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Daniel Loxton

Daniel Loxton is the Editor of INSIGHT at Skeptic.com and of Junior Skeptic, the 10-page kids’ science section bound within Skeptic magazine. Daniel has been an avid follower of the paranormal literature since childhood, and of the skeptical literature since his youth. He is also an award-winning author. Read Daniel’s full bio or his other posts on this blog.

The Skeptical Virtue of Seriously Just Being Quiet

Posted on Apr. 10, 2018 by | Comments (14)
This post is something of a personal reflection. If you’re looking for some straight up debunking, my latest is here.

Recently I attended a dinner party as the guest of a new friend among people who’ve known each other for decades. After dinner, the conversation turned to a story that had puzzled and intrigued the hosts. They were excited to share a YouTube video about a black leopard whose behavior was allegedly improved through the intervention of an “animal communicator” (pet psychic).

Junior Skeptic cover

Cover art for Junior Skeptic #66, bound inside Skeptic Vol. 23, No. 1. Illustration by Jacob Dewey.

Now, this is a literate, philosophical bunch. They like debating, speculating, and devil’s advocacy, so they didn’t much mind that my friend found the claims of the video preposterous. After some lively verbal fencing, she turned to me in exasperation and said, “We have a professional skeptic right here! Daniel, you write about this stuff for a living. What do you think?”

Well, I had thoughts. But I said the minimum: that I hadn’t yet looked professionally at the specific topic of pet psychics, and that the video was a constructed narrative whose claims we should neither accept nor reject without checking. (Then I went away and actually did spend weeks researching and writing a lengthy critique of pet psychics for the pages of Junior Skeptic.)

What I said was true. But it’s also true that I might have contributed more to that conversation in other periods of my life.

CONTINUE READING THIS POST…

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SKEPTIC INVESTIGATES

Is the Earth Flat?

Posted on Mar. 20, 2018 by | Comments (70)

Recent news stories,1 celebrity endorsements, and Google search trends2 have highlighted an apparently growing conspiracy theory belief that the Earth is not a globe, but instead a flat disc. According to believers, government forces promote a completely fictitious model of the cosmos in order to conceal the true nature of the Earth. Are these claims true?

No. The Earth is Round

The evidence for a spherical Earth is overwhelming.3 Most obviously, there are many thousands of images and videos of the Earth from space, including a continually changing live stream view of the globe from the International Space Station—not to mention all the astronauts who have personally seen the Earth from orbit. Flat Earthers claim that all images of the globe are fraudulent inventions, and all testimony from astronauts is false. It is unreasonable to dismiss all of the evidence from the entire history of space exploration, especially when there is zero evidence for a decades-long “globularist” conspiracy. However, we do not need to rely on evidence from modern space agencies to confirm the roundness of the Earth for ourselves.

Junior Skeptic #53 (cover)

Portions of this article appeared previously in Daniel Loxton’s detailed history of the Flat Earth movement in Junior Skeptic #53, bound within Skeptic magazine 19.4 (2014).

The globe has been clearly understood for thousands of years. Indeed, this was one of the first cosmic facts to be worked out correctly by ancient people because evidence of a spherical Earth is visible to the naked eye.

By the time of the philosopher Socrates and his student Plato, many Greeks understood that the Earth could only be a sphere. Sailors would have noticed that the sails of approaching ships appeared before the hulls of the ships became visible because the surface of the sea is slightly curved, like the surface of an enormous ball.4 When you sail toward a ship, island, or lighthouse, their tallest points are the first thing to peek up over the curve of the horizon.

Plato’s student Aristotle offered further “evidence of the senses” to support his own conclusion that the Earth “must necessarily be spherical.” First, there was the evidence of lunar eclipses. When the Moon passes through the shadow of the Earth, that shadow is always the circular shadow of a sphere. Also, Aristotle argued, “our observations of the stars” make it clear “not only that the earth is circular, but also that it is a circle of no great size.” He pointed out that “quite a small change of position to south or north” significantly changes “the stars which are overhead, and the stars seen are different, as one moves northward or southward.” Just as ships can be hidden from view by the curvature of the horizon, so too can the stars.5

The debate about the shape of the Earth has been settled for over two thousand years. An ancient scholar named Eratosthenes—the head of the famous library of Alexandria in Egypt—even correctly approximated the circumference of the Earth using experimental measurements of shadows in two cities and some geometry.6

Despite modern legends about Medieval backwardness, there never was a time when educated people went back to thinking the Earth was flat. Once discovered, the true shape of the globe was too simple and useful a fact to be forgotten. Sailors were reminded of the planet’s roundness every time they climbed a mast to see further over the horizon or looked to the stars to determine their position. By the time of Columbus, his crew and even his critics understood that our world is a globe.7 It had been an established fact for centuries. For example, here’s a passage from the popular astronomy textbook On the Sphere of the World, published over 250 years before Columbus sailed: CONTINUE READING THIS POST…

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Mammoth Mysteries — Part I

Posted on Sep. 28, 2016 by | Comments (3)
Cro-Magnon artists painting in Font-de-Gaume, by Charles Robert Knight (1874-1953) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Cro-Magnon artists painting in Font-de-Gaume, by Charles Robert Knight (1874–1953) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In the pages of Junior Skeptic—the engagingly illustrated science and critical thinking publication for younger readers, bound within every issue of Skeptic magazine—we often look at “wild and wooly” mysteries. In Junior Skeptic #60 (2016), we mean that literally; we explore the hidden history of mammoths and mastodons! Enjoy this excerpt from the first couple pages of the Junior Skeptic #60, bound within Skeptic magazine 21.3 (2016), available now in print and digital editions.

