Daniel Loxton is the editor of Junior Skeptic, a periodical aimed at kids that's bound into every issue of Skeptic magazine. He's also an artist (the image above is from one of his three books about dinosaurs), a cryptid enthusiast, and a passionate advocate of the skeptic movement.
We caught up with him right after he put the finishing touches on the upcoming issue of Junior Skeptic (its theme: the Hollow Earth theory) to find out more about his work and what it means to be a skeptic today.
io9: How did you get involved in the skeptic movement, and when did you decide to make it your career?
Daniel Loxton: For me it started because I was a really passionate paranormal believer. As a kid I was really obsessed with all kinds of far-out mysteries, and in particular monster mysteries, like the Loch Ness Monster, and our own monster here in Victoria, Cadborosaurus. And for the most part, that hasn't changed for me, all these years later. It's a life-long love affair with the paranormal.
When I was a teenager, I went to a science fiction convention in town, and there was a guy from the BC Skeptics, Barry Beyerstein, who did a panel on the science of the paranormal, which was right up my alley. His answers were just so much more robust than I was used to. He was a really pleasant guy, and he had a really good outreach voice, but he also had really good information. A lightbulb went off for me, and it was life-changing. I started following skeptics literature from there, and became an enthusiast for nine or 10 years. I did some campus activism, then I started doing pro bono work for skeptical and humanist magazines and organizations. The Skeptics Society was looking for someone to take over Junior Skeptic, and so I got to try one of those. They liked what I did, and I've been there ever since.
I have to ask: isn't part of loving monsters kind of hoping the stories are true? How do you reconcile being a fan of the paranormal with being a skeptic?
I want to believe they're true! [Laughs] But more than that, I just want to find out what's going on. That was how it really got its hooks in me, the "What if?" I really wanted the answers! I wasn't satisfied with the ephemeral stories that float around our culture. I really wanted something more grounded. I've had the opportunity to indulge my own curiosity on these topics for 12, 13 years at Skeptic. It's been a joy every day. My most recent book for adults, Abominable Science!, is really a hard-hitting skeptics book, but it's also a love letter to monsters as well.
Do you have a favorite monster?
Totally Cadborosaurus. Our local iteration of the great sea serpents of the north Atlantic, here on the West Coast. My parents were actually witnesses of Cadborosaurus, so that really got my imagination fired up. My mom was convinced her entire life that she had seen a legitimate sea serpent, though my dad had a different interpretation. There's a lot of things that happen in nature that are very difficult to resolve into a confirmable explanation. Mostly, we're just left grappling with possibilities.
I feel like many people might not realize that a person can be a skeptic and have a sense of wonder and imagination.
It kind of has a reputation for being a bit of a downer topic. But I've never viewed it that way. It's always been about the opportunity to indulge my curiosity. Sometimes, at the best of times, it's an opportunity to help people. Often it's an opportunity to perform a service for people. I know you did an interview with one of the founders of Snopes.com a couple of months ago, and that's a project that I see fitting right into the skeptical tradition. For the most part, viral emails aren't going to kill anybody. There are dangerous exceptions. But for the most part, it's not a life-threatening kind of popular error that's floating around. And yet what Snopes is doing is a service for millions of people, and it seems to take quite a lot of pleasure in performing it, as well.
Do you see the internet as having a big impact on the skeptic movement?
[Laughs] Oh yeah, it's been enormous. It skews everything and nothing and nobody really knows what's going on. On the one hand, the population of enthusiasts and activists in the skeptical movement tend to be a tech savvy population. We have been early adopters for a lot of opportunities that the web has brought, like podcasting and blogging. So that has been a powerful advantage for skeptics.
On the other hand, I write for a magazine. And it's not a great period in history for magazines. A lot of what skeptics have done in recent decades, there's a certain amount of research and investigation, the kind I really emphasize. A lot of it is really kind of opinion content, and the web gives away infinite opinions [laughs]. There's no shortage of that anymore. It just changes the landscape of things. And in general, information moves so much faster than it used to. The old adage about a lie going around the world before the truth can put on its shoes ... it can go around the world like a hundred times now! [Laughs]
How do you approach writing about skeptical topics for children at Junior Skeptic?
