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

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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:

http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/atheism

Wikipedia goes further:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atheist

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.)

VIP Interview – Rebecca “The Skepchick” Watson

Posted in VIP Interview by Skepdude on January 20, 2009

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On this edition of the “VIP Interview” series I am very happy to have the original Skepchick, of Skepchick.org 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.

VIP Interview-Brian Dunning

Posted in Uncategorized, VIP Interview by Skepdude on October 13, 2008


Brian Dunning is the host and producer of the weekly podcast Skeptoid, author of two books “Skeptoid” and “Skeptoid 2“, producer of the free 40 min video on critical thinking called “Here be Dragons” and the skeptical show “The Skeptologists“. Brian was kind enough to spend some time with us and share his thoughts on various issues. Here is the complete interview. Remember, all fan mail should be sent directly to Brian. His contact info is here.

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

BD: A skeptic is someone who requires a high standard of evidence. Conspiracy theorists call themselves skeptics, but that’s because their standard for evidence is different. To them, good evidence is any suggestion that differs from the establishment’s position. The mass media often assigns higher importance to poorly sourced evidence than to well sourced evidence, so they’ll use the word skeptic to describe the people who fear the Large Hadron Collider will destroy the Earth. Nearly everyone considers himself a skeptic, it’s just that there are many varying standards for what constitutes good evidence.

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? Given that you have no formal scientific training, do you see yourself as the exception to the rule or do you represent the rule?

BD: Well, first of all I wouldn’t agree that I have no formal training. I spent years in school in computer science and have decades of practical experience working with top experts. But I wouldn’t agree that a science background is necessary to be a skeptic; in fact, I’d actually say the reverse: A good skeptical outlook is necessary to be a good scientist. Anyone can learn to be a skeptic, including many people who aren’t really aware that “being a skeptic” is something you can do; and that will improve their ability to apply the scientific method. Taking science classes will certainly not make a person a skeptic. Anyone can complete any course of study, it will not change who they are or how they view the world.

SD: Take us through your research process when you’re preparing for an episode of Skeptoid.

BD: Generally I try to gather three sources: The impartial straight facts or popular reporting of a phenomenon, the claims of the true believers, and previous skeptical research. When you can find all three, it’s usually pretty easy to sort what’s real from what’s bogus, but I often have to go out and find more sources for something like an event about which the accounts simply can’t be reconciled. Next I choose what to talk about. Since my podcasts are short, I can never cover all aspects of the story. I try to choose aspects that have not been thoroughly covered, and try not to simply duplicate skeptical articles that have already been published. I always try to find that fresh Skeptoid perspective to keep it interesting for seasoned skeptics as well as newcomers.

SD: How do you determine if a source of information is reliable or not? How much do you rely on Wikipedia and “Google University”?

BD: Quite a lot, actually. They are great starting points. The average Wikipedia article provides pretty much all the talking points that you need to go out and research. Skeptoid episodes are usually about controversial topics, and controversial topics are the one area where Wikipedia is truly unreliable (though it’s impeccable for non-controversial topics, like if I wanted to find out stuff about boron). Use it to start your list of people and events that you need to go out and research.

SD: Skeptoid has been on the air for about 2 years. When did it really take off and to what do you prescribe its success?

BD: There is no substitute for good content. There is no advertising you can do, no Google index tricks, no secrets and no special podcast listing sites that will give you strong listener bases. Skeptoid grew for one reason: Consistently good content that, fortunately for me, appeals to a lot of listeners. I didn’t have any special training or background in broadcasting or podcasting; it’s just that whatever I’m doing, it happens to be what a lot of people enjoy.

Back in January of 2008, Skeptoid made it onto the front page of the science podcast section of iTunes, where it has remained ever since. Getting there was huge. That took my subscribers from 13,000 to 40,000 almost overnight, and it’s continued growing ever since.

SD: Do you have any updates in regards to “The Skeptologists”

BD: Nothing I can discuss, unfortunately.

