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A Skeptic Chat With…Michael Rosch of ‘Skepacabra’

This is a blog series where I interview writers, bloggers, podcasters, etc. about topics relevant to science, skepticism, and critical thinking.

Hello and thank you for taking the time to answer some questions about your blog, Skepacabra.  Can you please start off by introducing yourself to the readers of the Michigan Skeptics, about who you are, what got you interested into skepticism, and what led you to blog about it?

I’m 30 years old and I’ve recently become a certified paralegal. I received my BA from New York University , where I had a kind of interdisciplinary curriculum, and have an MA in Media Studies from New School University. In addition to Skepacabra, I am the co-founder of stopjenny.com, a website devoted to dispelling the myths and misconceptions about vaccines and autism perpetuated in the popular media.  I also was a writer for the Gotham Skeptic, the official blog of the NYC Skeptics, until we decided to end that blog last month. I also occasionally blog on Examiner.com as the NYC Atheist and Skepticism Examiner. That blog tends to be more deliberately provocative because it generates revenue based on the number of visitors.

I’ve been an atheist since I was about 14, but I didn’t really discover the broader skeptical movement until about three years ago. Before then, I believed in a lot of what James Randi would call “woo”, from psychics to UFOs and acupuncture, etc. I grew up watching shows like Sightings; In Search Of; and Mysteries, Magic, and Miracles, etc. And while I always figured the vast majority of paranormal reports were either hoaxes or delusion, I kept thinking these phenomena had to have some legitimate basis.

So I’d been an outspoken atheist for some time, but it was autumn, 2007 that I first discovered James Randi. Randi was being interviewed by an internet atheist radio show I listened to and on their website, they’d linked to some videos of Randi on YouTube. One of those videos was a lecture Randi gave to, I think, Yale University. It was the standard Randi lecture but it was the first time I’d seen it. Randi’s Yale lecture pushed me one step closer to renouncing my woo woo beliefs.

Around that same time I discovered YouTube videos of Michael Shermer and I found myself liking a lot of what he had to say. Around the same time I caught Shermer debating the evidence for alien visitation on The Larry King Show, and I realized I completely agreed with Shermer that the evidence just wasn’t there. Shermer’s opponent in that debate were Stanton Friedman, a long-time hero of mine. It was during that debate though that I realized my hero Stanton Friedman was a complete nut.

In November, 2007, I attended an atheist event in NYC where Michael Shermer was in attendance. I remember we briefly talked about a reality show on TV at the time featuring Criss Angel and Uri Geller. As I was leaving that night I took a flier for other upcoming lecture hosted by a group called the New York City Skeptics. The speaker was someone I’d never heard of by the name of Steven Novella. It sounded interesting enough, so I attended. And I was so impressed by Dr. Novella’s lecture that when he mentioned that he hosted a podcast, I decided to check it out. Since that lecture, Novella and the other skeptical rogues on the SGU have become my biggest skeptical influences and were the biggest reason I’m part of this movement today. So I’ve always been fairly obsessed with the supernatural and paranormal; only now I approach that interest from a different philosophical position.

The blog came about because I had a Myspace page originally devoted to promoting atheism that gradually shifted to broader skeptical issues. Because I became a regular reader of about a dozen skeptical blogs at that point, I started posting bulletins where I’d link my Myspace friends to several different interesting news items in one post, sort of a newsletter, which I began titling “News From Around The Blogosphere.” I posted lots of these bulletins and would occasionally use the Myspace blog feature. But I realized Myspace wasn’t going to be around, or at least popular, forever and wanted to spread skeptical news stories and my editorials as part of a more legitimate blog. That eventually brought me to WordPress.

Your archives section goes all the way back to 2008.  Since the majority of blogs fail to sustain themselves, what’s your secret in being able to endure for so long?

I think what has kept me going is that I’ve never really paid much attention to my visitor stats. I used to occasionally look out of curiosity but really my writing at Skepacabra is more for me than maybe anyone else. I think bloggers probably burn out because the writers are maybe concentrating too much on building a large readership and may have unrealistic expectations for how long that can take. Then when few seem to notice after a few months, they give up. After two and a half years, I have no idea how many regular readers I have at Skepacabra and I don’t really care. I do it because I love it, and if I stopped loving it, I’d stop doing it.

Skepacabra often covers the standard topics that are important to skeptics, but also addresses religion.  Many skeptics generally try to remain agnostic about religion except when it makes assertions that are contrary to science.  How do you look at that issue with regard to covering religious topics on your blog?

I recently sparked a little controversy over at the Gotham Skeptic for arguing that what I call “religious criticism” is a legitimate branch of skepticism. What I’ve come to realize is that so much of this debate revolves around the semantic issues of what we mean by “atheism” and “skepticism.” I think on this question, I agree with Massimo Pigliucci, who on a post on the Gotham Skeptic, distinguished between skepticism and skeptical inquiry. The former, he defined as an attitude, while the latter is a methodology. He also borrowed from Michael Shermer, who defined skepticism as “a science-informed use of reason to evaluate claims.” Under this definition, criticism of any claim based on insufficient evidence would be fair game for skepticism even if it can’t be ruled out by science because it’s not falsifiable. And as for how I define “atheism,” I view it as simply, “lack of belief in deities” as opposed to “the belief that there are no gods,” though I gladly admit that my personal opinion is that no deities exist. Actually, the very first blog post I wrote on Skepacabra laid out my position on gods and religion as precisely as I could, and I don’t think my position has changed since. For me, atheism was the gateway drug towards broader scientific skepticism.

