Stephanie Guttormson is the current Operations Director for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science – a foundation she joined in March of 2013. Stephanie was the leader of an award winning student group at the Metropolitan State University of Denver which impressively brought in notable names such as Michael Shermer and James Randi to speak on campus.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Where does your personal and family background reside?
Denver, Colorado, my last name, apparently, is Icelandic. Based on the name, my heritage is Icelandic, Vikings, and those kinds of people – Scandinavian.
If we look at the landscape now, especially in North America, atheism is a rapidly growing movement. From your expert position, what seem like the reasons behind this phenomenon?
In one word for you, the internet. The internet is where religion goes to die. I don’t remember who said that. It wasn’t me, but the internet is where religion goes to die. There’s too many ways to get appropriate facts now. Yes, of course, there’s tons of crap on the internet too, but being able to debate rationally with people and get them to listen to arguments that they wouldn’t otherwise.
Also, they get more exposure to more news about the same facts. They consistently don’t see atheists in the news doing violent things. I would also like to say that it has to do with the Richard Dawkins Foundation having a movement to get people to come out of the closet starting with the Out campaign. Now, there’s Openly Secular.
I also credit people like David Silverman from American Atheists being super open about it as well as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Christopher Hitchens, and James Randi. These are people that I know opened my eyes and open the eyes of a lot of other people.
Listening to these people and working for one of the organisations of probably the most prominent at present, you’ve probably heard most of the arguments. What do you consider the best argument for atheism?
Atheism is more of a conclusion rather than something to be argued for.
Atheism is what happens when you follow the evidence where it leads, where it leads right now is to the conclusion that there is likely no supernatural force watching over us or any magical force.
Everything we’ve been able to figure out. Everything we’ve been able to verify so far has not been magic. We are still waiting for magic to happen. It hasn’t, yet. All of our progress has been the result of the method known as the scientific method, for the most part.
Even social change, you look at the situation and people think, “That’s not fair. That seems to hurt people. Let’s fix that.” The thing changes and things get better. The more we learn, the more things get better because we’re responding to evidence and the changing situations.
Humans were pretty good at doing that when they the left savannah. Now, we need to get our brains to do it and change our minds with new evidence as the new landscape changes.
You hold two bachelor degrees. One in linguistics. One in theoretical mathematics. Both from Metropolitan State University in Denver. I want to focus on theoretical mathematics because it could be technically defined as a science.
So, when it comes to having a mathematical understanding and know the scientific method more than most, does this seem to provide a bulwark for you to consider these topics of critical thinking, faith healing, and other topics along the range of pseudoscience, non-science, bad science, and real science and making that demarcation?
Religion is not the only thing that benefits from wish thinking and that kind of thing. I really hate grief vampires like Adam Miller. He’s more of a straight-up conman. “Grief vampires” are psychics, mediums, and those kinds of people. I hate them so much.
Anyone promoting any non-scientific idea boils down to a couple of quotes. One is from my friend Matt Dillahunty. He said, “I want to believe as many true things and as few false things as possible.” Also, the other probably is “scientia potentia est” or “knowledge is power.”
If you look at the general public and the method of teaching critical thinking, if you could comment of the state of critical and ways to improve education of critical thinking, what is it?
It is garbage.
The current state of teaching critical thinking in this country is garbage. I chose to take logic courses and things that challenge or made my ability to think better. I can’t say I wish it were mandatory, but I wish we would encourage it more, certainly. I wish it was a core class to teach critical thinking and its importance.
The fact of the matter is any false belief has potential to do harm because it is incongruent with reality. Those things that are incongruent with reality have great potential to cause harm.
Do you think the work through the Richard Dawkins Foundations assists in the development of critical thinking to a degree?
We would always want to do more, but I think the programs we have help with it. There’s one teaching evolutionary science, where we teach middle school teachers how to teach evolution. Some think, “You’re indoctrinating them with evolution.” No, evolution requires asking a lot of questions.
Kids are interested in it because you get to ask, “Why do cells do that? Why does this happen that way?” Teaching any science, especially evolution, will lead to more critical thinkers.
