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VIP Interview – Rebecca “The Skepchick” Watson

Posted in VIP Interview by Skepdude on January 20, 2009


On this edition of the “VIP Interview” series I am very happy to have the original Skepchick, of and Skeptics Guide to the Universe fame, Rebecca Watson. She was kind enough to take some time of her busy schedule to answer a few question for Skepfeeds. She thus joins a distinguished group of VIP Interviewees which includes The Amazing James Randi, Dan Barker and Brian Dunning. Furthermore she is the first female VIP to interview for Skepfeeds and I am quite happy to have her hold this position.

Whithout further ado, here is the complete interview. Enjoy!

Define the word “skeptic” in your own words.

A skeptic is someone who practices skepticism. The focus should always be on the action, not the label we apply to people. Otherwise, you get into the whole “no true skeptic” problem, in which we argue endlessly about whether or not someone who believes in X can still be called a skeptic, where X=religion, usually.

In your opinion, is formal scientific education necessary to be a good skeptic, or is skepticism available to anyone willing to put the time and effort into it?

The only scientific education someone needs to practice skepticism is understanding the scientific method and how it applies to the every day world.

Skepticism is just as much at risk of turning into a dogma as religion already is. How do we protect ourselves from becoming dogmatic with our skepticism?

By definition skepticism will never be a dogma, since “dogma” is generally understood to be a doctrine that can’t be questioned. The whole point of skepticism is to question, and to always maintain a healthy curiosity. I doubt anyone will ever fly a plane into a building in the name of skepticism.

How do we apply skepticism consistently, so that we don’t act like Bill Maher who is skeptical of religion but wholeheartedly embraces all kinds of woo?

It’s just a matter of not having any sacred cows, and always being open to the possibility that you are wrong. Once you forget that you’re fallible, you lose the ability to be skeptical.

Do you think a skeptical world view has any bearing upon one’s ethics?

In a way, I suppose it can, but I don’t have a deep answer to this. It’s more like, I have a set of ethics, and my worldview figures into that, mostly in the way that my skepticism over the existence of an afterlife leads me to make the most of my time, and encourages me to have more compassion for other people.

Do you agree with the following statement: “Fear is the number one reason why people believe in pseudoscience, the paranormal and supernatural”? Why?

I suppose that could be justified, but it’s not something I’d say. I think there are a myriad of reasons why people believe stupid things, mostly because of simple ignorance. If someone is raised to believe something, and is never taught to question, it’s no wonder that they grow up to believe anything they’re told. That said, you could say that fear is the reason why people want to believe in life after death, or why dying patients seek alternative treatments.

Recent studies have pointed out that when people perceive not having control, they tend to see patterns where none exist. Do you think this has any implications for skepticism?

Oh, definitely. That research has always fascinated me, because I have a hypothesis that women tend to believe more wacky things because of a few millennia of not having control over their own lives. To draw that to its logical conclusion, we might reduce superstitious belief by promoting equality and giving people control.

In your opinion, what is the worst thing a skeptic can do to hurt the skeptical movement?

Make a habit of attacking other skeptics, I suppose. Criticism should always be allowed, but often I see silly in-fighting over whether or not one way is the “right way” to reach believers. There is no one right way, and the sooner people recognize that, the better.

Do you think pseudo-skepticism exists? If yes, how do we spot it?

Sure, there are plenty of people co-opting the word “skeptic,” like Holocaust deniers and 9/11 conspiracy theorists. It should be fairly obvious in most cases, when honest skepticism turns into paranoid ravings. When people continue to argue for a conclusion that the facts don’t support, that’s when skepticism has left the building.

Where do you see the SGU in 3-5 years? What would you like to see happen with it?

I’d love for SGU to still be going five years from now. Ideally, the show would be supported financially by someone and the hosts handsomely paid. I’m interested to see where podcasts go in general, whether they can find a way to survive and whether or not they’ll be able to work hand-in-hand with traditional radio.

What is the one guest you’d love to have on the podcasts, but haven’t been able to reach?

Ricky Gervais. I adore him, and tried half-heartedly to get him on last year. I think I’ll push that a bit more this year.

Hypothetically speaking, if one area of woo were to be verified by the evidence at some point in the future, which said area of woo would you be most glad to see come true and why?

Global Orgasm Day, in which adherents believe that everyone having an orgasm at the same time will improve world peace. That, or The Secret. If we could really affect the universe just by wishing hard enough, we’ve got a cure for cancer, for poverty, for everything.

Everything else being equal, do you think a skeptic makes a better candidate for positions of great responsibility, such as President of the United States?

Yes, definitely. The key being “everything else being equal,” since being skeptical doesn’t automatically make you qualified. That said, we need fewer fundamentalists with their fingers on big red buttons.

What is your stance on religion and God? Do you consider yourself an atheist?

Yes, I’m an atheist, or an agnostic if you prefer. There’s pretty much zero chance that any gods exist as posited by religions.

Do you agree with Richard Dawkins who has called religion a virus of the mind and regards it as an evil (so to speak) that humanity must eradicate? Or are you solely concerned with religion’s unwelcome intrusions in the public square?

I do agree with Dawkins. Religion, overall, is a serious roadblock on our species’ journey. Religions claim to have all the answers, but every day we find another answer they got wrong. They stop discussion at exactly the point when the discussion becomes most interesting.

Do you think religious belief predisposes one to paranormal belief? The other way around?

Not necessarily, no. They’re the same thing – belief in, for instance, a virgin giving birth to a god is a paranormal belief. The only reason why most people consider the two to be separate is because we, as a society, are more accepting of ridiculous beliefs labeled as “religion.”