SD: What has been the reaction to “Here Be Dragons”?

BD: Extremely gratifying. I made it for zero budget in two weeks that I took off work, depending largely on donated talent: Most obviously the excellent original musical score by Lee Sanders; the computer graphics by Jeff Knapp, Mark Coleran, and Scott Carnegie; the street interview footage by Mark O’Leary; and numerous other contributions. Most significantly, I was floored by all the offers of help that I received. I received way more help than I was able to accommodate. That was humbling. I only wish I’d asked for a director too, instead of applying my own ignorance and inexperience to such a task like I did.

And now that it’s done and it’s out there, I’m blown away nearly every day. I hear from high school and college teachers who use Here Be Dragons as required viewing, which is what I’d hoped for but (secretly) did not expect to achieve. The sales of DVDs have continued to be strong, even though it’s available for free. The reviews on YouTube and Google Video and Amazon are fantastic, despite its modest production. People continue volunteering their time to help with its promotion and distribution and adding new language subtitles and torrent files and stuff, people like Yan Melikli and Josh Gray. If I had to choose a single measure of success for anything, it’s inspiring people to choose to volunteer their own time and resources because they believe in the message and want to help spread it. That’s way more than I had hoped for.

SD: Tell us something about the book “Skeptoid” and its upcoming sequel.

BD: Skeptoid and Skeptoid 2 are both available on Amazon or from Skeptoid.com. They are adaptations of some of the best Skeptoid podcast episodes. I reasoned that since so few people listen to podcasts, or even know what they are, I had to make the material available in a more familiar medium. And so the books came to be. They began as self published print on demand books, but there has been enough exposure that I’ve been fortunate enough to get multiple requests from publishers to publish them for real. I haven’t signed a contract yet, but you can probably look for them in bookstores, hopefully in the not-too-distant future.

SD: Why do you not accept donations for the podcast?

BD: Only because it wouldn’t generate enough revenue to make a real difference. We still haven’t found the business model that makes podcasts profitable. I’ve been offered advertising deals, a number of times, that would have required me to insert commercial content into the podcast itself. Nobody wants to listen to that, and again, the money was not enough to make it worthwhile. I’d rather help Skeptoid grow by leaving it pure and not annoying listeners by putting my hand out. I have great hopes for where the medium is headed in the broadcast world, and when it happens, I hope to be in as strong a position as possible with as many dedicated listeners as possible.

SD: 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?

BD: Understand that it does happen, and can just as easily happen to you. Don’t make the arrogant mistake of believing yourself to be immune to it. You’re not protected from a threat if you don’t believe it exists. Always be skeptical of your own skepticism.

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

BD: I hate the labels, but I don’t have any religious beliefs, and you can call that what you will. I also believe, somewhat controversially, that religion is not really a problem, and not where skeptics should be focusing their efforts. The people who do evil or crazy things under the banner of their religion are evil or crazy people, and would probably do what they’re doing anyway. Obviously we have this growing threat of anti-science from the Young Earth crowd, but in my view, that’s simply people groping for an explanation because of an inadequate science education. Before we start pointing fingers and looking for bad guys, we should clean our own closets and do a better job teaching science. It’s the fault of education that some people believe in a young Earth, not the fault of religion. When a kid answers a math question wrong, the math teacher corrects him. Science teachers need to have the same balls when a kid has a wrong idea about geology or biology, and not tap dance around the issue. School is for educating.

I’m also a big believer in religious freedom. A religious person does not need me telling him what to believe any more than I want him telling me what to do in my own bedroom. Thus, I choose not to shoot my own appeal in the foot by vocally opposing religion. I’d rather have that majority interested in hearing what else I have to say.

SD: Given your efforts with “The Skeptologists” you clearly understand the power of TV to get a message across to a vast number of people that otherwise would not be exposed to it. In light of that what are your thoughts on shows like “House” and “The Mentalist”

BD: Haven’t seen either, so can’t comment on those.

