#43 – Giga-pudding, The Daniel Loxton “Interview”
Last Friday evening, Daniel Loxton sat in his home office/library and talked to a video camera. A number of us talked into ours back at him. He was fascinating and provocative, and we all had a 3 hour good time. The format of this chat (at least the first half) turned out to be as close to an interview as we’ve ever done. Since I found Daniel’s answers fascinating, I thought I’d try a little something new.
The following is a large excerpt, transcribed from his “interview” (essentially the first half of the 3 hour long chat). I’ve paraphrased the questions to remove my senseless rambling and to clean up some of the awkwardness of trying to have a discussion on tokbox, but the responses are unedited except where noted. Enjoy.
Q: Can you give us a quick run down of where you came from, what your background is, how you became a skeptic, and how you came to work for Skeptic magazine?
Daniel: “I’m from Canada, I grew up in Victoria, BC in the wintertime. My parents were treeplanting contractors so we’d be off in the sticks in the summertime. It was quite a critical minded background, my parents were very suspicious of authority and things of that nature, but we also had a lot of paranormal belief. I grew up believing all kinds of things, I was religious, and got really into paranormal things. I was just rabid for cryptozoology, which if you know my work now hasn’t changed very much. I was just nuts for sea-monsters, Bigfoot, and stuff like that, and really believed pretty much everything: psychics, alien abductions, fire walking, predicting the future. I believed it all, but I think not in a terribly gullible way, if that makes any sense.
At that time the material that was available, was really lopsided, so it was very difficult to find anything that was critical on that stuff. You read ten books on a topic and they all tell you the same thing, you end up having what you feel is an informed view, and yet it was all gibberish. I learned that at a little science fiction convention here in Victoria, BC, called “Icon 2” (and by coincidence I just dug the program up out of the closet the other day – Daniel shows the camera) The speaker here, Barry Beyerstein, who was a CSICOP fellow based in Vancouver, came over as a guest for Icon 2 and spoke on some panels there. So I went to some of these panels and for the very first time learned that there was a whole parallel literature about this stuff that I love so much, and I really had no idea up until that time. We just pelted him with questions from the audience, “What about fire walking? What about aliens?” and I don’t know if any of you guys were ever exposed to Barry Beyerstein, he had this very genial way, this very sweet manner to him, he just wanted to share information and talk to people.
It was a very nonthreatening and eye opening kind of experience for me, I walked out really shaken and excited, and at this point I was just in 10th grade. I got a hold of some of their material; they had a little print newsletter at the time. I went away to university and discovered this big back issue collection of Skeptical Inquirer, and right about that time Skeptic Magazine was hitting the newstands so I discovered that. Before I knew it I was a committed skeptic.”
Q: Can you tell us a bit about shepherding?
Daniel: “So my parents where treeplanting contractors here in BC. Big corporations get a license from the government to cut down a forest and sell it, and then they’re obligated by law to grow a new forest. The problem is the little tiny seedlings they put in are only that tall, and only grow about that much a year, but all these meadow plants that immediately colonize the ex-forest all grow seven feet a year, then all fall down and get snow pressed, then next year they grow seven feet again. This competitive vegetation kills a lot of these fledgling plantations, so you have to do something about it in many cases. So traditionally you’d just nuke it with herbicide from a helicopter, or if there’s some reason why you can’t use herbicide then you’d get a shit load of guys with hockey sticks or brush-saws to physically go and knock down hundreds of acres of fire weed, which is really labor intensive, expensive, people get hurt, and stuff like that. Anyway, It turns out that sheep don’t like conifers and they really like fire weed.
So, my parents are treeplanting contractors, and when the money started falling out of that industry they just made this small lateral step into this new fledgling industry that they helped start of sheep vegetation management. So this Loxton Sheep Company was the company that I worked for, and we hired out grass killing professionally on a big industrial scale, and the tool we offered was sheep. So we’d rent 6000 sheep a year from Hutterite colonies in southern Alberta, and then ship them up to the Alaskan pan-handle and then chase them around these cut blocks all summer, just like a big lawn mower, and ship them home to the farmers in the winter. That’s what I did for 10 years.”