Are there any particular topics of skepticism that you are more interested than others?  Are there any particular topics of skepticism that you’re not as interested?

I guess the topic that I’ve become most active in has been the anti-vaccine movement. My niece is autistic and years ago, autism forums began to get swarmed by anti-vaccine fanatics. That as well as the efforts of Steven Novella and David Gorski inspired me to focus a lot of energy on that issue. So  when I saw Jenny McCarthy becoming the leading spokesperson for that movement in autumn, 2008, I came up with the idea to create a website to specifically challenge her claims in the same vein as Robert Lancaster’s site stopsylvia.com. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the skills to create and design a website, so I posted my idea on the JREF forums and got an immediate response. Before I knew it, Kylie Sturgess of the Australian Skeptics and one other person who chooses to remain anonymous agreed to join the project and the site literally went live a week after I came up with the idea for it. Dr. Rachael Dunlop briefly interviewed me about the site on The Skeptic Zone podcast #51. The site as well as my NYC SkeptiCamp 2009 presentation on the anti-vaccine movement has caused me to become associated with that particular issue. And though we haven’t updated the stopjenny.com website in awhile, two things I’m proud of are that stopjenny.com can appears on the first page when anyone Google’s Jenny McCarthy’s name and that when Tim Farley found out last year that Andrew Wakefield was speaking in NYC, I was the person he contacted on Facebook about it.

Regarding topics that don’t interest me much, ironically, the first thing that comes to mind is cryptozoology. Despite the name of my blog being based on an infamous cryptozoological creature, I’ve never spent much time on that issue and find it rather boring.

On your blog, you have a “Science/Skeptical Blogs of Interest” section that link to many of the popular ones, but are there one or two that you feel do a great job of promoting skepticism?  And are there any other skeptical/science resources that you don’t have listed, that you’d recommend?

Most of those listed on the site are the blogs I read regularly, though I haven’t updated the list in awhile. My favorites of the ones listed are Neurologica, Skepchick, Pharyngula, Respectful Insolence, Bad Astronomy, and Science-Based Medicine. I’ll also use this opportunity to plug my brother’s atheism-focused blog Dangerous Talk.

As for some resources not listed, despite my complete lack of website-building skills, I’ve actually been building databases on numerous skepticism-related topics online to make my own skeptical activism easier, which my brother agreed to host at Dangerous Talk.

Each of these constantly updating databases contain videos and links to articles, and their addresses begin with the URL prefix:  www.dangeroustalk.net/a-team/ followed by a cap-sensitive topic name such as any one of the following:  Astrology, Acupuncture, Psychics, CriticalThinking, James_Randi, Quackery, Homeopathy, UFO, Scientology, AIDS, Carl_Sagan, Chiropractic, Cults, Conspiracy, 911, evolution, Intelligent_Design, Global_Warming, GMO, Holocaust, Scams, Science, Skepticism, Websites, and of course Vaccines.

While some of these pages are fairly clean and easy to find what you’re looking for, the Vaccine page has become so cluttered with material that I might be the only person who can navigate it to find exactly what information I’m looking for when I need it.

If any skeptics who know how to design a website want to take that material and turn it into something actually organized and presentable, let me know. Or if you know of any resources worth adding, let me know.

Do you ever engage in conversations, debates, or arguments with people who have a belief in an area of pseudoscience?  What have been your experiences and what’s your overall approach when confronted with irrational beliefs?

Constantly. My approach tends to be trying to match the mode of the person I’m dealing with. If they’re polite, I’m polite. If they’re a jerk, I’ll at least be more blunt and unapologetic about my position, more confrontational. Another factor I consider is if there is an audience. If the person you’re debating is clearly set in their beliefs and there’s no audience, don’t even waste your time. In my experience, no opponent is more vitriolic than the anti-vaccine crowd. So if you’re debating them, be sure to have a thick skin. I find a healthy level of snark and ridicule is also useful when dealing with the more vitriolic crowd.

Lastly, are there any areas of science/skepticism that you think could be better handled?  Or any existing topics of which you feel need to be addressed?

I think over all I’m hoping to just see more organized activism in skepticism. I think we have to be careful not to turn into PETA or the Westboro Baptist Church, but certainly we should be looking for more ways to grab media attention. For instance, the 1023 Campaign seems to have been very successful. And even organized letter-writing campaigns are useful. For example, Skepchick got me and over a thousand other skeptics to write AMC Theaters recently, which successfully convinced them to not air a PSA from the anti-vaccine group SafeMinds. And the Australian Skeptics have been excellent in publicly demonstrating that the Power Balance bracelets are a scam. Also, last month, I gave a talk at NYC SkeptiCamp titled Skepticism and YouTube, where I argued why YouTube is an important battleground in the fight against pseudoscience, particularly for those skeptics who wish to get more involved but haven’t figured out yet how best to help the movement. Just getting more skeptics to make skeptical videos, comment on others’ videos, as well as vote up good videos and vote down the more egregious videos could have a huge impact. Also, I’d like to see many skeptics turn  out whenever frauds and quacks make public appearances, whether just to respond during a Q&A session or to hand out literature challenging or debunking their claims.

Thank you so much for the interview.

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