Quick Questions with Daniel Loxton

Daniel Loxton is the editor of skepticism’s premier critical thinking publication for kids, Junior Skeptic, which is bound into every issue of Skeptic Magazine.

In addition to writing and illustrating most issues of Junior Skeptic, he’s Skeptic magazine’s resident expert on cryptozoology and monster mysteries. He’s also written on subjects from Roswell to crystal skulls for Skeptic, eSkeptic, Skeptical Briefs, Ascent magazine, Cryptomundo, and (in Finnish translation) Skeptikko. He is also author of two illustrated kids books on evolution.

He’s been heard on CBC Radio One and Skeptically Speaking, and is a regular guest on the podcast Skepticality. He has also been seen on the cover of Humanist Perspectives, and on the front page of Canada’s National Post for his findings regarding an alternative medicine scandal.

He lives in Victoria, British Columbia.

Desiree Schell: What do you think is the most immediate skeptical challenge facing Canada?

Daniel Loxton: The U.S. and Canada are plagued by all the same paranormal and pseudoscientific problems. There’s a charming (and sometimes helpful) idea that Canadians are more rational than Americans, but it’s refuted by walking around my neighbourhood. I keep meaning to do this simple project: plot on a map all the businesses within a four-block radius whose primary product is magic. The whole map would be packed with red dots, dozens of them: everything from talking-to-the-dead to energy healing to mind-reading. It’s so common we don’t even notice it. So, there’s no end of work to do here.

We also face one unique challenge very familiar to Canadians: America. As when we export Canadian actors to Hollywood, Canadian skeptics are best known for their work with the big U.S. skeptics organizations. CSICOP Fellows James Alcock and Barry Beyerstein come to mind (as does, of course, Toronto-native James Randi, now a U.S. citizen).

DS: Given limitless resources, how would you respond to it?

DL: I spent years as a project coordinator for big silviculture projects in British Columbia, so I’m not afraid of scale. If I had limitless resources for skeptical outreach, I could spend a lot in a hurry. Skepticism has many obvious unmet needs, here and everywhere.

For example, no skeptical organization on Earth publishes a full-color skeptical magazine written by professional journalists. That’s pretty basic place to start: we’re an investigation movement that does not, for the most part, employ any investigators. There’s Joe Nickell, and then sporadic part-time efforts – most of those out of pocket. When my own Junior Skeptic (the kids’ section bound into Skeptic magazine) can solve mysteries that have gone unchallenged for decades, you know we have a long way to go.

And, if you want to know where our outreach efforts stand in comparison with the production standards of professional marketing, you needn’t look as far as Coca-Cola. Just check out the Answers in Genesis Creation Museum. That’s what a hefty dollop of audacity and money can buy.

DS: Cryptozoology holds a special place in your heart. If you could make a new Canadian creature (that people would see out of the corner of their eye while camping, and maybe manage to take grainy black and white shots of) what would it be it’s defining characteristics?

DL: I’d conjure up a romantic big-country creature with a strong but gentle nature – oh, wait, that’s B.C.’s sasquatch.

Canada is a world capital for cool cryptids. We invented the sasquatch. Nessie is an Ogopogo copycat creature. (Ogopogo is one of the few lake cryptids to clearly predate the influential dinosaurs of 1933′s King Kong.) People are still hunting for our B-list stars as well, from Cadborosaurus to Champ. And the new issue of Junior Skeptic solves yet another strange (and rather silly) case: the Thetis Lake Monster.

DS: There’s a world-wide perception that Canadians are a “polite” people. How do you think that impression affects Canadian skeptics/skepticism?

DL: Oddly, I wind up keeping that stereotype alive: I’ve found myself in the slightly strange position of being an evangelist for civility within skepticism.

Fueled by podcasts, blogs, and online social networks, the new amateur skeptics movement – what some are calling “Skepticism 2.0″ – has transformed the skeptical landscape. It’s obviously a major breakthrough when tens of thousands of new supporters and activists (many of them women, and many of them younger folks) take up the skeptical cause.

But for all its net benefit, Skepticism 2.0 is also a recipe for some trouble. There’s a downside to “us and them” identity movements, especially when led largely by amateurs. A person can now listen to a podcast, discover his or her “tribe,” and become a visible voice of skepticism all within months – and all without learning the hard lessons skeptical organizations have discovered over the past 35 years.

Key among those lessons is this: “Be nice to people.” Ours is an outreach project. We can’t succeed unless people are willing to listen to us – and who wants to listen to a condescending jerk?

DS: Vaccination proponents have Amanda Peet, atheists have Bill Maher, and medical research, at least for awhile, had Christopher Reeve. If we were looking for one famous Canadian to bring the skeptical word to the masses, whom would you suggest, and why?

DL: Leaving aside the epic example of James Randi, I don’t know. We could of course use celebrity muscle, but it’s hard to know who believes what. William B. Davis (the Smoking Man from the X-Files) is a well-known skeptic, but I think the breakthrough will come as a surprise, as it did with Amanda Peet. Someone with a large existing audience – an actor, a rock star – will one day just show up and want to help.

Skepticism is funny this way, though. We value celebrities as much as anyone else, and I don’t think anyone would deny that celebrity support can be a marketing coup for an awareness campaign. But we do want our celebrities to have real intellectual integrity: they must be reasonably science literate, and also have the humility to stay fairly close to their areas of expertise.

DS: You’re a Canadian skeptic, working for a well-established American skeptical organization, within a vibrant skeptical community. With the launch of SkepticNorth, we’re making our first foray into building a cross-Canada skeptical movement. Any words of wisdom for us?

DL: I think you’re off to a great start. I was privy to some of the behind the scenes negotiating about editorial policy, and I think Skeptic North is designed for success: straight-ahead science and skepticism.

As some people know, I’m personally an atheist and secular humanist, and I have passionate beliefs about political topics as well. But I’ve argued that the core concerns of skepticism – advancing science literacy, and pursuing consumer protection in fringe science areas – are best served when we set politics and religion aside.

Skeptics come from all walks of life. We’re all over the map politically, and we enjoy the support of theists and atheists of many stripes. We’re far too small a community to splinter over peripheral topics. If a claim is testable, it’s fair for skeptics to discuss. If it’s a matter of untestable metaphysics (“god exists outside of time”) or subjective values (“taxation is a moral good”), it’s just not our job.

I think that’s the most intellectually responsible position for science advocates: stick to the science. And, that happens also to be the way to build a coalition that can get things done.

I think this is a wonderful and exciting project. I look forward to watching Skeptic North grow in the months ahead!

Special thanks to Daniel Loxton for participating in the inaugural edition of Quick Questions! I’ll be bringing you more of these discussions in the near future.

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  • Desiree Schell

    Desiree is the host of Skeptically Speaking, the Edmonton-based radio show that asks you to call in and question everything. She has never quite grown out of the "but why?" stage of childhood development, and considers skeptics the people least likely to be annoyed by this kind of behavior. Her fondest wish is that one day math will suddenly make sense to her, with no effort whatsoever. It's good to dream.