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An Interview with Tim Roberts on Critical Thinking, Scientific Skepticism, and Education (Part Five)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2020/07/22


Tim Roberts is the Founder/Administrator of Unsolved Problems. He self-describes in “A Brief and Almost True Biography” as follows: I was definitely born lower-middle class.  Britain was (and probably still is) so stratified that one’s status could be easily classified.  You were only working class if you lived in Scotland or Wales, or in the north of England, or had a really physical job like dustbin-man.  You were only middle class if you lived in the south, had a decent-sized house, probably with a mortgage, and at work you had to use your brain, at least a little. My mother was at the upper end of lower-middle class, my father at the lower. After suffering through the first twenty years of my life because of various deleterious genetically-acquired traits, which resulted in my being very small and very sickly, and a regular visitor to hospitals, I became almost normal in my 20s, and found work in the computer industry.  I was never very good, but demand in those days was so high for anyone who knew what a computer was that I turned freelance, specializing in large IBM mainframe operating systems, and could often choose from a range of job opportunities. As far away as possible sounded good, so I went to Australia, where I met my wife, and have lived all the latter half of my life. Being inherently lazy, I discovered academia, and spent 30 years as a lecturer, at three different universities.  Whether I actually managed to teach anyone anything is a matter of some debate.  The maxim “publish or perish” ruled, so I spent an inordinate amount of time writing crap papers on online education, which required almost no effort. My thoughts, however, were always centred on such pretentious topics as quantum theory and consciousness and the nature of reality.  These remain my over-riding interest today, some five years after retirement. I have a reliance on steroids and Shiraz, and possess an IQ the size of a small planet, because I am quite good at solving puzzles of no importance, but I have no useful real-world skills whatsoever.  I used to know a few things, but I have forgotten most of them.” He discusses: skepticism, critical thinking, science, crackpots, scientific skepticism, magical thinking, education; science; what makes a crank a crank, a crackpot a crackpot, woo woo, a confidence man a confidence man, and a charlatan a charlatan; scientific skepticism; magical thinking; education; and the main forms of woo.

Keywords: critical thinking, scientific skepticism, scientific thinking, Tim Roberts.

An Interview with Tim Roberts on Critical Thinking, Scientific Skepticism, and Education: Founder/Administrator, Unsolved Problems (Part Five)[1],[2]*

*Please see the footnotes, bibliography, and citation style listing after the interview.*

*I assumed “Professor” based on an article. I was wrong. I decided to keep the mistake because the responses and the continual mistake, for the purposes of this interview, adds some personality to the interview, so the humour in a personal error.*

1. Scott Douglas Jacobsen: For this next series of questions, I want to talk about skepticism, critical thinking, science, crackpots, scientific skepticism, magical thinking, education, and so on. A wide array of stuff building on some of the prior terse statements. To set us up, here’s a series of softball questions, what is critical thinking?

Tim Roberts: Critical thinking is the set of skills required to distinguish truth from bunkum, and to make wise choices. It is one of the two vital areas currently missing from the primary school curriculum in many western countries (the other is what it means to live in a civilized society).

The first part of critical thinking is thinking logically.

Suppose we know that George is a crow, and that all crows are black. What can we deduce? What if only some crows are black, what can we deduce then? What if George is not a crow, what can we deduce?

Suppose we don’t know whether or not all crows are black. How would we go about finding out?

Suppose someone told us that all dogs were black, or all koalas were black, or all camels were black. How would be go about discovering the truth or falsity of these claims?

How should we go about finding out if the world is round, or flat? All of these are things that can and should be taught to children aged 8 or 9.

Perhaps a year later, when children have acquired a good proficiency in English, around the ages of 9 or 10, they can learn about the meaning of words such as ”rationality”, and “science”, and “evidence”, and “proof”. And also, “causation”, and “correlation”, and the differences between the two.

And later, at the ages of 10 or 11, they can begin to learn about how people and agencies can distort facts, and how to spot when they are doing so. And how to distinguish established facts from mere opinions. And how to view advertisements of various kinds, whether on billboards, or in print media, or online, or on TV. And how to judge the claims made in such advertising.

All of this is easy stuff. That it is not taught as a recognized part of the curriculum in primary schools is an indictment on education systems, for such skills are way, way more important than learning how to multiply two decimal numbers together, or the date when Columbus discovered America, or what the capital of Norway is, or .… well, almost anything, really.

So the second part of critical thinking is applying it so as to maximize advantages over disadvantages, or profits over losses, or return over investment. We all make thousands of decisions each day, from when to get out of bed, to what clothes to wear, to when and where to do the shopping, etc.

Our choices in turn depend on multiple factors, such as habit, and social norms, and peer pressure. The application of critical thinking helps to determine our actions while taking into account all of the factors in play.

It is important to note, however, that critical thinking will not necessarily alter our actions. Some examples may help to illustrate this point.

Several religions dictate strict rules as to clothing, and eating habits, etc. Even those who turn away from their religion find it extremely difficult to break these rules.

But it applies to many other environments too. Take the well-known maxim which many were brought up with, that is, to eat everything on your plate. By adult-hood many people are so conditioned that this they find it a very hard habit to break.

Or the three-second rule – drop some foodstuff on the floor, and it is fine if picked up quickly. No. Once it hits the floor, it is immediately exposed to bacteria. But still, most people abide by this completely nonsensical rule, while at the same time acknowledging that it is indeed completely nonsensical.

2. Jacobsen: What is science?

Roberts: Science is not about test tubes, or Petri dishes, or Bunsen burners, or lab coats.

