Interview: Bob Carrol


Interview with Bob Carrol, Founder of Skepdic.com - 21st April 2003

Why are you so sceptical?

I'm skeptical (I'll use the American English spelling throughout) of paranormal claims because of my experiences studying them. Forty years ago, I took it for granted that ESP is real, just as I took it for granted that bread and wine can become the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ. Why? I grew up being introduced to such ideas gradually by people I loved and who cared for me, people I could trust. As I grew up and began my own investigations and started thinking for myself I gradually became skeptical of all paranormal and supernatural claims. The evidence is overwhelmingly against paranormal phenomena. In investigating psychics and paranormal claims I kept discovering fraud, incompetence in researchers and faulty experiments and methodologies. What I didn't discover was anything convincing. When I found studies that seemed to convince others, such as the Ganzfeld experiments and the random anomalies research at Princeton, I would investigate them and come away unconvinced. I've detailed my reasons on my web site.

On the other hand, I realized very early that my supernatural beliefs were not based on evidence but on faith. As I grew older I found many people who claimed that there is good historical and scientific evidence for belief in God, spirits, and miracles. Again, my studies came up empty with regard to supernatural beings or activities. I also studied science and concluded that the evidence for naturalistic explanations for the origin of the universe and of the various species of life on earth are best explained by theories that do not rely on spirits. For example, I don't know how any scientifically literate person could read chapter four ("Making tracks through animal space") of Richard Dawkins's The Blind Watchmaker and not come away convinced that the intelligent design argument is codswallop compared to the theory of natural selection. I've detailed the results of my studies in such dictionary entries as creationism, faith, gods, intelligent design, miracles, Satan, and soul.

Was there a particular life experience that made you sceptical?

No. As I said above, I've had no conversion experience. My attitudes, beliefs, and investigative methodologies have come about gradually.

Where does the word, sceptic, originate from?

From the Greek word for inquirer. A skeptic is one who inquires. We don't accept things on faith. We investigate. We study. We follow the evidence and if the probability for a position is strong, we commit ourselves tentatively to that position. But, no matter how strong the evidence, we must always be willing to change our position if new evidence warrants it.

Are you sceptical of the media? Why or why not?

Yes. I have a web site (www.Mass Media Bunk) devoted to the media's lack of skepticism regarding paranormal and supernatural claims. In my critical thinking book (Becoming a Critical Thinker) I argue that the media is often not very skeptical of their sources and are easily manipulated by interested parties (in government or business). The U.S. media during the recent war on Iraq made little effort to provide unbiased reporting. They're very patriotic but not very professional. Dictators should learn a lesson from us: you don't have to work very hard to control the media in a democracy.

What is the most high profile media coverage you have attained to date, and have you received enquires from Australia before?

The Sacramento Bee did an extensive profile of me last year. Earlier this year, I appeared in the Penn and Teller program on creationism that was shown on the Showtime cable network. In 1996, I was interviewed by John Casimer of the Sydney Herald and I was also interviewed by the Australian Skeptic magazine a few years ago. I've also been interviewed several times on BBC radio programs.

Were you sceptical at first that I wanted to interview you?

No.

How has the internet helped and hindered you?

The Internet is where I got started with my skeptical writings. It has helped me tremendously. Not only has it made it possible for me to communicate with millions of people, it has made it possible for people from all over the world to communicate with me. It is most gratifying to know that I am touching people's minds and hearts in countries and states where freedom of thought and freethinking are not appreciated. The Internet has also brought me in contact with a community of scholars and thinkers that I otherwise would know only secondhand. Thanks to the Internet I have an agent and a publisher. The Skeptic's Dictionary will be published by John Wiley & Sons next July. Thanks to the Internet I was invited to speak at James Randi's Amazing Meeting two months ago and am invited to speak at a conference on hoaxes in Albuquerque, New Mexico, next October. So, I'd say the Internet has helped me quite a bit.

Were you sceptical that the internet may be a good tool to increase awareness of sceptics?

