Skepfeeds-The Best Skeptical blogs of the day

V.I.P. Interview – Evan Bernstein

Posted in Skepdude, VIP Interview by Skepdude on March 20, 2009


Evan Bernstein is the co-host of The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe and is the producer and co-host of The Skeptics Guide 5×5 weekly science podcasts. He posts a blog each Monday at The Rogues Gallery, the official blog of the SGU. Evan serves as the Connecticut Chapter Chairman for The New England Skeptical Society. He is also a technical adviser for official NESS investigations, and has been an active participant in the skeptical movement since 1996. Evan’s profession is in television production, and he holds a BA in Communications from Central Connecticut State University.

Evan is best known for the “This week in history” segment of the SGU podcast (I think I just made up the segment name but you get my point), the newly instituted “Who’s that noisy” and for his deadpan humor.  Evan is the second Rogue to interview for Skepfeeds, following the interview I did with Rebecca Watson a while back.  And, just to keep you on the edge of the seat, at least two more Rogues have agreed to be interviewed. I have made it a goal not to rest until all 5 Rogues have graced the (web)pages of Skepfeeds with their presence.  Nevertheless, today is Evan’s time to shine some skeptical light on us, so without further ado, here is his interview.

SD: Evan, can you tell me something important that happened this week in history?
EB:  First and foremost, thank you for the invitation for this interview.

And it was on March 23, 1989 that a pair of scientists, Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons announced their science-busting discovery of cold fusion. You can see an article from The New York Times from May 3, 1989 about the scientists debunking the F & P’s cold fusion claim.

And if I may insert a personal observation so soon in the interview – only because your question begs it of me – I think it is important to appreciate the historical context of events concerning science and pseudoscience. I find it fascinating that, on the one hand, we can advance human kind so exponentially through the advancements of science and technology. Yet on the other hand, at the same time, people largely continue to embrace anti-science and anti-technology. Looking at this dichotomy through the context of history (memorable moments, historic events, and world changing people) are good reminders of just how science and pseudoscience are as influential as ever to humans.

SD: Define the word “skeptic” in your own words.

EB: A skeptic is a person who requires evidence for any given claim. The key to this definition is to understand that people’s notions of ‘evidence’ can vary wildly. A practiced skeptic will primarily use science and logic to determine the quality of evidence, and through that, they will come to the conclusion if the claim is real or true.

SD: 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?

EB: As far as I am concerned, there are no prerequisites (such as formal education) for being a good skeptic. Skepticism is a tool in a person’s mental toolkit. I believe that people naturally possess the ability to use the tool of skepticism, but it is often grossly underutilized. Not unlike learning any other human discipline, good skepticism pretty much comes down to time and effort spent on honing your skills.

SD: How do we protect ourselves from becoming dogmatic with our skepticism?

EB: There is no single answer to this question, but one thing that leaps to mind is humor. The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe podcast infuses humor, lightheartedness, and emotion into otherwise rigid discussions of some complex, counter intuitive, and dynamic topics. Humor helps to remind us of the human sides to skepticism, and in turn, that helps shed some of the stereotypes that come with professing a skeptical philosophy. Another way of looking at the dogma question could be to pose this question: Because skepticism itself makes no specific claims of knowledge, technically speaking, can skepticism ever be considered dogmatic? I look at skepticism as a measuring stick of reality. As humans expand their understandings of the universe, the stick adjusts accordingly to the new measurements. This is a very non-dogmatic approach to take.

SD: 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?

EB: You touched on a very key factor of skepticism – consistency. It takes a lot of discipline, effort, and time to reach the point where a person can apply their skepticism to everything in their lives. The biggest challenge a person faces with skepticism is when it gets applied to their most sacredly held beliefs. I think this is where someone like Bill Maher comes up short. He uses skepticism to go after religion, which is relatively low hanging fruit. However, Bill’s belief in woo are his personal sacred cows. He either doesn’t know how to look at his own beliefs skeptically, or he chooses not to subject himself to that kind of personal, blatant, naked evaluation. In either case, his skepticism is incomplete.

People that have the best chance of consistently applied skepticism are those that ultimately come to skepticism under their own terms, through their own efforts and their own discoveries. This is can be very empowering, encouraging, and confidence building. Some people’s brains are hardwired in such a way that they are incapable of performing this level of self examination. However, some people just need to be nudged or deflected in the right directions, until an “AH-HA!” moment is revealed. From the feedback we receive from our listeners, we have had a very positive impact in helping people focus and direct their skepticism.

