Now, I don’t know. I probably have as many entries on various so-called alternative medicine—they’re not really alternatives to anything, if you ask me, but they’re all listed as, I call it all now “placebo medicine,” now that I have a pretty good understanding of what’s going on in these areas. Why something like, say, homeopathy could still be popular in the twenty-first century is not too hard to understand if you realize how easy it is to trick ourselves into thinking that one thing causes another. It really goes back to a basic lesson we would teach all our critical thinking students about causal reasoning: it’s just bad causal reasoning.

Anyway, that’s how it started, and then it expanded out. I started writing essays, and I started doing book reviews and a blog. I had a couple of blogs early on, before they were called blogs, and then I consolidated those into one. Now there are so many bloggers, I hardly ever blog, to tell you the truth! It’s like “Why bother? Everything’s covered!” It’s so great to see hundreds of skeptical bloggers out there. Just feels good. It really feels good.

I think it’s in our nature to be superstitious and to not really be—I put it this way, that critical thinking is an unnatural act. It really isn’t something that comes instinctively to us. Our natural behavior is to do what makes us feel good, what leads to our being liked by other people, what leads to our getting girlfriends and boyfriends and prospering. Whether or not what we believe is true is really kind of secondary to all that, and so I think we’re driven in such a natural way that there will always be a job for people like me who are trying to overcome some of the natural tendencies that we all have: to think incorrectly, to make causal connections where there aren’t any, to see patterns where there aren’t patterns, to be superstitious.

In some ways, things are a lot better because we have the Internet. I know there’s a negative side to the Internet, but if you look at the positive side of it, you have all this good information available, and good bloggers passing on not just their content but their passion. You’ve been at The Amazing Meeting and seen how that’s grown to over 1,500 people. I was at the first one. There was only like 200 or 250, and now it’s just huge. I expect the meetings with CSICOP are going to be another blockbuster.

Who would’ve thought that Ireland would be having … of course, having all those pedophile priests has helped a little bit, but who would’ve ever thought that Ireland would be actually going against the Catholic Church? You have the TASC, the president of Ireland publicly lambasting the Vatican. That’s like the Berlin Wall coming down to see Catholic countries willing to criticize religion!

They had a big atheism conference in Dublin. If anybody ever told me they’d had an atheism conference. I’ve been to Ireland many times, and I’ll tell you, it is a very religious country. I started going there around 1985. Now, I understand, the majority of church attendees are not native Irish, they’re immigrants.

Then the popularity of all the atheistic writers in the last decade, so there has been a lot of churn—but a lot of things stay the same. We’re going to have a presidential election here in a couple years. It’s already started, the campaigning, and our Republican Party might as well just call itself a religious party because half of their appeal is to fundamentalist religious groups, usually Christian religious groups. That has not changed at all. There’s still a very strong fundamentalist, anti-scientific movement in America. Things are getting better. I think so.

Kylie Sturgess: Which topic on The Skeptic’s Dictionary gets the most hits?

Carroll: I was telling my wife this morning, “You know, this is weird. I check every week to see what’s coming up, and anthropometry has been number one for the last three weeks.” She says, “What’s that?”

I said, “Well, that’s where you measure head size.” It used to be popular when racist philosophies were rampant, and they’d measure skulls to show how intelligent white people were and how stupid all these other races were. Now it’s used mainly by hatters and people who want to know what size hats to make. They measure heads or something along those lines, but I have no clue why that entry has suddenly become popular.

Amway was number one for many years! When I first put a little entry on, I got all kinds of nasty emails. The reason there’re things like the chupacabra, Loch Ness monster, Nessie, those have been pretty popular, but it varies. There does seem to be a long-time interest in Nessie, for some reason. You’d think that one had been put to rest by now, but people want their monsters, I guess. I don’t know!

Sturgess: How do you narrow it down to figure out which ones are suitable for children? You now have a children’s version of The Skeptic’s Dictionary out.

Carroll: I do, and that was hard, because there are 720 entries in the Dictionary now, and I wanted to have no more than fifty for the children’s version. At least the beginning of the children’s version. I went through them, and I have two grandchildren. They’re now thirteen and ten, and I started making up stories about two dogs, two beagles that I claimed I had when I was a kid, and we had all these adventures going around the world and doing all these things. They were probably two and four when I started telling them these stories, so I’ve been doing it for about ten years. In the beginning, these were just a couple of card-playing, cigar-smoking, beer-drinking dogs who’d go to Cubs games and things like that.

Finally, my wife said, “You know, you really should put some morals into those stories. Those are really bad!” I started to expand them out until the last one dealt with Area 51, and how we investigated it and blah blah blah blah. I guess I used my grandkids as kind of a sounding board for what sounded interesting to them, and also just knowing them, what kinds of things interest them. They live in San Francisco. I live in Davis. We’re only about an hour-and-a-half away from each other, so we’ve seen each other a lot over the last ten years, and I have pretty good sense of what they’re interested in. Now, whether other kids are interested in them or not, I don’t know, but it was difficult to narrow it down. Some were pretty easy, like monsters seem like a natural for kids.

I then started thinking, one thing that really irritates me—not really irritates, angers me—are all the fear-mongers that are out there in the media who are scaring the hell out of our kids about the end of the world and all kinds of terrible things. To me, the world’s scary enough. There is enough really bad stuff out there to not have to make stuff up that is going to terrify a lot of children.

I mentioned this in a newsletter that I recently sent out—that I conducted a session at SkeptiCal that is a little skeptical conference once a year up here in Northern California. A teacher came up to me afterwards and was telling me a story about a child who was just in hysterics in school, probably third grade or something like that, that the world was going to end, that the Mayans had predicted it. She’d seen the movie, or had heard about the Mayan prophecy and so on.