I prefer the term “freethinker” to any other label, including skeptic and/or atheist. What is your position?

I find that it’s a wash. There will never be one label that satisfies everyone, so I generally don’t worry about it. I refer to myself by whatever label I think will be best understood by the audience I’m trying to reach.

Do you think that certain claims, after having been shown wrong over and over again, loose their “right” to be viewed with an “open mind” and deserve to be dismissed without any effort, or do you think that each generation must test these claims independently and not reject anything out of hand regardless of its prior history? Why?

I think that future generations should pay attention to the work done by previous generations in that regard. So, for instance, in 200 years someone may wonder about homeopathy – they don’t have to perform vast experiments, but they can easily read up on all the experiments that have proven it wrong centuries ago. On an individual level, there are some claims that I will dismiss without effort. Someone smart once said “That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence,” or something like that.

What is the wildest idea you temporarily entertained and then ultimately discarded?

Christianity. I was really into it growing up, and once I left home for college, it suddenly struck me how absurd the whole deal is.

You have expressed a desire to publish a book at some point in your life. What kind of book do you think you will publish first?

Probably a skeptical reader in the tradition of Randi and Martin Gardner. I like the idea of covering a lot of subjects in one, accessible volume.

What would we find in your Tivo (or similar device)?

I don’t have a television, but I do have dozens and dozens of DVDs. I just got Flight of the Conchords Season 1, and I watch it over and over again because I’m in love with Jemaine.

What are some of your favorite skeptical blogs?

Besides Skepchick? I use Google Reader to help organize tons of blogs, but my faves are probably Pandagon, Feministing, Bad Astronomy, Pharyngula, Bad Science, Science after Sunclipse, Respectful Insolence, and of course Neurologica.

What is your favorite pastime, besides your passion for skepticism and rationality?

I have a lot of pastimes, actually. I just bought an 88-key weighted keyboard so I can teach myself to play the piano. I also play the guitar, juggle, and play flag football.


7 Responses

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  1. zzzzzzzz said, on February 20, 2009 at 8:04 PM

    so beliefs in the supernatural/paranormal can be labelled stupid, yet many of these beliefs are upheld by more logic and evidence then the interviewed’s own hypothesis on why women are less critical of what they come across. you are completely forgetting the laws of relativity, and forget that humans are not omniperceptive. there are things in the universe beyond our perception and even our understanding. the truth is that there is no such thing as truth. priding yourself as the “skepchick” is nothing but self fulfillment for a parasitic ego completely disconnected from the world around themselves, obsessed with it’s own powers of observation which are shallow at best.

    • Skepdude said, on February 21, 2009 at 12:56 PM

      Firstly, please note the use of the word “hypothesis” as in not something that has been proved to be true, an idea. She’s not saying that is what it is, she’s saying that’s what she thinks it is. Big difference there.

      Secondly, no paranormal/supernatural claim has ever been backed up by evidence, nor logic and to claim otherwise is quite ridiculous.

      Thirdly no one is claiming “omniperceptiveness” and no one is claiming that we currently understand every thing in the universe. Of course there are things that are currently beyond us, and may always remain out of reach. I don’t know where you’re getting the idea that we’re claiming otherwise.

      Fourthy, there is too such thing as truth. For example, it is true that if you jump out of the 50th floor you will hit the ground hard and die, unless you’re being helped by some technology. That dear zzzzzzzzzzz is true. You can go and test it at many times as you’d like and I guarantee the outcome will be the same every time. Also if you put your head in a bowl of water and keep it there for about 1 hour without resurfacing to breathe, you will die. You can test that out too if you’d like.

      Fifthly, your ad hominem attack is quite pathetic and it doesn’t deserve any more attention.

      • Plan said, on December 31, 2010 at 6:00 PM

        Pardon? If you listen to Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, you’ll realize Rebecca Watson repeatedly traffics in ad hominems.

        According to Rebecca Watson, anyone who believes in religion is stupid, ignorant and deserving of ridicule. Whereas the rest of the group is content to disprove things and they don’t let religion get to them, Rebecca is downright nasty and malicious at times.

        If Rebecca Watson cared about the skeptical movement, instead of relentlessly promoting herself, she’d admit that you don’t convert people by ridiculing them – you convert them by sympathizing, showing them you understand their beliefs, and genuinely, honestly discussing why you think those beliefs are misguided.

        And zzzzzz is correct, if Rebecca Watson was confident in her arguments and intellectual ability, she wouldn’t need the “Skepchick” gimmick to draw curious (male) readers to her site, nor would she need tto post Youtube webcam videos where she talks endlessly about herself.

        The problem with anointing people like Rebecca Watson as “celebrities” of the skeptic movement is that you give them the biggest microphones, so they get to define what the movement is about. And according to Rebecca Watson, the skeptic movement is about promoting Rebecca Watson, and not about educating people on the scientific method.

  2. sixt33n said, on April 5, 2009 at 2:01 AM

    there are things in the universe beyond our perception and even our understanding. – argument from ignorance.

    Just because we don’t know about something means it is rightful to associate it with the supernatural without even having basis or evidence to do so.


    • Skepdude said, on June 15, 2009 at 12:34 PM

      Actually you’re wrong. Accepting that there are things we do not know IS NOT an argument from ignorance. I do not associate something with the supernatural “just because we don’t know”, in fact the proponents themselves make it supernatural by appealing to supernatural explanantions. Get the difference?

  3. Paul said, on June 15, 2009 at 7:20 AM

    The usual boring arguments.

    Even the best scientists can be philosophical morons..

    • Skepdude said, on June 15, 2009 at 12:35 PM

      Rebecca Watson is not a scientist and neither am I! Do you know what you’re talking about?

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