Bob Carroll - Defining Skepticism

April 16, 2010

Host: Karen Stollznow

Dr. Robert Todd Carroll is a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and author of The Skeptic's Dictionary: A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions. He is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Sacramento City College, where he taught Logic and Critical Reasoning, Critical Thinking about the Paranormal, Law, Justice and Punishment, and World Religions. He is also author of the textbook Becoming a Critical Thinker.

Bob is the creator of the popular website Skepdic.com, which features numerous essays and book reviews, and the Skeptimedia blog where he provides a commentary of media coverage of pseudoscience and the paranormal. But the focus of the site is the original online version of the Skeptic’s Dictionary, containing hundreds of entries on topics ranging from “abracadabra to zombies”. This is the resource for defining skepticism.

In this episode of Point of Inquiry, Karen Stollznow talks with Bob about the importance of defining the topics of which we are skeptical. They discuss the inadequacies of existing definitions of paranormal and pseudoscientific subjects, and why it is necessary to counter uncritical bias with explanations that are skeptical. However, the damning evidence (or lack-thereof) usually speaks for itself.

Bob reveals the top searches to his site, uncovering the themes that should be of particular concern to skeptics. He explains that his online book is reader-driven, and that user feedback and assistance has molded the shape of this dynamic resource. Even with 600 current entries in this encyclopedia-like dictionary, this is a work-in-progress that will never be finished.

Bob discusses skeptical activism, becoming a skeptic, and how to invent your own pseudoscience to learn critical thinking. As a life-long teacher of this topic, Bob explains that critical thinking needs to be taught, but also needs to be learned critically. We discuss how much critical thinking can or should be taught, and how much is a process of self-learning.

Books Mentioned in This Episode:


Links Mentioned in This Episode:

The Skeptic's Dictionary

Related Episodes

Ben Radford - Skepticism 2.0
September 25, 2009

Comments from the CFI Forums

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I did like this podcast, having your students invent their own pseudoscience is genius. I will have to look for his book in the big box store!!

Posted on Apr 17, 2010 at 10:02pm by asanta Comment #1

Carroll is a giant in the skeptical movement; his Skepdic is a real reference-point around the world. I think actually one of the best things about it is how little its entries seem “biased” towards the skeptical point of view. The ones I’m familiar with seem to bend over backwards to make both sides of the case.

And of course one of the best things about them is the long list of links at the bottom.

It’s one of the first places I’ll go to research anything of a skeptical nature.

Great to have him on the show, and I thought the interview was excellent.

Posted on Apr 18, 2010 at 7:34am by dougsmith Comment #2

Carroll is a giant in the skeptical movement; his Skepdic is a real reference-point around the world.

Thanks for the tip Doug, I’d never heard of him. I will check out his web site. I will have to look out for his lectures, he is near me.

Posted on Apr 18, 2010 at 9:13am by asanta Comment #3

This was a delightful interview, Karen S. did a great job with Bob Carroll. I also liked the “make your own pseudoscience” idea—- someone chose “color therapy” (music therapy, aromatherapy—why not) and it turned out this was a real “therapy”....

Sounds like a good example of [ Poe’s Law] —I don’t know how you look things up online in the Skeptic’s Dictionary but this seems like a good one.

Posted on Apr 19, 2010 at 4:00pm by Jackson Comment #4

I agree with everyone above that having students invent their own pseudoscience is simply a wonderful teaching tool.
What could better prepare a young person for evaluating nonsense as well as to help them remember the things that should raise red flags and their eyebrows?

But the reason I wanted to post is to thank Mr. Carroll for mentioning humility as being a key component of healthy skepticism and critical thinking.  To me, that virtue and element of wisdom is almost the very foundation of true critical thinking and of skillfully living in the world.
If we fail to appreciate how we, that is “I,” can be and not infrequently are, fooled by others and even more importantly, how we can fool ourselves, we’re not fundamentally more rational than those whom we criticize for their deities and other forms of credulity.

In my view, a key project for skeptics and humanists is to “take back,” so to speak, the mantle of humility from religionists -  particularly Christians and Muslims, who make much of their “humility.”
But the humility of a true critical thinker stands in stark contrast to the faux humility of religionists, who are really only “humble before God” -  a stance which allows them to be utterly pious, certain, and self-righteous regarding their unjustifiable supernatural beliefs, dangerous dogmas, and consequent behaviors.
In other words, for one very clear example, “humble believers” can become suicide bombers and the like - people whose certainty in their beliefs justifies for them the murder and suffering of others.

Posted on Apr 22, 2010 at 9:06am by Trail Rider Comment #5