The elephant family tree has had many oddly shaped branches. There once existed elephants with four tusks or even tusks shaped like shovels. But fossils of mammoths and mastodons weren’t just surprising—they changed science forever! Indeed, the discovery of these great shaggy prehistoric beasts overturned our understanding of the entire world. How did that happen?

First, before we consider the mammoths, I’d like you to pause for a moment and imagine some of the animals that lived even earlier, during the age of the dinosaurs. Picture these animals living and breathing in their natural environments. What do you see? Perhaps the terrible teeth of Tyrannosaurus rex slavering toward prey, or rows of plates proudly displayed over the arching back of Stegosaurus. You may imagine batwinged pterosaurs soaring overhead, titanic long-necked sauropod dinosaurs, graceful plesiosaurs darting after fish in the seas. CONTINUE READING THIS POST…

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The Complexity of Alien Abduction and the Multidisciplinary Nature of Fringe Claims

Posted on Jun. 07, 2016 by | Comments (10)

Image by Daniel Loxton with Jim W.W. Smith and Jason Loxton

Image by Daniel Loxton with Jim W.W. Smith and Jason Loxton

In my last post I explained that the teeming menagerie of seemingly dissimilar fringe claims studied by skeptics are unified by the neglect of other scholars, by structural similarities, and (in some cases) by direct interconnection. For this reason, a range of topics can be usefully gathered under the skeptics’ umbrella, and useful insights drawn between them.

Today I’ll ask a related question: why are skeptics a mixed group of magicians, psychologists, doctors, historians, science popularizers, artists, and so on?

CONTINUE READING THIS POST…

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Fringe Claims: Unified by Neglect, Structural Similarity, and Direct Interconnection

Posted on Jun. 06, 2016 by | Comments (8)

A recent Scientific American blog post raised a very tedious and very old complaint about scientific skepticism—in essence, “Paranormal and pseudoscientific claims are trivial. Why don’t you do something I consider important?” The answer I expressed in my previous post is that fringe beliefs are a significant part of the fabric of human existence, and yes, sometimes important in their own right. Seeking to understand those beliefs is a worthwhile research endeavor.

This brought to mind a more interesting question: why does modern skepticism seek to study such a broad and seemingly heterogeneous group of topics—everything from UFOs to climate denialism to mermaids to quack cancer cures?

Philosopher Austin Dacey posed this latter question in a 2011 article after attending a skeptics conference in Las Vegas (The Amazing Meeting). Adopting “the eye of an anthropologist,” Dacey observed that “the remarkable thing was just how non-obvious, even peculiar is the selection of subjects that characterize contemporary organized skepticism.”1 Skeptics collect dozens, indeed hundreds of fringe topics under our research umbrella while choosing not to focus on other topics we consider unrelated—embracing “a kind of canon,” Dacey noted, that “can appear quite odd and contingent. What is it…that binds together ginkgo biloba and El Chupacabra, cold reading and cosmic fine tuning? Why this canon?”

CONTINUE READING THIS POST…

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Bigfoot Versus the Quest for World Peace?

Posted on May. 17, 2016 by | Comments (23)

For the entire history of scientific skepticism, folks in our weird and wonderful little field have heard two criticisms offered with metronomic regularity from people who are “skeptical of the skeptics.”1 One is the obvious: “Skeptics are closed-minded!” The other, no less predictable or routine, is my topic today: “Why do you bother with this trivial stuff about pseudoscience and the paranormal? Aren’t there more important things to worry about?”

Yesterday, science writer John Horgan offered the latest example of this second standard criticism in a Scientific American blog post titled “Dear ‘Skeptics,’ Bash Homeopathy and Bigfoot Less, Mammograms and War More” (presented first as a speech last weekend at the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism, NECSS, in New York City). Positioning his piece as a critique (“I have to bash skepticism”) from an outsider perspective ( “I don’t belong to skeptical societies. I don’t hang out with people who self-identify as capital-S Skeptics”), Horgan “decided to treat the skeptics skeptically.” He offered a prescription: skeptics should stop patting “each other on the back” and stop wasting our time on the “soft targets” of paranormal and pseudoscientific claims:

I’m asking you skeptics to spend less time bashing soft targets like homeopathy and Bigfoot and more time bashing hard targets like multiverses, cancer tests, psychiatric drugs and war, the hardest target of all.

