Interview with Brian Dunning on Skepticism

by | December 29, 2018

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was family and personal background, e.g., geography, culture, language, and religion or lack thereof?

Brian Dunning: I was raised in a very conservative home, in a conservative town, in conservative company. Luckily I personally managed to avoid ever having had any interest or belief in religion.

For most of my school years, my family was Mormon, so I was dragged kicking and screaming for three hours of services every Sunday. I hated every moment of it, though I did make some good friends among the other guys my age.

They also had a great boy scout troop which did a lot of backpacking and camping, all of which I thoroughly enjoyed. However, I was the guy who never closed his eyes during the prayers.

Jacobsen: How is skepticism important in the electronic era?

Dunning: I don’t think it’s any more or less important now than in any other time. Many of my colleagues disagree with me, on the principle that the Internet gives everyone such better access to misinformation.

But I argue that it gives equally ready access to good information, and people don’t have any different set of tools than they’ve ever had to tell good information from bad.

Jacobsen: What best defines science? What best defines skepticism? How do non-science and pseudo-skepticism/dogma relate to them? What are some examples of them?

Dunning: Science and skepticism are basically the same thing: the application of a high standard of evidence to answer a question. That means putting aside your preferences and your own experiences, something that’s very hard for most people to do.

Our brains tend to put more weight on our own experiences than on empirical evidence, especially when it gives an unwanted result.

A healthy young person may embrace a fad diet, feel energetic, and attribute it to the diet when really they’re just young and healthy and active; and suddenly, this person will remain firmly convinced that there was something magical about that diet. This is the form most misinformation takes when it spreads.

Jacobsen: In America, what are the main sources of pseudoscience, fraudulent claims? How does this impact the general public? What are some humorous examples and some tragic ones, too?

Dunning: The answer to this question is the same everywhere: people want magically easy answers to complicated problems. That’s why snake oil salesmen have always been successful, and always will be: they sell magical solutions in a bottle.

Conspiracy theories are magically simple explanations of a complicated world. Alternative medicine claims are magical cures for health problems (both real and imagined).

And just about every other book is selling a new diet — either the superfood you must eat or the horrible food you must avoid — as a magically easy way to become slim and fit no matter what your genetics have foreordained for you.

Jacobsen: In the work on dissemination of critical thinking terms, methodologies, and ideas into the public sphere, what is important in the communication to the public for better receptiveness for them and delivery from you (or others)?

Dunning: This is the million dollar question. Most misinformation is sold because it sounds amazing, and people love sensationalism — just look at the descent of the History Channel, Nat Geo, Science Channel, and the like.

Those of us who encourage the embrace of good information need to recognize what attracts eyeballs, and constantly find better ways to package the lessons of critical thinking inside exciting entertainment.

Jacobsen: When societies move away from science, critical thinking, and evidence, how does this negatively impact the functioning of society via poor policy and other decisions? 

Dunning: It’s quite simple. When you base a decision on bad information, you get a bad decision. Knowing how the world really works is crucial if you want to navigate your way through it properly.

Jacobsen: How can folks, nationally or internationally, become involved in skepticism’s efforts to reduce the level of junk thinking happening throughout American society?

Dunning: Often, when I get a new listener or meet a new fan at a conference, they’ll say something like they always felt this way but never knew that “being a skeptic” was a thing.

So find some skeptical programming that you like and share it with your friends. Get them hooked on skeptical podcasts when ever you’re in the car.
There are plenty of skeptics out there, they just don’t know it yet.

Jacobsen: What are the main concerns regarding claims sold to the general American public moving into 2019 for you?

Dunning: Honestly, the same as always. People believe their friends and their favorite pundits far more readily than they’ll believe sources they’re predisposed against. That was the case yesterday, it’s the case today, and it will be the case tomorrow.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Brian.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott:

Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.

Photo by Thanos Pal on Unsplash

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