She’d gone to the secretary, and the teacher came in, and the secretary’s in hysterics too, but she’s in hysterics because the Mayan are wrong. The world’s going to end this weekend because of the prophecy of Harold Camping, this former engineer who thinks he can read the Bible to predict the end of the world, and actually has people following him. I’m thinking, oh. I did consciously select entries like ghosts, Mayan prophecy, where I could maybe alleviate a little bit of the fear because these are bogus. There’s no need really to be afraid of ghosts, because there aren’t any, and there’s no reason to be afraid of the end of the world because the Mayans predicted it. They didn’t predict anything.

That was one concern, and of course critical thinking and logic has always been an interest of mine, and there’s no reason why children shouldn’t be encouraged to think critically. I saw an opportunity to give a lesson about how the brain tricks us, and how we often are led to believe things that aren’t true because of misunderstanding and misinterpreting perception. I did put a couple of alternative medicine entries in there like homeopathy and acupuncture, because it gave me an opportunity to talk about the placebo effect and how just because one thing happens after another, it doesn’t mean the thing that came first caused the latter, and so on. It all kind of fell together, and I eventually had to throw a couple things out because I didn’t think they were going to work well.

It’s only been up for a short while, and I’ve only gotten maybe a dozen emails on it. I also have a Skeptic’s Dictionary Facebook page, and posted it there, and the only negative comment I’ve gotten so far—I don’t know if you call this negative—was that somebody wrote, “There’s nothing about religion in here and there should be.”

That was a conscious choice to leave out the particular religions—you’re not going to find anything under the Book of Mormon, or Bible, or Bible stories, or the Quran. There won’t be any of those kinds of entries. There probably will be one on demons and devils and hobgoblins, something along those lines that I didn’t put in the first time, but none of the specific myths of the various religions. I don’t plan to do that. That’s the only negative thing I’ve gotten so far.

Oh, wait, there was one more. Most of them have come from adults, by the way, who are reading it, but one of them said, “I read the zombies entry, and I don’t think you made it clear that these are not real creatures.” I have this little box at the beginning of each entry that’s called “In a Nutshell,” and it just has a sentence or two about the entry. In Zombies, it says, “a mythical…” I thought that would cover it, calling it a mythical creature or mythical character, but I guess this person didn’t think that was enough. I thought, okay, so I added a little bit more there to make it clear that you’re not really going to bump into a zombie on the highway. They’re a movie character!

On the entry in The Skeptic’s Dictionary, I do talk about some of the stuff that goes on in Voodoo and in Haiti and so on, but I don’t think I needed to do that for the kids.

Sturgess: It’s interesting how you mentioned you have a PhD in philosophy/religion, and yet you have obviously selected certain religious topics, such as the Book of Mormon, to be exempt. Do you think that skepticism should be changing to perhaps include more religious topics, or do you kind of stay away from these sorts of debates?

Carroll: No, just in The Skeptic’s Dictionary for Kids, I’ve stayed away from them. In The Skeptic’s Dictionary, I have a few. I think on the Mormons, there are plenty of websites that cover that weird history. The religion I know the best is Christianity, and I have one on the resurrection. I have one on miracles, and most of them deal with so-called miracles within Christianity, and there are a few others. The resurrection—that’s got to be the central idea in Christianity, I would think. That one’s in The Skeptic’s Dictionary, so I haven’t shied away from them. I have an article on gods, and one on theism and atheism, spirits, and angels, so there are quite a few on religion in the dictionary.

Just to go back a bit, I make it clear throughout The Skeptic’s Dictionary for Kids that my purpose is to promote science, among other things, so it’s very clear that I’m promoting evolution, the big bang theory, that the universe is billions of years old not thousands of years old, and so on. When you do that in this country, you cut off half the population who’d believe in a fundamentalist version as taught by this weird group in the nineteenth century that decided, “Okay, look, the way science is going, it keeps contradicting what’s happening in the Bible. We got to take a stand.” So they took a stand, and the stand was, if it goes against our belief in the Bible, it’s wrong. That nineteenth-century view is still held by many, many people in America. The last survey I saw was like 45 to 50 percent don’t accept evolution but accept that the Earth’s only a few thousand years old and that God created all species in a day or two days, whatever, a week, six days. By contradicting that throughout The Skeptic’s Dictionary for Kids, I’m alienating 50 percent of the United States population. At least parents, anyway. The kids may not agree with their parents. I don’t know, but anyway, I don’t really need to talk about religion to alienate half the population over here. All I have to do is talk about science.

I remember Stephen Jay Gould one time, when he was asked the question about, “Well, are we really making any progress, because look at how bad things are?” And he says, “Yeah, but just think how they’d be if we didn’t do anything.”

I’ve always felt that there’s got to be a way to enchant people, but at the same time, let them make their own discoveries and let them make their own decisions. I think there’s enough in The Skeptic’s Dictionary for Kids to do just what you’re talking about: get them interested enough to go explore, and once they start exploring, it’s got to inevitably lead to some questions about some other things that they might now be taking for granted, because that’s what their parents have taught them or that’s what they’ve learned at their schools.

Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is the host of the Token Skeptic podcast and regularly writes editorial for numerous publications and the Token Skeptic blog. She was the co-host for the Global Atheist Convention in 2010 and 2012. An award-winning Philosophy teacher, Kylie has lectured on teaching critical thinking and anomalistic beliefs worldwide. In 2011 she was presented with the Secular Student Alliance Best Individual Activist Award and presented at the World Skeptics Congress 2012.