Robert Todd Carroll
The Skeptic's Dictionary is probably one of the first books written expressly for publication on the World Wide Web (WWW). It began with fewer than 50 entries and now has more than 325. I knew there would be an opportunity to reach a worldwide audience by publishing on the "net." But I had no idea that the audience would grow to more than 100,000 "hits" by more than 25,000 "visitors" a month. Thousands of readers have e-mailed me with comments, suggestions and criticisms. In response, I've added many new entries since the first "printing" in 1994. The Dictionary has been translated into Portuguese and some entries have been translated into Slovak. I've also included reader comments to many entries. And thanks to alert readers numerous errors have been corrected.
I have enjoyed the correspondence with readers from all over the world. I must admit, however, that it took a while to get used to the nasty mail. I thank my harshest critics for their meanest ad hominem attacks. They have helped me in many ways, though I think it best not to disclose them here. I also thank those who have expressed how sorry they feel for me as a non-believer in God, ESP, the Easter Bunny, the Roswell Fantasy and pyramid marketing schemes. Their sympathy, though appreciated, isn't needed. Skepticism about the supernatural, occult, paranormal and pseudoscientific is not the whole of my life. I would agree that a life devoted to nothing but such matters would be a dreary, trivial life, indeed.
Another reason for publishing on the WWW, besides the opportunity of a world-wide audience, was to write a book using hypertext. The idea of a text with instant links to other materials, internal and external, is fascinating and powerful. I had no idea, however, when I first put The Skeptic's Dictionary on line, just how powerful hypertext can be. I had envisioned linking many of the entries to each other to give the reader a chance to explore a topic from several different angles. However, the quantity and quality of materials now available on the internet, especially on the WWW, has increased and improved dramatically. The original intention of suggesting skeptical books and articles for most entries has been expanded to include many internet links, both skeptical and non- skeptical. The Skeptic's Dictionary is now a pipeline to thousands of sources of information, written by many different people throughout the world, and available at the click of a mouse.
Another attractive feature of publishing a WWW book is that the book is dynamic. Unlike a printed text, I do not have to wait until the next edition comes out to change things. I can change things every day. I can add entries, correct errors and make other modifications at will. If I regret tomorrow what I publish today, I can delete it. If I learn something tomorrow which would enhance an entry I published yesterday, I can modify the entry immediately. To let return readers know what is new, I've added a link in the table of contents to an Updates Page which lists the names and dates of recent entries. In fact, the original idea of a dictionary with definitions of terms and short articles on selected topics and individuals, has been expanded, as has the title. I now call it The Skeptic's Dictionary: A Guide to the New Millennium. In addition to definitions and references to skeptical literature, I now include essays and commentaries to combat ever-expanding New Age and religious fantasies and delusions. As we approach the year 2,000 I expect the world to get zanier and zanier. I expect the mass media to cater to this increasing zaniness and to do very little to deter its expansion. Fortunately, the internet has made purchasing skeptical literature easier: Amazon Books has made it possible for readers to order selected books from my Skeptic's Bibliography. Just click on the price (if one is listed) and you will be brought directly to Amazon's page for that book. I hope to add this feature to selected books listed in the further reading sections which follow each entry in The Skeptic's Dictionary.
I have also created another WWW site, the Skeptic's Refuge, to include such features as the Mass Media Bunk Page for essays critical of the mass media's treatment of occult topics, the Mass Media Funk Page for reference to articles in the mass media likely to be of interest to skeptics, R & R for reviews of books, Too Good to Be True for comments on WWW scams, as well as links to featured essays and home pages.
Such dynamism has its drawbacks, I know. For one, I may be quoted today and tomorrow someone may look for the source and it may be gone! One could never use a dynamic text the way some people use the Bible or the Law. Also, all the external hyperlinks are dynamic and volatile, too. It is a continuous task to monitor links for URL address changes and for those which are no more. Information on FTP sites is especially volatile, but even WWW sites come and go. But I think the benefits of all this dynamism outweigh the drawbacks. Still, I don't know that I will ever be able to say that The Skeptic's Dictionary is finished.
Of course, the main drawback to publishing on the WWW has nothing to do with the dynamism of such texts. I am sure each of us has run across a site which hasn't changed in two years and which has not a single link to anyone else in the universe. The main drawback is the one which comes from self-publishing. There is no peer or professional review process. I can't deny that I would benefit from such a review process. On the other hand, the review process has not prevented the publication by "major publishing houses" of an overabundance of gullible, credulous, incompetent, pandering texts that cater to the taste for the supernatural, the paranormal, the pseudoscientific or the mysterious. Thus, the reader on the internet is not at a disadvantage compared to the reader of printed materials. Each reader must take full responsibility for evaluating whatever material is read. Every book in your local library may have been reviewed before being accepted for publication. Still, you cannot be sure that simply because a book has been reviewed, it is trustworthy. You have to decide that for yourself after you read it. In any case, I have many reviewers from around the world who have corrected me on matters from punctuation and spelling, to dates and measurements, as well as chiding or castigating me for what they consider to be my misguided evaluations and analyses, or ignorant and malicious omissions.
Finally, I was also attracted to the idea of publishing on the WWW because I knew the information I printed would be available to anyone with a computer and a modem. No one would have to buy my book. It would be free. This might be difficult for some people to understand, since we live in a society which tends to measure a person's worth by how much money he or she has. I admit that I am not quite sure why this intrigues me, but I like the idea of making these articles with their numerous references and links to other sources available at no cost. Of course, I realize that computers and modems are not free and that most schools and libraries do not offer internet access....yet. I think, however, that the day will come when schools, libraries and other community agencies will see the benefit of offering cheap or free internet access to the public. When that happens, I hope some of those people will find a link to The Skeptic's Dictionary. In the meantime, the entire book may be downloaded for free.
Robert T. Carroll
Robert Todd Carroll