But I will tell you one thing: Nobody sells a TV show by telling the network that it’s about educating and not entertaining. Make no mistake, The Skeptologists and any other projects I might be working on are about great entertainment first. They have to be, otherwise they can’t exist. Our task is to fill that entertainment with as much skeptical education as possible, without sacrificing the entertainment.

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?

BD: Bill Maher is a perfect example of my favorite quote of the year: Conservatives cling to ancient superstitions, liberals invent new ones. While George W. Bush represents the worst of the conservatives, Bill Maher represents the worst of the liberals. I think Maher’s anti-religion stance is more the result of a liberal new agey background than any conscious effort at critical thinking. Clearly that’s true of Bush. Really they’re cut from the same cloth: They dismiss each others’ superstitions, but simply replace them with their own. I wouldn’t characterize either one as particularly skeptical.

So to answer your question, the best strategy is to be vigilant. Almost all of us colors his worldview somewhat based on our backgrounds, our social network, our environment, our comfort zones. Be aware that no matter how skeptical you think you are, chances are you tend to favor certain types of conclusions. Question all of your skeptical conclusions, and look for alternate explanations. Be aware of the real reasons you believe what you believe.

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

BD: No, I don’t. I believe there are all sorts of people in every group. People in different groups may have different excuses for why they do what they do, but you’ll find cheaters and thieves in every country, in every profession, in every subculture. Skeptics included.

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

BD: Not at all. People believe in those things because they want a satisfying explanation for the world they perceive, and because of a lack of critical thinking and scientific thinking. People are generally good and they arrive at those beliefs through honest good faith intentions. Recognizing that is an essential first step in teaching skepticism.

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

BD: It’s a huge opportunity for skeptical outreach. Pointing out examples of our hardwired pattern matching abilities, that are responsible for so much belief in pseudoscience, constitutes some of the best and most entertaining lessons in critical thinking. I’m working more of these into the talks I give at universities. The human brain is a pattern finding engine of amazing power, and the better people understand this, the less susceptible they become to pseudoscience.

SD: Give me your estimate of how soon will either major political party nominate an atheist for the presidential position?

BD: Never. It won’t happen unless most of the country becomes atheist, and I don’t believe that will ever happen.

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?

BD: Absolutely. A true skeptic is the best equipped human being possible. That doesn’t just go for the President, but for every career in every walk of life.

SD: Besides the obvious reasons, what are some things skeptics need to consider when making up their minds who they’re voting for on November 4th?

BD: I think of skepticism as being mainly about science, not politics. I’m not even sure what it would mean to apply the scientific method to politics. I don’t think any living human can feel truly represented in every way by any given political party, so if I had to give a word of skeptical advice to voters, it would to ignore political parties completely and vote for individuals whose priorities align with your own.

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

BD: Being confrontational. Telling people they’re wrong. Failing to reach out in an effective manner. Many prominent skeptics have a reputation for being holier than thou, and that should be a red flag that they’re not doing good outreach. Effective communication starts with a welcoming embrace and respect. I don’t often do a great job of it myself, but at least I recognize the problem and understand the solution. Richard Saunders and Ben Goldacre are two skeptics who understand this and are good examples to follow.

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

BD: It depends on your perspective. An acupuncturist believes that he is skeptically seeing through the folly of modern medicine and knows the real facts. A 9/11 Truther believes he is skeptically seeing through the Bush conspiracy. From where we’re sitting, those could both be called pseudo-skepticism, and they’d probably say the same about us. So if one could take a giant step back to observe all such positions, are they all equal? No, they’re not. The difference that separates what we call skepticism from what all the others think is the quality of evidence. Quality of evidence is like the speed of light; it’s a universal constant. Empirical, reproducible, testable evidence is always better than anecdotal or hypothetical evidence. So I don’t care who they are, what they believe, or how strongly they trust their own skepticism, they either have crappy evidence or the real McCoy.