Q: How did this turn into a career writing for Skeptic Magazine?
Daniel: “There were never a lot of silvicultural shepherds in BC, even in the heyday of the industry, there was maybe 50,000 sheep, so about 100 shepherds working at a time, and it was a nice seasonal thing like working on a fishing boat or planting trees. I would herd sheep in the summer, go to school in the winter, read about skepticism, and learn to make pictures. And after I graduated I started doing pro bono work: I did a cover for Free Inquiry Magazine at one point and did some pro bono cartoons for Skeptic. One day they were looking for someone to do Junior Skeptic, take over, they gave me a one-issue shot on that, liked what I did, the rest is history.”
Q: What do you think qualifies you to be a voice of skepticism?
Daniel: “I’ll say at the outset that I think I’m a beginner. I get around these guys like Ray Hyman, who’ve really put in their time, and I think I’m just scratching the surface with this stuff. Which is one of the reasons I stay to narrow specialties when I speak, the stuff where I feel reasonably competent. I try not to speak beyond my expertise if I can help it. I have some academic background, a lot of philosophy, a little science, but mostly just a tremendous background in the skeptical literature. I’ve reading for quite a while and I read a lot of specific stuff. I’m scratching the surface, but I’ve been scratching it for 20 years, so I’m starting to get the hang of some of this specialized literature.”
Q: What is your approach to teaching science, skepticism, and critical thinking to children? Is there a methodology and what should you avoid?
Daniel: “The secret is just to be really really clear. The nice thing is that’s the secret to all outreach, to really focus like a laser on what your actual message is and try to stick to that. Writing Junior Skeptic, I take out a lot of jargon, but good science writing should do that anyway. I take out unnecessary names and dates, we do a lot of comparisons, tell a few jokes, things like that.” (Daniel clearly had more to say on this subject but didn’t get the opportunity)
Q: [Audience] Can you talk about the ethics of skepticism and what that entails?
Daniel: “This is a real central concern for me. As public skeptics, we get up on a soap box and tell people how things actually are. The problem is a lot of the time we don’t say how they actually are or we don’t know how things actually are, and having a soap box means having the power to help people or hurt people, and that puts us at the center of a web of obligation. In some ways it’s not a very welcome message when I say that. A lot of people want skepticism to be a kind of free for all, or an opportunity to take pot shots at people they don’t like, or groups they have no respect for. I don’t know what to say about that, that’s … crummy, that’s not good enough. It comes down to Spider-Man’s Maxim, “With great power comes great responsibility” – with ANY power comes some responsibility. If you’re putting yourself in a position of sharing advice or trying to present yourself like you have factual information, then you have obligations. For me it’s that simple.”
Q: [Audience] – In the past couple years you’ve stepped into a number of “bees nests”, on global warming, atheism, etc. What motivates you [to keep at it] when it must be so painful to deal with the blow-back from stating one’s opinions?
Daniel: “There are people who really like to get into a good fight, get into the thick of things, to debate people, and hash stuff out. I hate that shit, just hate it. I do not like controversy, I don’t like getting into arguments with people, and I’m thin skinned, I really have a hard time with hecklers and barbs. So I really don’t like getting into these controversies, I just feel obligated. It’s just what we were talking about before, I feel ethically barred from being silent on many of these topics. I see the good that skepticism can do if it’s living up to its potential, and I see it can do harm when it fails to. I just have to speak out sometimes.”
Q: [Audience] – As a follow up to that, Do you think your involvement has ultimately had a positive effect, or do you think it may have been more divisive?
Daniel: “I don’t really know.” (Unfortunately, Daniel didn’t have a chance to elaborate due to technical issues)
Q: [Audience] – We keep on saying there should be a separation of church and state. Should we also be looking into a separation of skepticism and atheism?