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

EB: I think so. I think the bearing tends to be for the better, rather than the worse. There is always the danger of a-priori skepticism being conjured up in the name of absolutism. I could see this could possibly having an adverse or perverse twist on any given ethical topic, so we as rational skeptics need to guard against a-priori, or “all doubting for the sake of doubting” brand of skepticism.

SD: 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? Why?

EB: Sure. I think skepticism helps any person to become a better thinker, a better analyst, and a person who will become less likely to be the subject of deceptions and self deception. Development of these skills can only help a person’s overall understanding of themselves and the universe. They can practically apply these understandings to everyday practical decisions, including political decision making.

SD: It seems to me that the skeptical movement has a marketing problem. I don’t think we’re being very successful in presenting ourselves to the public at large. There is also a bit of a stigma attached to the label “skeptic”. Do you agree? What do you think can be done to address this issue? How important do you think pop culture can be in this regard?

EB: The term skeptic tends to carry a negative connotation. This has always been the case, so after thousands of years of people and societies galvanizing this stereotype, this likely to always be an obstacle skeptics will have to overcome. It goes beyond a marketing problem. Skeptics have allowed the rest of the world to define who we are. Frankly, I think we need to keep and embrace the term ‘Skeptic’, because there is no single word that defines us more accurately. The best minds in the skeptical community have been working on this issue for decades, to no avail. Their best attempts have all come up as dismal failures. We need to embrace the term, define it properly, and hold it high so everyone can understand. But the most important point to stress is that WE get to define what a skeptic is. Pop-culture can definitely be a vehicle to help carry the message, but we must retain control of the message and the definition. The nature of pop-culture can just as easily twist and re-define the term, so we need to make sure the message does not run astray.

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

EB: Infighting is always a problem. History has shown that it is hard to keep a single, cohesive large movement of skepticism intact. Groups splinter, people have egos and can bruise just as much as the next person, and sometimes there are segments of skepticism that chafe up against each other (such as secular humanists versus scientific skeptics.) This divisiveness hurts the movement as a whole, and it gives our critics some weak points in our armor to aim for. We also don’t have a single, unified voice to amplify the skeptic message with a unified army of large numbers backing it up. As a result, we don’t have a good lobbyists group or PAC to help get our messages and ideas into the crafting of bills and measures. These things help keep skepticism from achieving the much broader exposure that we so desperately need.

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

EB: Yes. Alex Tsikiris’ Skeptico podcast is the best example. Spotting it is not the problem, it tends to stick out like a sore thumb.

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

EB: We will still be making podcasts. Perhaps technology will be to the point of ease and affordability that we’ll experiment with SGU vodcasts. If live streaming becomes an affordable option, we might try some live webcasts. We want to increase our exposure on YouTube and whatever the next YouTube-like phenomena will be. I think Steve Novella has the capability of transcending from solely a web-based existence into the mainstream of the classic mediums (radio and television). Once he gets his book(s) published, that should open some greater doors for him. When this happens, it will be the rising tide that lifts all of the SGU’s boats – our podcasts, our blogs, and any other internet activities that we can come up with.

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

EB: Matt Groening. Any chance you know Matt, or know a way to reach him? Matt, if you are reading this, please consider this a VIP invitation to come on The Skeptic’s Guide.

SD: 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?

EB: Extra-terrestrial visitors, but with the caveat that they do us and our planet no harm. The sum of knowledge that we could learn from a race of beings that could traverse the stars are secrets that humans might never be able to unlock by ourselves.

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

EB: I thank … goodness that I live in a place and time that any of my fellow citizens can profess their beliefs openly without fear of state-sponsored repercussions. And that holds true for my agnosticism. I do not consider myself an atheist, because it is impossible to verify the non-existence of a ‘God’. The ‘God’ question is, quite purposefully, designed to have no means of never being answered, and hence, my agnosticism – it is impossible to ever know.

SD: In a previous question you stated that “Skeptics have allowed the rest of the world to define who we are” then in the above question you say that “I do not consider myself an atheist, because it is impossible to verify the non-existence of a ‘God’.” which seems to imply that you define atheism as maintaining the position that there is no God, which of course is a position that cannot be defended logically. Do you think you’re buying into the same public misinterpretation about the term “atheism” that you’re warning us when it comes to the term “skepticism”? Most atheists, including myself and famous people like Richard Dawkins are very careful to point out that atheism implies solely lack of belief in God not a belief, or claim to knowledge,  that God doesn’t exist. In this light, do you still think skepticism leads not to atheism?

