Zach Weiner is the creator of the comics Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, Snowflakes, Cap’n Stupendous and the sketch comedy of SMBC Theater. He also pulled the greatest internet prank ever on The National Organization for Marriage. He also is teaching himself physics as a hobby. As a skeptic cartoonist myself, I was drawn to the skeptic moments in Zach’s work. Even though he’s a super busy man, Zach took some time to answer some questions about science and skepticism in his comics.
How did you get into science and skepticism?
I got into science very consciously in around 2006, basically out of feeling like I didn’t know enough about the world. I had just gotten to where I could support myself with the comic, and decided to spend the spare time pursuing a physics degree.
With the skepticism, I’m not sure. I’ve been a fan of James Randi for a long time, so perhaps that has something to do with it. I also went to a very liberal college, so I was exposed to a lot a pseudoscience and bullshit at an age when discussion was encouraged.
Wow, you are a maniac! How close are you to that degree?
Oh man… depends on how you figure it. About 3/8ths through I had to stop because business with SMBC got too good. But, I still self teach a decent amount.
What percentage of your comics would you say are skeptical in nature?
I’d say a fairly low percentage. Maybe 5? I suppose it would depend on what you count as skeptical. For example, I once did a comic about how people get excited about chemicals in energy drinks, but scared of chemicals in juice drinks. It’s not really skeptical per se, though it probably appeals to the group. If you’re willing to broaden the definition, it’s maybe closer to 10%.
We all know you can be funny but your comics are also often aimed at the science, tech and web savvy types. But, are people ever offended by seemingly unoffensive skepticism?
People are rarely “offended,” though I have gotten some Theologians written me critical emails. I actually really enjoy these, since it’s a nice opportunity for dialog. I also try not to take cheap shots as much as possible, which I think helps.
Do you remember which comics spawn the theological debate? That must’ve been a fun debate. I’ve been in a few of those myself, they’re like half-fun and half-frustrating. Can you tell us more about it?
I’m not sure which in particular, but often they’re the ones that deal with Catholic or Evangelical versions of Christianity. Usually the people who get in touch with me are intelligent and well-spoken, and they therefore tend to be defenders of an intelligent well-spoken version of their theology. This can be problematic, because I usually (though not always) make fun of religion as practiced, not as preached. That said, I’ve never had much trouble. The people who are smart enough to be cogent tend to be able to take a joke. For example, my sister is in school for Theology, and showed her professor a joke about theologians I made that goes “Could God make a degree so useless, even he couldn’t get a job?”
Do you ever get feedback from people who disagree with something in comic and spend time trying to convince you of some non-skeptic concept?
Only very rarely. Like, I once had a guy try to convince me that gay people were ruining the country. But generally speaking, not really. I think that, outside of the capital-S skeptic movement, people don’t really categorize in a skeptic vs. non-skeptic way. For example, I’ve known self-proclaimed skeptics who believe in UFOs and telepathy, and I’ve known religious types who were very parsimonious about most topics. I think, outside of the movement form of Skepticism, you don’t see much of that sort of conflict.
I know I’ve said things on twitter of a skeptical or atheistic nature and gotten very negative responses. I’m almost always shocked that there are people following me that are THAT against certain areas of skepticism or atheism. Are you ever surprised by fan reaction?
Again, only very rarely. I’m actually more likely to get into discussions about gender issues, for some reason. This is perhaps because a lot of my jokes deal with relationships and stereotypes.
A common question for skeptics is “what’s the harm”? What do you see as the most pervasive or predatory scam or pseudo-scientific claim out there?
The most worrisome one in the short term is probably the anti-vax people, in that they are actually indirectly causing people to die who wouldn’t have died otherwise.
Longer term, the anti-science stuff regarding evolution and global warming is worrisome, but I’m not sure it’s anything new. Science tends to win in courtrooms and get increased funding over time (even if certain areas get cuts), so for the moment I don’t worry too much.
In terms of being “predatory,” it depends on what you mean by the word. Probably the most loathsome are the people who take money from senile elderly folks, folks with dead relatives, or folks who are dying. But, truth be told, I don’t know how pervasive these things are.
I guess I meant the types of scams that prey on the weak or stupid, but then isn’t that all scams?
Not at all– I consider many versions of “The Singularity” to be scams, and they tend to be marketed toward intelligent people. And I know plenty of intelligent people who believe in some version of pseudoscience. Scams sometimes prey on people who could be called “weak” or “stupid,” but they also work on people whose supposed intelligence makes them vulnerable. Uri Geller fooled real scientists, for example.
Thanks again to Zach for reminding us that people can be brilliant and still have an unpracticed bullshit detector.