Daniel: “I definitely think there should be, but that’s not quite how I’d put it. I just think there is a fundamental difference between scientific questions and non-scientific questions. There’s a difference between questions that can be investigated and possibly answered, and questions that are just a matter of personal internal reflection. There isn’t a line of separation between skepticism and religion, there shouldn’t be. Skepticism tackles all testable claims, all claims that can actually be investigated. It’s better at some kinds of claims than others, but it’s really unable to address claims which are values claims or about metaphysics. We’re just powerless to answer those questions, it would be nice if we could, but we can’t, science can’t.”
Q: [Audience] – Would you give an example of a metaphysical claim?
Daniel: “How about the claim, “I have a soul”? Not only can we not test it, we don’t even really know what it means. When we try to probe the definition of soul, we just get gibberish. It never rises to the bar of being scientific, we have no window into that claim because we don’t know what’s entailed in it.”
Q: [Audience] – If a person claimed “I have a soul” couldn’t that claim be rejected out of hand because the notion of a soul is undefined?
Daniel: “Well, think about it like this, if I said “On my way to work today I saw a schmiznet.” The correct answer for a consistent skeptic in my mind is not, “That’s impossible” but “What is a schmiznet?” maybe that’s true, maybe you do have a soul, I have no access point, I can’t address it. I don’t know. It may be forever, by all definitions, outside the realm of science, maybe at some point it will be inside the realm of science, some versions may be on either side but, you’ve got to specify. This is the same headache that the JREF people go through every time they try and nail down a claim for the million dollar prize. What exactly are you talking about? If you just daydreaming or making words up, or that kind of thing, maybe it’s true, maybe isn’t not, but we have no way to address it, when you get back to us with a concrete claim we can figure out if it’s testable or not. They’re just utterances.”
Q: What do you think about the recent attempts to use science to inform morality or to make moral claims?
Daniel: “My instinct is that attempt is, depending upon how you mean it, either self-evidently true or permanently doomed. If you’re saying, “Can we find stuff out about the consequences of actions?”, then yeah, sure we can find out lots of stuff, we can find out what things have what consequences and to what degree. If you mean, “Can we design a litmus test for goodness?”, sorry we’re out of luck on that.”
Q: What do you think are the biggest problems for skeptics in general?
Daniel: “Well, the same things I’ve been on about for a while. The hybridization of skepticism with atheism, with libertarianism, sometimes with secular humanism, these kinds of diffusing forces I think are real problems. And sheltering science denial, for the last 20 years, we’ve had an emerging scientific issue, where there’s a body of peer reviewed literature, there is a much less equal and contrary pseudo-scientific critical body of literature, and the people who are supposed to step into that mass and sort things out for the public, traditionally those are skeptics. We’re the ones who step in and study creationism and sort out for the public what exactly is real about the history of life. We should be the ones who should step into a question like global warming and try to explain to the public where the pseudo-science is, and I think we’ve done a crappy job, just really dismal, to the point where even today you’ve got leading skeptics that take the public position that global warming simply doesn’t exist.
It makes me feel a little despairing actually, that particular topic. I see it as really skepticism’s biggest road test yet. Are we collectively, our institutions and media, up to these challenges? When big scientific questions come along and there’s an opportunity to help the public understand the science, are we up to the job or not? On global warming, the answer is clearly not.”
At this point, Jeff Wagg, who had been listening to the conversation, joined in the discussion. [edited by Jeff for clarity]
Jeff: “I have to be very careful when I say this, I’ve never been a denialist, basically I’ve just said that, “Hey, some of this looks like woo to me.” and the reason I said that is because the AGW issue is politicized on both ends of the spectrum. There are groups motivated to prove that it’s not real, and there are groups motivated to prove that it’s real, without either of these groups looking at the actual science. It’s also very complex. However, I had a talk at TAM 8 with Simon Singh about this topic and he pointed out something to me that should’ve been very obvious from the start. There are many external things about the AGW issue that look like crap.
