Interview With Daniel Loxton of Junior Skeptic Magazine

Daniel Loxton. Used with permission.

Recently, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to interview Daniel Loxton of Junior Skeptic magazine, a science insert for kids that is bound into the regular Skeptic magazine. I asked him questions about what he does, his skepticism, and how to relate to others who disagree with your views.

GeekMom: What is your role at Junior Skeptic?

Daniel Loxton: My title is “Editor” of Junior Skeptic, but I actually do almost everything. I write most of the content, and do the layout, and I work on all the illustrations. My regular collaborator on my illustrated books, Jim W. W. Smith, works on much of the art with me, but I plan and finish all the graphics. As well, Jim and I do the covers for Junior Skeptic.

In order to write the stories, I spend a very large amount of time each quarter on research. Each issue of Junior Skeptic is intended to be a reliable primer on its topic, even for adults. Junior Skeptic even manages to advance the literature on some topics, which is always a real thrill for me.

GM: How did you decide/realize you were a skeptic?

DL: My brothers and I were raised to value a skeptical attitude. We were taught never to take anyone’s word for anything, to look critically behind messages (especially in advertising), to be suspicious of arguments from authority, and so on. I teach my own son many of the same things my parents taught me.

But there’s a distinction to be drawn between, on the one hand, a skeptical attitude or even critical thinking skills; and, on the other hand, having science literacy—or, especially, having specialized understanding of the esoteric field of skeptical scholarship. It’s a difference between outlook and knowledge. I got the first from my parents, but I had no idea as a kid that my knowledge of paranormal subjects was unreliable and biased toward a paranormal interpretation. That wasn’t my fault: in those days, popular media pretty much unanimously promoted the message that the paranormal is real. Even today, good skeptical material can be hard to find—and you first have to learn that it’s there before you can seek it out.

It happens that I know exactly when the curtain was pulled back for me: 20 years ago, during the weekend of Oct 11–13, 1991, at a little science fiction convention in Victoria, British Columbia. Among the Klingons and Jedis was a speaker named Barry Beyerstein. Barry was a psychopharmacologist at Simon Fraser University, and a spokesperson for a group I’d never heard of: the BC Skeptics. He calmly and kindly fielded questions from the audience—and I was shocked by almost everything he said. This wasn’t the usual fluff: this guy really knew what he was talking about, in a way that I had never encountered before. Even his “I don’t know”s were substantial in a way that I wasn’t used to hearing.

That was a lightbulb moment for me. I was really into paranormal stuff by then, and here was a real scientist explaining in his kindly way that I barely knew my own favorite topics—that there was a whole parallel literature of substantial research I had never even heard of.

His weekend of outreach changed the course of my life. Happily, I was able to tell him that before he passed away. I wrote about that experience here.

Beyerstein’s impact on me is one reason I often speak at Atlanta’s Dragon*Con (though not this year). I wrote about that connection here.

Also, I lectured about the tension of my childhood—between hippie paranormalism and folksy, practical skepticism—at the LogiCon convention at Edmonton’s World of Science early in 2011. You can view the video here.

GM: What’s the skepticism movement like in Canada compared with in the United States?

DL: Canada’s covert cultural imperialism continues in the skeptical arena. Just as we secretly make all of the Western World’s science fiction television, we also gave the world the Toronto-born skeptical magician James Randi (now a US citizen).

In seriousness, Canada is smaller than the US, so our contributions are smaller. But we have a proud history in skepticism, boasting pioneers like Randi, Barry Beyerstein, James Alcock, and Henry Gordon (who wrote regular skeptical outreach columns for the Toronto Star and Toronto Sun newspapers). Today, there is an active skeptical scene across the country. Check out the group blog site “Skeptic North,” for example, or the Edmonton-based broadcast radio program Skeptically Speaking (carried by over 20 stations across North America).

Image credit: Chris Wisnia and Daniel Loxton. Used with permission.

GM: With what do you counter when you meet someone who says they believe in a Young Earth world view or the literal Bible?

DL: In the US, that’s true of every second adult. As a practical matter, it’s not possible to engage every second person who sells you a chair or fixes your car or removes your appendix about their deepest religious convictions—and that’s to say nothing of the hefty majority who subscribe to one or another paranormal belief, or those who hold some scientifically incorrect belief (which is to say, everyone—myself certainly included).