VIP Interview – Dan Barker

Posted in Uncategorized, VIP Interview by Skepdude on September 22, 2008

On this edition of the VIP Interview feature, I am pleased to  have Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Here is a short introduction to Dan from the FFRF website:

DAN BARKER is co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. A former minister and evangelist, Dan became a freethinker in 1983. His books, Just Pretend: A Freethought Book for Children and Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher To Atheist are published by the Foundation. His newest book, Godless: How An Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists, was published by Ulysses Press in 2008. A graduate of Azusa Pacific University with a degree in Religion, Dan now puts his knowledge of Christianity to effective freethought use. A professional pianist and composer, Dan performs freethought concerts and is featured in the Foundation’s musical cassettes, “My Thoughts Are Free,” “Reason’s Greetings,” “Dan Barker Salutes Freethought Then And Now,” a 2-CD album “Friendly Neighborhood Atheist,” and the CD “Beware of Dogma.” He joined the Foundation staff in 1987 and served as public relations director. He was elected co-president in November 2004.

See Dan’s bio.
See Dan’s online writings.

The complete interview follows below. Enjoy!

SD: 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?

DB: Yes, I do agree with Dawkins. The world would be much better off without religion, as it would be without sexism, racism, or other opportunities for social conflict.

SD: A lot of atheists seem to think that ” you can’t convert a true believer”. You were a true believer who converted. Do you see your case as the exception to the rule, or is there more to this than some atheists seem to believe? What was the cause of your conversion?

DB: I don’t think anyone can “convert” a true believer. We all have to convert ourselves, from the inside, as the result of a sincere desire to know what is true. My case is not an exception. Not only are there MANY former believers who are now atheists, but I know of dozens of former preachers and ministers who are now atheists or agnostics.

SD: Do you think there is any merit to the “evangelical atheist” accusations thrown towards Dawkins, Hitchens and others like them? Does that term make sense to you?

DB: I would not call it an accusation. It is a compliment! Why should we not be evangelical about that which we are passionate about? If it is wrong to be “evangelical” (which simply means spreading the “good news”), then all preachers are wrong.

SD: Do you think that the current 2 presidential candidates are violating the Constitution with their continued proclamations of faith and participation in faith forums? Is it true that, practically, there is no religious test for public office in the US?

DB: No. It amounts to a de facto (not actual) violation of the “no religious test for public office.” However, I do think they are culpable of promising to unite religion and government, in various ways, and if they followed through, then they would indeed be violating the Establishment Clause.

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

DB: Forty years.

SD: The Bible is full of violence and atrocity. If you had to pick one, what would you choose as the ugliest, most immoral verse/chapter?

DB: Psalm 137:9. “Happy shall he be that takes and dashes the little ones against the stones.”

SD: Do you consider yourself a skeptic? What are your thoughts on the paranormal, homeopathy, cryptozoology, UFOs and the likes?

DB: Yes. All of those things are vulnerable to skeptical cricitism. (Depending on what exactly is being claimed.)

SD: Do you think religious belief predisposes one to paranormal belief?

DB: I think they are both symptoms of an uncritical mind.

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!)?

DB: I don’t care what people call themselves. Bright is nice, though I don’t prefer it personally. “Freethinker” is a good umbrella term for atheists and agnostics.

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

DB: Yes, we have tried Maher. We invited him to our convention, met his price, but he is too busy this year. Maybe next year!

SD: Can you tell us something about your book ” Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher became one of America’s leading Atheists”?

DB: It tells my story, my life as a preacher, why I changed.