When you were Metropolitan State University in Denver, you managed to bring Dr. Michael Shermer and James Randi to campus. What was that like getting people that prominent in the atheist, agnostic, and critical thinking movement to come to your university?
That was pretty surreal, not going to lie. That’s the only way I could put it. I was shell-shocked at that age. James Randi put forward a ton of effort to get to Denver. One of my heroes did something for me. That was incredible. I can’t tell you how good that felt. It is hard to put into words.
For those that don’t know, that aren’t as involved in that community. Who are individuals that you would recommend to them, and what particular texts would you recommend to them?
I would recommend Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I would recommend Richard Dawkins, Obviously.
I would encourage them to find a book, How to Think About Weird Things. That’s a good book. Lying by Sam Harris, that is pretty decent. God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens. I would probably have them take any logic book, really, for those that are academically inclined.
They have them in different levels like “Logic for Dummies” all the way to a serious textbook. They all touch on the same things. Also, they should learn on how to be persuasive and how arguments work has been helpful.
What are some of the other ongoing activities and educational initiatives through the Richard Dawkins Foundation?
We have a ton of videos on our YouTube channel. Tons of videos of Richard and other people with loads of information about science and evolution, but everything is in English. There weren’t subtitles in other languages until we had the project to translate as many videos into other languages as we could.
We have many videos now in Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, Russian, and so on. We have lots of languages. This is all done by volunteers around the world. Some of them as far away as Pakistan helping us translate videos. We get a translation and have someone double-check it. It is translated and checked by at least two people.
Even the English videos, we have to do the language in English first for something to be translated back for the translators. Those are some of the most important to get right.
Is there an unexpected large following in the Middle East and North Africa region?
We get quite a bit of people from that region contacting us more to get more involved with us.
What initiatives are you hoping to host and expand into the future for the Richard Dawkins Foundation?
Currently, we are merging with the Center for Inquiry. We’re not planning on launching anything new at the moment because we’re in process of this merger.
I stepped away from both for a bit because I had some mental health stuff to deal with first. I will be back for the Dogma Debate show soon. Same for The Road to Reason TV show. I am booking Richard’s touring now. It takes most of my time at the moment.
Apart from professional capacities, what personal things do you hope to continue for your own intellectual enjoyment?
Next, I am going to start a video. I have a new target. As you probably know, I went after a man named Adam Miller. He sued me because I said he didn’t have magic powers. I won, hilariously. There’s this other little dumb fuck who I found on the internet that I want to go after. He claims to be a medium.
I want him to stop taking advantage of people. He’s a grief vampire. He’s one of these assholes that goes around saying, “Oh, I hear the letter F… coming out of my ass.” You are a smug prick and are taking people who are vulnerable, fucking with them, and taking their money when you do it…You need to stop.
Those people are despicable and immoral. You want to talk about how pseudoscience harms people. You don’t tell vulnerable people things that they want to hear. That can fuck with their emotions, especially pretending to speak with loved ones that they have never met. It is disgusting. It is despicable.
Historically, pseudo-scientific, non-scientific, and bad scientific views had negative consequences. Sometimes very big ones. It’s around now. It has been around in the past. Those around now, by implication, have been around in the past. What are the worst ones that come to mind for you?
Psychics are really bad, but they don’t seem as bad because you see the holes in the wall. The really bad ones are those that take advantage of people, such as John Edwards. They are the worst from an immoral perspective. I think the most harmful are medical ones.
The anti-vaccine movement by far is the most harmful pseudoscience movement that we’ve ever seen. It is followed very closely by chiropractors or any kind of “healing acupuncture.” That kind of stuff. Medical pseudoscience by definition is the most harmful, no question – if you’re talking about harm.
The medical stuff scares me to death. Mostly because we have people here that are extremely desperate to get better. They are putting their money in places they shouldn’t, many times.
Thank you for your time, Stephanie.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. Jacobsen works for science and human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. He considers the modern scientific and technological world the foundation for the provision of the basics of human life throughout the world and advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere.