The Skeptic’s Dictionary was one of the first sceptical websites I came across more than fifteen years ago when I first subscribed to a broadband internet connection (until then it was dial-up, and casual web surfing was almost completely out of the question because of slow speed and minute by minute charges). But for me it was an intellectual life-changer when I found out that not only did many other people share my doubts about paranormal and supernatural claims, but here was a resource that collated and critiqued those claims. Indeed, I found out that there was a worldwide community of like-minded rational thinkers out there.
Naturally, I subscribed to Robert Carroll’s regular newsletters, and I looked forward to new articles as they were added to the site. One feature I particularly enjoyed was the regular readers’ comments as they came in – especially those readers who thought they had demolished various criticisms of their cherished beliefs about just about everything from ghosts to medical quackery. And yet they could never seem to understand that belief is not the same as knowledge – one of the very things that Carroll was trying to explain.
I was always encouraged by his implicit exhortations to his readers not to assume knowledge, but to be on guard against that very assumption. It might be OK to claim certain kinds of knowledge, of course: facts are facts, after all, and 2+2=4, but if you want to claim otherwise then you are obliged to prove it. The fact that no psychic has ever passed a scientific test that has now become part of mainstream science does not mean that the next psychic that comes along won’t do it; then again, after more than a hundred and fifty years of supposedly scientific research into paranormal claims, we are still waiting for confirmation of anything allegedly psi-based.
Robert Carroll promoted an open-minded approach to assessing paranormal, supernatural and dubious medical claims, although the believers do not accept sceptics as being honest enquirers into their weird claims; rather, the believers regard doubters as what they call “pseudosceptics” – a rather derogatory term they use to describe those doubters as closed-minded denialists. If only the believers could have read The Skeptic’s Dictionary as what it was – a guide to logical and critical thinking that would, at the very least, have shown them a way to objectively examine their own biases. Then again, Robert Carroll said himself that his dictionary was aimed more at the sceptical thinkers than at the woo folk; he said clearly that his website had that bias. Personally, of course, I think that a bias in favour of objective analysis of off-beat claims is quite fair.
I hope that The Skeptic’s Dictionary website will continue to be there, even though Bob Carroll cannot make any further additions to it. I can only offer my condolences to his family, and say to them that he made a difference to my life. Even though I already had a university degree that prepared me for tackling absurd claims from various quarters in the woo community, the dictionary helped me to connect in a certain way to the wider community of rational thinkers who had been isolated from me before the advent of broadband internet communication.
In a world where irrationality and various superstitions seem to be thriving despite the fact that we now live in the twenty first century, a time when superstition should have died out by now, people like Bob Carroll will be missed by rational thinkers, but I also think that he has inspired the next generation of people who want to live in a rational world and are prepared to work for it. It worked for me, and I think that he has left a legacy that should be appreciated by everyone who just wants to know what is going on out there.