Here are some blurbs and Contents:
– – – – – – – – – – –

BLURBS ———————
“Valuable in the human story are the reflections of intelligent and ethical people who listen to the voice of reason and who allow it to vanquish bigotry and superstition. This book is a classic example.”
Christopher Hitchens
author of God Is Not Great
– – – – – – – –
“The most eloquent witness of internal delusion that I know — a triumphantly smiling refugee from the zany, surreal world of American fundamentalist Protestantism — is Dan Barker.”
Richard Dawkins
author of The God Delusion
– – – – – – – –
Godless was a revelation to me. I don’t think anyone can match the (devastating!) clarity, intensity, and honesty which Dan Barker brings to the journey — faith to reason, childhood to growing up, fantasy to reality, intoxication to sobriety.”
Oliver Sacks
author of Musicophilia
– – – – – – – –
“In Godless, Barker recounts his journey from evangelical preacher to atheist activist, and along the way explains precisely why it is not only okay to be an atheist, it is something in which to be proud.”
Michael Shermer
publisher of Skeptic Magazine
– – – – – – – – –
Godless is a fascinating memoir and a handbook for debunking theism. But most of all, it is a moving testimonial to one man’s emotional and intellectual rigor in acclaiming critical thinking.”
Robert Sapolsky
author of Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers
– – – – – – – – –
“Dan Barker’s esteemed reputation is richly deserved. I recommend getting three copies. You will need one as a source of evidence to which you will frequently refer. There sill be miles and miles of underlining as you mark the pages of special interest to you. You will need your second to lend to others. You will be enthusiastic about this book, and you will want to share its wisdom with family and friends. Others will likewise want to share it, and the book will never be returned to you. Finally, you will want a third copy to be in pristine condition on your bookshelf, since Dan Barker has created a volume which will only grow in its historical significance.”
David Mills
author of The Atheist Universe
– – – – – – – –
“This book profoundly affected me. It’s funny, and poignant,and most importantly, true! You msut read this book.”
Julia Sweeney
comedian, actress, Saturday Night Live alum, author of Letting God of God
– – – – – – – –
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Foreword by Richard Dawkins
Introduction
Part 1-  Rejecting God
1 The Call
2 The Fall
3 The Fallout
4 The New Call
Part 2- Why I Am An Atheist
5 Why I Am an Atheist
6 Refuting God
7 Omni-Aqueous
8 Cosmological Kalamity
9 Dear Theologian
Part 3- What’s Wrong With Christianity
10 The Bible and Morality
11 Murder, He Wrote
12 For Goodness Sake
13 Biblical Contradictions
14 Understanding Discrepancy
15 Did Jesus Exist?
16 Did Jesus Rise From the Dead?
SECTION 4- Life is Good!
17 We Go to Washington
18 Adventures in Atheism
19 Life and Death Matters
Bibliography
Index
– – – – – – – –
Description at FFRF’s website
After 19 years as an evangelical preacher, missionary, and Christian songwriter, Dan Barker ‘threw out the bathwater and discovered there is no baby there.’ Barker, who is now co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (America’s largest organization of atheists and agnostics), describes the intellectual and psychological path he followed in moving from fundamentalism to freethought. The four sections in Godless–Rejecting God, Why I Am An Atheist, What’s Wrong With Christianity, and Life is Good!–include chapters on bible problems, the historicity of Jesus, morality, the Kalam Cosmological argument, the unbelievable resurrection, and much more. Barker relates the positive benefits from trusting in reason and human kindness instead of living in fear of false judgment and moral condemnation. Godless expands the story told in Dan’s 1992 book, Losing Faith in Faith–the two books overlap about 20%–but a lot has happened in 16 years, and Dan updates the story with four new chapters, including ‘The New Call’ (lessons from the debate circuit), ‘Adventures in Atheism,’ and ‘We Go To Washington’ (FFRF’s Supreme Court lawsuit, in which Dan was a plaintiff).
Forward by Richard Dawkins. Paperback, 376 pages (Ulysses Press, September 2008)
– – – – – – – – – – – – –

What is one thing about Dan Barker that most people don’t know (that you are willing to share!)?

I have synesthesia . . . numbers and letters in color. It is both an advantage and a disadvantage, at times.

Dan Barker agrees to be interviewed for Skepfeeds

Posted in VIP Interview by Skepdude on September 13, 2008

Dan Barker, the co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation has agreed to be interviewed for Skepfeeds. Stat tuned and remember…..Imagine No Religion!