But when I do talk to creationists (friends or family, say, or the audience for my children’s book about evolution) I try to encourage them to look at things one question at a time. Asking, “Do living things change over time?” is not the same thing as asking, “How did life arise in the first place?” which is different from, “How did the universe begin?” which in turn is different from asking, “Is there a god?” From a scientific perspective, the evidence for biological change over time—for evolution by natural selection, including speciation—is so overwhelmingly clear that even sophisticated Young Earth Creationists assert that speciation through mutation and natural selection occurs in nature today (though they believe there are limits to this kind of change). I wrote about that here.

On those other questions, the scientific answers are, “We don’t know yet,” “Ditto,” and “We probably can’t know.” We’re still working to understand the origin of life and the universe. Stay tuned! On the other hand, questions about the existence of god or the meaning of life or how we ought to behave—those are philosophical questions, not scientific. Science can’t test those questions or answer them by observation.

GM: Do you have any practical tips for how to talk with someone who believes in ID/creationism?

DL: Practical tips? Always treat people with respect. Creationists, paranormal believers, skeptics, scientists—we’re all just people. We all make our decisions about the world using the best information we have. Science literacy, skepticism, critical thinking—these aren’t things we’re born with. They’re things we all have to learn.

If you find yourself in a conversation where you have the chance to exchange information, remember that it’s a two-way street. The first step is to discover where the other person is coming from. That means being open-minded and civil and asking fair questions. (That’s harder than it sounds. People are very good at lecturing at cartoon versions of other people; we’re not as good at fair engagement.)

That civility thing works both ways: If the other party isn’t ready to deal with you on a respectful footing, in person or online, then you should walk away. Your time isn’t infinite. You don’t need that grief. (Try not to fall into the “Someone is wrong on the internet!” trap.)

Daniel Loxton.

GM: Do you think conversations with creationists can be productive? If so, in what way?

DL: Absolutely. It’s extremely valuable, in several ways, to have genuine conversations with creationists and others who hold beliefs different than our own.

As someone who writes science outreach material, I know that planting seeds is the name of the game. Education, understanding—these don’t happen in a day. People have to digest, live with new information. That takes time.

As a skeptical researcher, I want to understand heterodox beliefs in a substantial way. To that end, I try to keep two rules of thumb in mind:

1) If it doesn’t even occur to us that the claim we’re examining could just possibly be true, we’re not honest investigators;

2) If we can’t feel the persuasiveness of a claim, we don’t really understand it.

(I wrote about the value for skeptics in trying to see creationism from the inside, here.)

And then, there’s my personal perspective as a non-theist and a secularist. Outside of the public sphere, I think other people’s private faith is their own business. (As the old line goes,”It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”) But I do care a great deal about negative attitudes toward non-believers. In surveys, atheists—which is to say, my family and loved ones—are consistently found to be among the least liked and least trusted minorities in North America. That’s a problem. Every respectful conversation across chasms of belief helps to fix that problem.

GM: What would you say to someone who acknowledges that they don’t have any evidence for believing what they believe, but who claims that faith is a legitimate reason to hold that belief?  In other words: What do you say to someone who thinks faith is a valid way of knowing reality?

DL: I’d ask them to draw a distinction between taking faith questions on faith, and taking testable, scientific questions on faith. If you say you have faith that god exists outside of time and space, or that humans have undetectable souls, well, by definition those purely philosophical notions aren’t ideas that science can evaluate. (Science can, however, give a traditional answer: “I have no need for that hypothesis.”).

But if you say you have faith that the car you’re buying runs well, or that these berries aren’t toxic for children, or that the bridge you’ve designed is safe, or that evolution is bunk—well, on those sorts of investigable questions, we have a better way: scientific investigation. On scientific questions, “faith” is a synonym for “guess.”

As Mark Twain put it, “Supposing is good, but finding out is better.”

Daniel Loxton and Jim W.W. Smith

GM: What’s the first story you remember realizing was just not true, as a kid, an adult, or one of each (e.g., UFOs, Bigfoot, Santa Claus)?

DL: My earliest skeptical lessons were about government and industry. My parents were hippies, and also entrepreneurs in the forest industry. They raised us to believe that government is wasteful and disorganized (although necessary); and, that the private sector is disorganized and wasteful and also greedy (although necessary).