The word “science” comes from the Latin “scire”, meaning “to know”. That is, science is how we can know facts about the world.

We can know things by pure logic. Upon defining the integers, we can deduce with certainty that 2 times 3 is 6, and that 37 is a prime number.

Pure logic does not help us with the facts about the physical world around us, unfortunately. It does not explain Pluto, or giraffes, or income tax, or morality. Science tells us that we need to observe the real world. We then form hypotheses, or models, about why things are as they are, and how things work. These models are all valueless unless they can be proved or disproved by experiment.

Suppose we hypothesize based on some sightings that all giraffes have long necks. This can be disproved by finding one or more giraffes without long necks. As we observe more and more giraffes, we can gain more confidence in our hypothesis. We can never prove it, however, for tomorrow we may find a giraffe with a short neck.

So predictions play a really important role in science. They must be such that the more outrageous the prediction, the greater needs to be the evidence supporting it.

3. Jacobsen: What makes a crank a crank, a crackpot a crackpot, woo woo, a confidence man a confidence man, and a charlatan a charlatan?

Roberts: There are many advantages to living in a liberal democracy. Unfortunately, there are also some disadvantages, one of which is the encouragement of deception. Not just amongst some individuals, but also organizations, and indeed sometimes whole professions.

With regard to individuals, many could be named.

One of the most prominent and successful was Uri Geller, who was not alone in being a poor magician who became famous and rich by claiming to have supernatural powers.

There are others, more innocent, like the cousins Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, who provided photos of fairies living in their back garden.

I have chosen these two for illustration, amongst multiple possible examples, because they both illustrate another point, that otherwise intelligent and learned individuals do not necessarily possess the skill of critical thinking.

Uri Geller’s supposed supernatural abilities were believed and promoted for several years by several renowned scientists.

The photographs of fairies were believed and promoted by no less a figure than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, best known for being the creator of Sherlock Holmes, perhaps the fictional figure who most personifies logical thinking in the whole history of literature.

Organizations would include many who seek exposure which would otherwise not occur. For example, many who purport beliefs in various conspiracy theories; or those who purport a

belief in a flat earth; or anti-vaxxers; or those who propagate that the Covid-19 virus is spread by the 5G network.

Amongst professions may be quoted not only the clichéd example of used car salesmen, but also politicians, and marketing executives, and even those in the legal profession. For example, defence lawyers who know that their clients are guilty, but yet whose oaths of office demand that they attempt to deceive juries.

There are also many cranks and crackpots, of course, who are distinguished from deliberate deceivers in that they deceive themselves as well. In this class I would include all of those who believe in astrology, and all those who believe in extra-sensory perception, and all those who believe in the literal (as opposed to metaphorical) reality of religious texts.

In a way, cranks and crackpots pose a greater threat than charlatans, since the latter recognize the truth; whereas the former will defend their beliefs to the ultimate extent.

Hence the vital need for members of society to have critical thinking skills, so that they can distinguish between truth and deception. It is extremely unfortunate that a significant percentage of the population of all countries lack these basic skills, to such an extent that western democracies may not survive, at least in their present forms, since democracies depend for their survival upon the ability of individuals to distinguish truth from falsehoods.

4. Jacobsen: Why is scientific skepticism always important?

Roberts: Because this is a basic tenet of critical thinking. There is an old expression that one should always have an open mind, but not so open that one’s brains fall out.

Science has been extremely successful, but all theories should remain open to doubt. The more established the theory, the greater the evidence needed to overturn it. This is absolutely vital. To take the various components of extra sensory perception, such as psychokinesis and telepathy, these would be in violation of several laws of physics, so the evidence for any existence of these phenomena would need to be very strong. Currently not only is there no strong evidence, but in fact there is no credible scientific evidence whatsoever, to support the existence of these phenomena.

5. Jacobsen: What differentiates magical thinking from scientific thinking?

Roberts: I honestly have no idea what magical thinking means, unless it means non-rational thinking. If it is this, it should be completely disregarded, of course.

I have always been amused that those claiming to be in touch with the spirit world get messages from the dead such that they can apparently communicate that their name begins with “J”, for example. Goodness. Why can’t the dead person say something like “My name is Jane Alice Witherspoon, and I died in 2012, and I’d like to speak to my son Frank, please?”. No. Apparently they can only communicate the letter “J”, for some reason…

Or those who claim to predict the future, but never choose the right lottery numbers, because their motives are too pure.

6. Jacobsen: Why is education part of the solution and part of the problem?

Roberts: I don’t accept that a proper education is part of the problem, except by omission from the core curriculum. Education should never be about telling a particular version of the truth. Rather, it should be about teaching people how to think for themselves, and provide them with the ability to support or reject the beliefs that are instilled in them by virtue of being members of particular groups.

7. Jacobsen: In your country, what are the main forms of woo?

Roberts: The same as in any other western country, I think. Belief in the tooth fairy, and Father Christmas, and ghosts, and various nonsenses such as those peddled by believers in things which are obviously false.

8. Jacobsen: In your country, who are the main forces for skeptical, rational, scientific thinking – a form of public activism in the form of scientific education?

Roberts: I think these are mainly led by individuals from various countries around the world, such as the late Martin Gardner, and James Randi, and Penn and Teller, and Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett, and thankfully, hundreds of thousands of others whose names are far less well-known.

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Founder/Administrator, Unsolved Problems.

[2] Individual Publication Date: July 22, 2020:; Full Issue Publication Date: September 1, 2020:


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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