VIP Interview – James “The Amazing” Randi

Posted in VIP Interview by Skepdude on September 9, 2008

I was going to call this entry “The Amazing Interview”, but I realized that in order to have an amazing interview you need both an amazing interviewee and an amazing interviewer. While I had the former I lacked the later as such I settled for the more subtle VIP Interview title.

It is true folks, James Randi agreed to answer a few of my amateurish questions and he took the time to go back and forth with me via e-mail. And he did all of that the same day I e-mailed him asking if he was willing to be interviewed (and I do use that term loosely, all my journalistic “training” comes from reading news sites and blogs!). It takes quite a mature, kind person to take the time to speak to a complete stranger for some tiny little blog that nobody ever heard of. For that I am very grateful to James Randi. It is good to have someone like him on our side.

Below you will find the complete interview, un-edited, including his grammatical correction (I have lived in the US for just 10 years, which tends to show in my writings from time to time. Damn Microsoft Word only catches misspellings!). Here it goes (my questions are in bold font, his answers in regular font)!

You always say that you do not approach the various paranormal claims with the goal of debunking them, but with interest in investigating the actual claim,  the same approach Joe Nickell takes in his investigations. This implies that you allow the possibility, however remote, that some of these claims may actually turn out to be true. Let’s assume that one, and only one, of all such claims will turn out to be true in the future. Which one would you pick as the most likely (or least unlikely, whichever way you prefer) to be true? Which one are you almost 100% sure will never pan out?

No such implication exists.  I see no likelihood of any paranormal claim being true, judging from those already being touted by the believers and woo-woo artists.  I’m 80 years of age, and I’ve been investigating these matters since I was 15.  In all that time, with hundreds upon hundreds of claims having been examined – and all having failed – the chances of the next one being true, is remote.  However, we have to treat them all the same: fairly, carefully, and honestly. And we do.

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?

(you mean, “lose”…)  I always maintain an open mind, but some claims become too silly to be re-tested again and again.  Would you go out and measure chimneys just to see if a fat guy in a red suit could squeeze down in December…?

I agree with you that some claims have become so silly that they do not merit further review. In fact, I think almost all paranormal claims fall into this category. I also don’t see any likelihood of any paranormal claims being true. Nevertheless, I think we both agree that it is important for skeptics to continue investigating such claims, however I think that one of the reasons skeptics ought to do this (besides protecting the public) is because such investigations strengthen skepticism and prevent it from becoming just another dogma, not necessarily because we should treat such claims fairly. What are your thoughts? Why should skeptics continue to investigate paranormal claims?

We should only look into these matters when they are properly presented – with evidence – which is only a tiny fraction of those we encounter… But I must point back to my Santa Claus reference. Where do we draw the line? Spending one’s life looking at nonsense, produces nothing…

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

I “entertain” no ideas; I consider them, test them, and discard them when they fail the tests.

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

Not within the next 50 years… Americans can’t believe that a person can be just and moral if he/she doesn’t fear the imagined agonies of Hell.

How soon can we expect your next books? Will you ever write an autobiography/life stories collection?

My biography is being written by Penn – of Penn & Teller.  My next two books, “Wrong!” and “A Magician in the Laboratory” will see print within 14 months.

You are an inspiration to millions (my estimate) around the world. Is there any living person that has had/still has the same effect on you that you have on the millions of people who idolize you?

My idols – such as Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, Dick Feynman, and Sir Arthur C. Clarke – have me…  I’m currently greatly inspired by Richard Dawkins, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and Sam Harris.

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

“The Closer,” some NOVAs, and Bill Maher…

Which podcasts does you subscribe to as a regular listener (you’re not allowed to pick “The Amazing Show”)? What are some of your favorite skeptical blogs?

None, actually.  Far too busy appearing on them.

What is your favorite pastime, besides your lifelong passion of fighting the likes of Uri Geller?

Astronomy, photography, writing kids who are with “Plan USA,” my favorite charity.

What does James Randi have in store for us in the next decade?

Lecturing, writing, working, till I drop…