AGW is unique in that there are a lot of flags that skeptics can pick up on and say, “hey this doesn’t look real”. It’s a very complex issue with a lot people making predictions that seem very dire, just like 2012 for example. Now, it happens that this is an actual scientific issue – it’s somewhat testable although it’s very complex and there are scientists looking at it. And I think, Daniel really came to the fore here and said, “look scientific consensus either has value or it doesn’t.” The scientists have a consensus that global warming is actually happening and that warming is being caused by man made activity. The issue which we still need to decide is, whether there is anything we can do about it.
One thing I have a big problem with, and I’ll have to fault Daniel for this, is that people compare AGW to evolution. It is a completely different issue. It has different shapes and different sizes and it doesn’t fit in the same box. Evolution is only political on one side. There are people denying evolution without looking at science, but there is no one promoting evolution without looking at science. With the global warming issue we have the radical environmentalists who are like, “Yeah, human activity is evil evil evil.” “
Daniel: “I take all of those points, I think it sums up a lot of the discussion. I think that I differ on the evolution point, I think that it’s a better analogy that Jeff does. One of the reason is that, if I understand Jeff correctly what he is saying is that people who defend evolution or talk about evolution, it’s easier for them to understand what is at stake, so people have a more informed opinion, is that along the right lines? But that informed opinion is a little bit of an illusion. I wrote an entire book about evolution. It’s been reviewed really well. I don’t know crap about evolution, honestly, in a professional sense. I am not a qualified scientist on that topic. I’m not remotely qualified.
My younger brother, Jason, is a paleontologist, he’s just finishing up his degree, his doctorate. When he goes to a professional meeting and talks to people who are just half a step outside his tiny little window into the ordovician. He is completely out of his depth, to the point where he doesn’t even know what they’re talking about, and he his somebody who brings that same passion that I have for these skeptical topics, to the wider topics of paleontology and evolution, and yet even he is really completely lost once he steps out of his sub-sub-sub-specialty.
He was the one who forced me to accept this question about what lay-skeptics can really say about straight science topics, and I didn’t like it when he brought it up. I saw the skeptics literature as having a kind of right to hash out these scientific questions. The more I think about it, the more that I deal with scientists, the less qualified I think we as lay-skeptics are talk about such things. I don’t think we have any choice but to defer to experts and I don’t think we have the ability to criticize experts very well. I think that the best we can do there, is to defer to other experts or to experts in related fields. If there’s something fishy about the paleontology you’re doing, you’ll have to turn to the geologist to find it, or something like that.
That’s why I’m always hammering about this traditional skeptics stuff, because it has public utility, there are no better experts available. So we’re it, if we don’t do it then nobody does it, and we can actually make contributions in that field because the literature is so crappy. It’s possible for me with my limited expertise to make headway on a topic like the Loch Ness Monster, but there’s really nothing I can contribute to these high level discussions in mainstream science topics.”
Q: [Audience] What is the definition of “modern skepticism”?
Daniel: “It’s a really good question and it comes up all the time. A lot of the kind of flame-wars that erupt online are really unnecessary, because we’re talking about two kinds of skepticism, or multiple kinds. There’s probably as many kinds of skepticism as there are skeptics. The kind of academic skepticism, that tradition, they have a legitimate use of the word, and have for couple thousand years. If that’s the kind of skeptic that you are, then I have no argument with that. It’s not my field, so I won’t try and tell you how to run yours.
The kind of skepticism that I work within is a much more modern tradition. It’s funny, I’ve been digging more and more into antecedents of modern scientific skepticism, a lot of these 19th century books like “Humbugs of New York” or “Extraordinary Popular Delusions“, and of course Houdini’s work, and Barnum’s work, all these things that feed into a moment in the 70’s where people said why don’t we give a common name to this kind of project, give it a mandate, and see what we can make of it. That very narrow kind of skepticism is where I work.”