But despite a strong background in critical thinking and media literacy in my family, the factual content we were exposed to was very lopsided toward paranormal belief. I came to believe almost every paranormal idea you’ve ever heard of: Bigfoot, psychic powers, ghosts, alien abduction, spontaneous human combustion—you name it. Not just believe it: I was a voracious consumer of paranormal books and media. In those days, even enthusiasts rarely discovered the skeptical counterpoint to that material. When skeptic Barry Beyerstein introduced me and a small crowd of sci-fi nerds to that material at a “science of the paranormal” panel at a small science fiction convention, it was a major eye-opener to me. I walked out with a new understanding that I had a lot more studying to do. I just started working through the skeptical lit on each paranormal topic, and in each case I discovered to my dismay that the evidence wasn’t as strong as I’d been told. Because my parents raised me to ask critical questions and value evidence, I was well-prepared to follow that new information, even though it carried me away from my previous beliefs.

Not, of course, that my fondness or interest for spooky mysteries ever faded. After all, I literally do investigate monsters now, just as I dreamed when I was a kid.

GM: How can kids talk to their peers about skepticism, pro-science, and/or agnosticism?

DL: Carefully! As parents, we want our children to be inquisitive and brave and science-literate, but we also want them to be wise and kind. Kids have to learn to navigate a social landscape in which people hold a range of divergent views on almost any topic.

But teaching our kids to recognize the “aggressive-know-it-all” pitfall isn’t just a matter of social pragmatism. It’s a fundamental scientific principle that we in fact **don’t** know it all. No one does. Our certainty should be proportional to our evidence—and no one is in possession of all the facts. Moreover, we can’t learn new things when we’re too busy telling everyone what we think we know.

If there’s one great lesson of my own work on Junior Skeptic, that’s it: whatever I think I know right this second isn’t the whole story—and some of the information I’m missing is critically important.

GM: What made you decide to do a story book for younger children (Ankylosaur Attack)?

DL: My publisher, Kids Can Press, fell in love with the photorealist paleo-art Jim Smith and I did for Evolution. They wanted more — and of course we leapt at the chance. (What artist isn’t still, in his or her heart, a kid drawing dinosaurs?)

Writing for this audience is a very enjoyable creative stretch for me. I usually write for kids closer to 12 or so. (Junior Skeptic is pitched to about ages 10–13; Evolution for ages 7-13; Ankylosaur Attack for ages 4 and up.) Luckily, I could draw upon the experience of my editor, Valerie Wyatt (an industry veteran who has written or edited over a hundred children’s books). And, of course, my own 5-year old son approved everything. (His discerning taste in dinosaurs in unparalleled.)

GM: What surprises are in store for upcoming books in the Tales of Prehistoric Life series?

DL: Hopefully a major surprise will be the new level of realism we achieve with each volume! The art in Ankylosaur Attack is a huge leap ahead of the art in Evolution, and I want to push that further with each volume.

We’ll see some familiar superstar species in the coming volumes, but also some “cult favorites”—some of the weirder critters you may have heard of, but which rarely take center stage.

GM: Will you write any larger topic books like you did with Evolution?

DL: My next book is an adult non-fiction for Columbia University Press, co-authored with established best-selling science writer Don Prothero. That one is a critical look at the topic of cryptozoology (the search for legendary animals like the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot) which is my area of sub-specialty within skepticism.

And of course, I have a number of other projects in the pipe….

GM: Other than your books, what critical thinking resources do you recommend for kids (and their parents)?

DL: I once wrote a Junior Skeptic article entitled “Everything I Needed to Know about Skepticism, I Learned from Scooby-Doo!” (based upon the the original, all-skeptical Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? series which premiered in 1969, and an equally skeptical recent revival called, What’s New, Scooby-Doo?). My own son knows those shows inside out on DVD.

When we have our eyes open for teachable moments, we find the core lessons we want kids to learn embodied in unexpected places. Scooby teaches us that spooky-seeming mysteries are usually solvable when we roll up our sleeves and look for clues. Shows like MythBusters teach the core scientific virtue of distilling the world into discrete, testable questions.

You can find Daniel Loxton at Junior Skeptic magazine, and on Twitter at @Daniel_Loxton.

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