It's funny. When I inherited Junior Skeptic, nobody really seemed to know who it was for. The Skeptics Society is a nonprofit organization, and we're in kind of a volunteer subculture. People get enthusiastic about things, like, "Let's do something for the kids!", but they don't necessarily think through what the project will involve. When I picked it up there had been a few kind of experimental issues, but I really got to pick what I was going to make it into. I picked the arbitrary audience of myself at age 12: somebody who's already a capable reader, interested in things. I use it as an opportunity to dig really deeply into these topics but not have to talk down to the kids. But on the other hand, I know there are kids who read the magazine who are quite a bit younger than my target. At the same time, the primary audience of Junior Skeptic, it's bound into a magazine for adult readers. So it's academically-inclined adults who are the first readers of each issue. I am trying to serve all of those audiences simultaneously. My approach is just to strip out all the jargon, but at the same time tell the story in the depth that it deserves to be told, that I can do justice to in 10 pages. And I have faith in the audience to stick with me through what's kind of a long read.
You wrote a book about evolution aimed at children. How much controversy did you encounter with that one?
I did two issues of Junior Skeptic on evolution, and then we started shopping around this book adapted from that material. It was pretty robust material already, and it had been through the gauntlet of our audience, which knows a lot about the topic. But I had quite a difficult time finding a publisher for it, and the fear that I heard was that it was too controversial. It would cause trouble to present this material to American kids. Eventually it worked out, here in Canada, the biggest publisher of kid's nonfiction, published it, and it's been a big hit for them. It's commercially successful and a multi-award winner. Through it all there's been almost no controversy, which I find interesting.
I fear that in this polarized culture war period, the context that we all find ourselves in, that we don't give each other enough credit. Most of the people who were drawn to purchase that book were the kind of people who were open to the topic to begin with. The book handles the material in a sensitive way, and for the most part, people want to know stuff, even if they don't necessarily agree with it. I got a good review in Creation magazine, of all places ... they described the book accurately, and they were pleasant about it.
Where do you see the skeptic movement going in the future?
I don't really know the answer. I know this: this kind of work is part of the human condition. As long as there have been human beings, there have been charlatans who are willing to sell bullshit for money. And there have always been people who wanted to get to the bottom of the stories. There have always been people who wanted to push back against fraud. That's true now and it was true in the time of the Roman empire, and it will be true in another 500 years. But what form those things will take is an open question.
What's the biggest misconception about skepticism?
The single most common complaint that I hear in skepticism is that it's trivial, which has always driven me crazy. You get people together to talk about ghosts, and psychics, and UFOs, and a certain kind of person will look at that and say, "Why don't you talk about something really serious instead?" Which is funny because the reason that those people came together in the first place was that everyone else though that the ghosts and the UFOs were too trivial to bother with. It was an unaddressed need in society. And that need never goes away. No matter how many times things have been debunked, you still have to do it, for a lot of reasons.
A lot of the hard-won lessons of skepticism are on Wikipedia now. Skeptics have been working to make sure they're on Wikipedia. You can go there in one second and read the answer. But things decay over time when you have secondary sources copying from secondary sources. Eventually, you get down the chain and what you have isn't necessarily the truth anymore. If a topic is worth talking about at all, it's worth having scholars who specialize in it who will make the time to go back to original sources, continue to do research. I think there's a lot of reasons to value that kind of scholarship.
Virtually all human beings believe something paranormal. And yet, somehow studying those topics is seen as trivial by many people. That seems strange to me, that you could have something that's so important to the day-to-day functioning of billions of people, but for it to seem like the questions aren't even worth asking, or that it's not worth studying. I think that human beings are interesting, and the things that we believe are fascinating.
Junior Skeptic cover illustrations by Daniel Loxton; dinosaur picture by Loxton with Jim W. W. Smith.