Q: [Audience] What resources would teach us as laymen the basics of global warming?
Daniel: “You can actually read the IPCC report, there’s a shorter one that is like a primer for legislators. That’s not a bad place to start. There’s a great site in Australia, Skeptical Science, he does a really good of going over these things is great detail. It’s like a lot of kinds of skepticism, it’s one thing to be a contributing expert in the field, it’s very different thing to become an expert on the opposing pseudoscience. Going back to evolution, biologists used to just get the floor mopped with them when they’d go up against guys like Duane Gish, it was necessary to develop a community of experts, that were experts in bullshit. They were experts in the crap that people bring out in these debates, which is a whole different subject. You get into a debate about evolution, very little of it is about evolution, it’s about the arguments against evolution.”
Q: [Audience] Can one develop an expertise in countering bullshit arguments, as long as they defer to experts?
Daniel: “That is exactly right. That is exactly what I recommend: that we develop the expertise to address the pseudoscientific questions which often the scientific experts are not prepared to deal with. It’s off the radar, or it just seems too crazy. That’s where we can actually have our greatest positive impact, is by being relevant experts for those things. An example I’ve been using a lot recently is these bomb detector dowsing rods in Iraq. Dowsing has been understood for 150 years, scientifically. It’s not a live issue, in scientific terms. Prior to the Iraq thing, it was considered a really quaint, kind of passe thing in skepticism because it’s just so obviously harmless, “kinda dumb”, we’ve dealt with it many times, and “does anyone really believe dowsing?” but these things mutate sometimes and the become suddenly lethal. When that happens it’s really a social service to have experts available to step in and address those things. The JREF, Hal Bidlack, and James Randi, they have the expertise to address that question when the media suddenly needed them, and that saved lives.
One of the great lessons of skepticism is that nothing ever goes away. It goes down for a little bit, then it pops up somewhere else. Sometime when it pops up it’s a joke, and other times it’s dangerous.”
Q: It seems that there is a quite a bit of “newbie enthusiasm” in skepticism, especially online, while many individuals with 30 or so years of experience, but have little internet exposure, remain unknown. How do we take advantage of this new energy and enthusiasm without losing the “brain trust” of those who have been doing the work of skepticism for a long time?
Daniel: “I think you nailed something really really important, this is kind of like a practical issue. We often see cases where new skeptics are wading into things, even getting catapulted into reasonably prominent positions, knowing very little, particularly about the older literature. There’s been 30 years of stuff discovered about the paranormal, and new skeptics not only aren’t familiar with it, they might not realize that it exists. If you go from “Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe”, to the JREF forum, to your favorite blogs, you may be able to do that and become a self-identified skeptical activist without even realizing that the print media or the regional organizations exist. I’ve seen that fairly often.
At the same time, what you’re talking about with these older groups, some of these are dwindling in membership or they’ve been going for a long time, and they might not realize that there is a Facebook, or “what’s a blog?” New skeptics will get involved in those groups and just be astonished that they’re in obscurity, they’re churning out a little regional newsletter with the photocopier, and they have no idea that there’s been this golden age of skepticism which has developed in the last 5 years. Tens of thousands of excited young people, people of all ages, WOMEN, image that? These little groups might’ve labored for 20 years and never seen anybody involved who didn’t have gray hair. Huge changes have happened, just since I wrote “Where Do We Go From Here?” the entire scene has changed, and traditional skeptics often don’t know. So bridging those two populations is really practical work that has to happen.”
At this point in the chat the interview format broke down as others on the chat became comfortable adding into the discussion. Unfortunately these discussions are very difficult to transcribe, so I won’t post them unless someone really wants them. (Ahem, donations are accepted)
Thanks everyone who spent the time on the chat, and thanks Daniel for sharing your time with us.