When I began publishing on the Internet in 1994 I didn't know what to expect. I'm sure I had no idea that I would be getting over 500,000 hits a month just on The Skeptic's Dictionary pages and another 30,000 a month on the The Skeptic's Refuge pages. It was gradually that I came to see how powerful the Internet is for increasing awareness and encouraging critical thinking about paranormal and supernatural things. I was just hoping my site wouldn't get lost among the thousands of credulous and paranormal sites. Sites run by true believers outnumber the skeptical sites by a thousand to one.

Do you believe in God? Why or why not?

No. The concept of God that I was raised on is that of an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, good, eternal, providential creator of the universe. I was also taught that this being commands us to worship him and that we are sinners in need of his forgiveness and that Jesus Christ died for our sins so we could be worthy of being with this being in eternity after death. I know these words that I have just written resonate greatly with some people. They have no effect on me anymore. They belong to a realm of narratives to which I can no longer relate. I, therefore, do not have faith that such a being exists. The arguments for the existence of such a being are not compelling.

Do you believe there will be an Armageddon?

If by Armageddon you mean a battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil as prophesied in the Bible, then the answer is "no." I don't believe in prophecy of any kind. (I understand that some people claim the Bible itself forbids soothsaying, but it doesn't matter to me what the Bible says or does not say. I consider it to be a collection of books, stories, and poems that have no relevance to me. There are much better guides to life than books written for small religious communities several thousand years ago.) I don't believe in "forces of good" and "forces of evil", either. All of us are mixtures of good and evil. Anyone who claims they represent good and their enemy represents evil is either deluded or a liar.

What is your theory on how the world was created?

I don't believe the world was created, so I don't have a theory of creation. I don't know why there is something rather than nothing. Nobody does. Positing a creator above and beyond the universe does not answer this question nor is it necessary to posit such a being to explain how the universe has become what it is. Science has a much better chance of discovering how the universe has evolved than either philosophy or religion. The latter can only speculate with no check in reality. Science can speculate, check its claims against reality, and modify them when required. True understanding will not come from insisting on dogma thousands of years old, but from fresh investigations using the knowledge of the ages and the technological tools humans have created to assist in these investigations.

How do you think JFK was assassinated, and by whom, and why?

Was he shot by Lee Harvey Oswald? Probably. Is that the whole story? Probably not. But I don't have a theory about the matter.

Is there an antichrist? Who?

No, but if there were one he would probably be like televangelist Pat Robertson.

How many known sceptics are there in the US and globally?

I have no idea. Atheists are said to make up about 4% or 5% of the world's population. According to www.adherents.com, there are about 850 million non-believers in the world. That would be about 15% of the world's population who are agnostic, atheist, or just plain non-religious. However, many religious people are very skeptical of paranormal claims, as well as of other people's religious views.

What's the most interesting or popular book or story you have authored?

I hope it will be The Skeptic's Dictionary (Wiley & Sons, 2003).

Did the U.S use chemical weapons against their own people in the 1950s? Why or why not?

I don't know. I haven't investigated this claim.

Nostradamus - nutter or genius or neither?

Neither, but his 21st century disciples are more nutter than genius.

Who is the world's most famous sceptic?

Hard to say. Among the living, I'd say Martin Gardner, James Randi, and Michael Shermer are the three best known internationally. Among the dead, Carl Sagan and David Hume.

What else would you like to make public knowledge about sceptics?

We are not an organized group with a shared set of beliefs. What beliefs we do have are not held as dogmas. Skepticism does not involve practicing any rituals, advocating any particular way of life, or worshipping anyone or anything. We do believe one thing in common: Beliefs should be based on evidence, not on faith or wishful thinking. We share some attitudes in common; for example, we would like to avoid error. Many of us want to expose fraud and incompetence in the presentation of evidence.

What are you future plans?

Today, I think I'll mow the lawn. But first, I'll have some breakfast.

...end.

Interview mentioned at www.skepdic.com/faq.html

For more information visit:
www.skepdic.com
www.adherents.com

Australian Skeptics official website

Media Man Australia, Greg Tingle, interviews Barry Williams, Executive Officer, Australian Skeptics

Note: Phillip Adams, Broadcaster, is Australia's most famous skepdic. Listen to the interview