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Conversation with Tim Roberts on James Randi, Daniel Dennett, Martin Gardner, Penn & Teller, and Richard Dawkins: Founder/Administrator, Unsolved Problems (6)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

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

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2020/12/22


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: the quintessential skeptic James Randi; Daniel Dennett; Martin Gardner; Penn & Teller; and Richard Dawkins.

Keywords: Daniel Dennett, James Randi, Martin Gardner, Penn & Teller, Richard Dawkins, science, scientific skepticism, skepticism.

Conversation with Tim Roberts on James Randi, Daniel Dennett, Martin Gardner, Penn & Teller, and Richard Dawkins: Founder/Administrator, Unsolved Problems (6)

*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.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: With the passing of James Randi, a luminary of the skeptical community. I want to touch on some of the names to finalize this series of sessions with you. So, the quintessential skeptic James Randi, what stood out about him?

Tim Roberts[1],[2]*: One of the advantages of being 65 (and there are very few, I assure you), is that one can do and say as one feels, without any fear that it will harm one’s future career prospects….

So, Scott (whom I love dearly) has sent me a series of questions on Martin Gardner, and Daniel Dennett, and Penn and Teller, and James Randi, and Richard Dawkins, presumably because in previous interviews I have mentioned their names as prominent skeptics.  So, I hope to answer all of the questions posed, but in a slightly roundabout way.

I have met none personally.  But I have been in the audience for two.

Randi first.  At the end of the show, which consisted of a film about his life (An Honest Liar (2014), highly recommended) , and an on-stage interview, there was a Q&A session from the audience.

And two things from the Q&A session remain in my memory.  First, how many audience members started with “I’m a member of the Skeptics Society, and I’d like to ask….”…

And this confused me.  Why would anyone belong to a society for skeptics?  It would be like belonging to a society for people with two legs.  Not that it’s bad, but what’s the point?  If I said I have a box of paperclips which I would sell you for $1,000, because it was actually worth $20,000, would you buy it from me?  No, because you are a skeptic.  If I agreed that Mars and Venus were roughly spherical, but the Earth was flat, would you believe me?  No, because you are a skeptic.  If I told you my broken down Toyota Corolla was actually a Mercedes, would you believe me?  No, because you are a skeptic.

So I find it confusing as to why anyone would join such a society.

Second, that one questioner asked how many contenders had come close to his one million dollar prize for any demonstration whatsoever of extra-sensory perception.  None whatsoever, he declared most emphatically.  And by way of explanation, he said that all of those who tried for the prize were either very clearly self-delusional, or resorted to obvious trickery.  In short, there had been no demonstrations whatsoever that Randi himself could not replicate easily by normal means.

Jacobsen: Any recommended books by him? Why those books?

Roberts: Amongst the books by Randi that I would most recommend are Flim-Flam!: Psychics, ESP, Unicorns, and Other Delusions (1982), The Faith Healers (1987), and An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural (1995).

Jacobsen: How is Daniel Dennett important for analytical philosophy and scientific thinking applied to traditional ideas of religion and the evolution of religion as a “natural phenomenon”? Any recommended books by him? Why those books?

Roberts: I saw Daniel Dennett at a conference in Tucson.  The philosopher David Chalmers was another speaker, and pointed at various members of the audience with his newly-invented consciousness-detection machine.  In fact, it was a hairdryer he had taken from his hotel room that morning.  “Positive”, he said.  Then “positive” again.  Then “positive” a third time.  Then he pointed it at Dennett.  “No signal recorded”, he said.

This was at least in part in response to Dennett’s recent book Consciousness Explained (1991).  Which, in my humble opinion, is an excellent book in almost all respects, but, contrary to the title, does not explain consciousness.  Far better in this regard is Chalmer’s own book The Conscious Mind (1996).

Jacobsen: What made Martin Gardner important? Any recommended books by him? Why those books?

Roberts: Martin Gardner was one of my childhood heroes, who introduced me to the delights of recreational mathematics.  He had hundreds of publications.  Amongst the best, in my opinion is My Best Mathematical and Logic Puzzles (1964).  And amongst his work on skepticism and uncovering fraudsters, Confessions of a Psychic: The Secret Notebooks of Uriah Fuller (1975) and How Not to Test a Psychic (1985).

Jacobsen: Why are Penn & Teller crucial for entertain-based skepticism? Any recommended books by him? Why those books?

Roberts: Penn and Teller are remarkable, and may well take over the mantle of chief skeptic from Randi.  Just as a public service, let me just say that their explanation of the sawing-a-lady-in-half trick, is something everyone should watch before they die.  It is available at the back end of the very first episode of the very first season of Penn & Teller; Fool Us (2011).

Jacobsen: Why is Richard Dawkins an important and direct exponent of science, or scientific skepticism, as well as an educator on the foundations of biology, evolution via natural selection?

Roberts: I have nothing to say about Richard Dawkins, except that he is one of the bravest and most honest people on the planet.  Use Wikipedia to find all of his published works.

Some years ago, a good friend, who happens to be very religious, knowing that I did not believe in religious things, asked me what I DID believe in.  She used upper case in her question, I swear!

I mumbled something about believing in truth and logic.  Although I worried about this response at the time, I grow more and more proud of it as the days pass.

As for truth, I believe that water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen.  Carbon is not involved, nor nickel, nor einsteinium.  This is an absolute truth.  As for logic, I believe that if George is a crow, and all crows are black, then George is black.

But how does one know that water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen, or that George really is a crow, or that all crows are really black?  And this is why skepticism is essential.  One should not believe anything without evidence.  And the more evidence, the better.

Jacobsen: Mr. Roberts, thank you so much for your time over the last few months.

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Founder/Administrator, Unsolved Problems.

[2] Individual Publication Date: December 22, 2020:; Full Issue Publication Date: January 1, 2021:

*High range testing (HRT) should be taken with honest skepticism grounded in the limited empirical development of the field at present, even in spite of honest and sincere efforts. If a higher general intelligence score, then the greater the variability in, and margin of error in, the general intelligence scores because of the greater rarity in the population.


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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