EB: Take Webster’s definition when defining atheism:

Wikipedia goes further:

Yourself, and Richard Dawkins, and many other atheists share your interpretation of what it means to be an atheist.  But make no mistake that there are many other atheists that absolutely profess the non-existence of gods.  Atheism is a big spectrum unto itself.

Fortunately, there are some atheists, like Dawkins, that are putting a good foot forward by trying to make the correct distinctions. But despite these good efforts, the negative perception of atheism persists, partially because many atheists resort to claims of absolution. (And partially because atheism has only enjoyed public acceptance for a tiny
fraction of recorded human history.)

Regarding your question about skepticism leading to atheism: I look at it like they are each individual circles that partially overlap. In this regard, skepticism can lead to atheism, and atheism can lead to skepticism. It is definitely a 2-way street.

But while the circles of skepticism and atheism partially overlap, the public perception is that they overlap each other ENTIRELY and are therefore indistinguishable.  This is just flat out wrong, and for no other reason than getting the facts straight, this perception requires correction. As much as Dawkins and others are helping to define logically sounds models of atheism, the scientific skeptical community, whose tent includes those of many different faiths, should be doing a better job on correcting the misconception of “skepticism, therefore, atheism”.

SD: Do you think skepticism implies atheism, just as it implies lack of belief in Bigfoot?

EB: Yes, and this is part of what I was mentioning earlier about skeptics needing to be responsible for defining our term. Our definition needs to include clear distinctions that a skeptic does not mean non-believer or atheist. The implied relationship of skepticism to atheism has always been a moniker that anti-skeptics have rallied their forces around. It is long past time to tell our detractors who we are, instead of letting them try to define us. People are allowed to have their skepticism and their freedom of religion too, and we need to better incorporate this notion into our movement.

SD: Please give me an estimate of how soon do you think that either major party in the US will nominate an atheist/skeptic for the president/vice president position?

EB: “The Great American Experiment” will cease to exist before a skeptic ever makes it to a position of such prominence and power. The numbers are just too heavily weighed against us. We’d have to convert half of the voting country from their current belief systems. People being hardwired the way they are, I’d say that the math just couldn’t possibly ever add up.
SD: Do you think religious belief predisposes one to paranormal belief? The other way around?

EB: The paranormal chicken hatches from the egg of religion. The two feed off of one another to an extent, but people who are predisposed to religious faith (which assumes a lot of paranormal stuff to begin with) extend that tentacle out into less religious or non-religious beliefs and assumptions about other aspects of people’s lives.

SD: I prefer the term “freethinker” to any other label. What is your stand on the whole “bright” movement (although that seems to have died away!)?

EB: Again, this comes back to trying to replace the term ‘skeptic’. The “bright movement” was a dismal failure, and frankly, I felt embarrassed that this was the best that our finest skeptics could come up with. It appropriately died away.

SD: 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?

EB: It is up to the claimant to, as Carl Sagan would say, “deliver the goods.” Certain claims have been so thoroughly broken down to their core (homeopathy comes to mind) that it would require ground-breaking, extraordinary evidence for any serious considerations. Certainly there is an actual cost to be considered. For example, universities should not be spending their time and money to try and get homeopathy working unless there are new, unexplored lines of evidence to its efficacy, AND the evidence must also qualify in its plausibility and logic. Researchers, such as Rumston Roy, feel that their experiments are not required to adhere to plausibility or logic, and yet he continues to burn through funds and resources looking for something that scrapes the bottom of the plausibility and logic barrels. Move along, Dr. Roy.

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

EB: That professional wrestling was real. It took me a few years in my pre-adolescence to figure out that it was fake.

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

EB; No Tivo here (no groaning by the audience, please). But if I could Tivo, I would record: Survivorman (Discovery), The Universe series (NatGeo), The Revolutionary War (HistChan), John Adams (HBO), MythBusters (Discovery), Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series, Family Guy and American Dad, Ultimate Fighting Champions (Spike), South Park (ComCent) – just to name a few. You’d also find lots of shows from Discovery Kids, Nick Jr, and Noggin for my 5 year old daughter.

SD: What are some of your favorite skeptical blogs?

EB: Science Based Medicine, Neurologica, Pharyngula, Bad Astronomy, Bas Science, Skepchick, and of course, The Rogues Gallery where I post each Monday morning (shameless, I know, just shameless.)