CONTINUE READING THIS POST…

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I Don’t Know What You Mean

Posted on Dec. 11, 2015 by | Comments (8)
WHAT-YOU-MEAN-2015b

Painting by Daniel Loxton, c.1999. Acrylic on canvas. 24″x36″.

The journal Judgment and Decision Making has stirred considerable interest with a recent paper titled “On the Reception and Detection of Pseudo-Profound Bullshit,” by Pennycook et al (read PDF). The authors conducted four surveys designed to explore differing individual reactions to “seemingly impressive assertions that are presented as true and meaningful but are actually vacuous.” That is, the authors are “interested in the factors that predispose one to become or to resist becoming a bullshittee.”1

Skeptics naturally share this interest.

The studies presented survey participants with vague, conceptually meaningless, buzzword-laden statements and asked them to rate the “relative profundity of each statement on a scale from 1 (not at all profound) to 5 (very profound).” The included statements were generated by two online tools: “The New Age Bullshit Generator” and Wisdomofchopra.com, which “constructs meaningless statements with appropriate syntactic structure by randomly mashing together a list of words used in Deepak Chopra’s tweets (e.g., ‘Imagination is inside exponential space time events’).”2 Some of the studies also included motivational aphorisms, simple factual statements, and actual tweets selected from Chopra’s Twitter feed,3 such as this one:

Screen Shot 2015-12-10 at 10.36.51 AM

CONTINUE READING THIS POST…

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So… Who ARE You Gonna Call?

Posted on Dec. 03, 2015 by | Comments (7)

Outside of Junior Skeptic (my primary ongoing project) a surprising amount of my professional output—most of my blogging, stage appearances, op-eds (PDF), and interviews—is given over to the oddly controversial argument that my field should exist.

It’s my opinion that “scientific” skepticism should be acknowledged as a distinct field of study with a unique mandate: the critical, science-informed, scholarly examination of paranormal, pseudoscientific, and other fringe claims. Consequently, I’ve rejected (PDF) periodic suggestions that skepticism should shift its focus from fringe topics toward arguably “more important” matters, or that skepticism ought to be subsumed as a side-project within some other sphere (such as “science,” humanism, or atheism).

Colleagues such as Steve Novella, Sharon Hill, Barbara Drescher, and Jamy Ian Swiss (video) often find themselves drawn to such discussions. I tend to agree with these and other traditionalist skeptics about the most suitable scope for scientific skepticism: “testable” (that is, investigable) claims. In addition, I’ve argued that it’s desirable for skeptics to emphasize a specialized core subject matter within that “testable claims” scope: pseudoscience and the paranormal. Not an exclusive concern with fringe claims, mind—that’s more restrictive than I or anyone wants to see—just an ongoing (and historically well-established) emphasis upon claims of that type.

CONTINUE READING THIS POST…

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The Plane Truth: Noted Skeptic’s Newly Published (Posthumous) Book About Flat Earth Theories

Posted on Nov. 19, 2015 by | Comments (4)
Explore Bob Schadewald's last book, on the topic of most specialized skeptical expertise: Flat Earth theories.

Explore Bob Schadewald’s final project, a book on the topic of his most specialized area of skeptical expertise: Flat Earth theories.

I’m very pleased to learn that The Plane Truth, the unfinished final work of skeptical scholarship by the late Robert J. Schadewald (1943–2000), has now been prepared for publication and released online for free. You can read the book in its web version here, where you also find the EPUB ebook version available for download.

During his life, Bob Schadewald was the world’s leading skeptical expert on the history of flat-Earth advocacy. The pseudoscientific notion that the Earth is a flat disk may seem as quaint as it is preposterous, but so-called “Zetetic Astronomy” enjoyed a surprisingly strong period of public prominence in the UK and US during the 19th century—attracting attention from debunkers of the period such as Alfred Russel Wallace1 (see Skeptic Vol. 20, No. 3) and Richard Anthony Proctor, and prompting reflections from later thinkers including George Bernard Shaw and George Orwell. During the 20th century the relative sophistication of Zetetic Astronomy collapsed into muddled conspiracy theories, parody, and ultra-fundamentalist Biblical literalism; nevertheless, flat-Earth advocacy continues to this day.

CONTINUE READING THIS POST…

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The 10 Percent Brain Myth

Posted on Oct. 17, 2015 by | Comments (12)

This is an excerpt from Junior Skeptic 37 (published in 2010 inside Skeptic magazine Vol. 15, No. 4), which is a quick ten-page tour of the “Top Ten Busted Myths.” Junior Skeptic is written for (older) children, and does not include endnotes, though I often call out important sources in sidebars or the text of the story itself. However, I’ve included one or two citations here for your interest:

brain-myth
Have you heard that we only use 10 percent of our brains? Imagine what we could accomplish if we could discover how to use that other 90 percent! Could we discover an untapped potential for incredible psychic powers?

There’s only one problem: none of that is true. Humans use every part of our brains.

CONTINUE READING THIS POST…

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