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Sagan Versus the Flying Saucers (an Excerpt from Junior Skeptic 50)

by Daniel Loxton, Mar 09 2014

JrS50_cover_preview

With the world of popular science nerdery (my world!) on fire with excitement for tonight’s premiere of the new television miniseries Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, I thought I might share a small excerpt from Junior Skeptic 50—our special celebratory look back at the life and legacy of Carl Sagan. You can find this short, kid-friendly biography of one of skeptical history’s most inspiring figures bound inside Skeptic Vol. 19, No. 1, which ships shortly. Subscribe to Skeptic today in digital or print formats!

For age-appropriate simplicity, the format of Junior Skeptic does not include endnotes (though I often call out important sources in sidebars or in the text of the story itself). Here, for your interest, I’ve included some relevant citation endnotes from my research: (continue reading…)

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Plesiosaur Peril: Science and Speculation on the Behaviours of Plesiosaurs

by Daniel Loxton, Mar 05 2014

Spread from Plesiosaur Peril, from Kids Can Press. Art by Daniel Loxton with Jim W.W. Smith. All rights reserved.

In one Plesiosaur Peril illustration, a juvenile Cryptoclidus (the book’s protagonist) looks on while her mother swallows carefully selected stones.

With my new children’s paleofiction storybook Plesiosaur Peril hitting stores now (find it at Skeptic.com, Amazon.com, and Amazon.ca), I thought I might tell you a little bit about how I kept the story grounded in plausible natural history.

Like my previous two Tales of Prehistoric Life books, Pterosaur Trouble and Ankylosaur Attack, the intention on Plesiosaur Peril was to create a readable, age-appropriate storybook that both looks real and also reflects the genuine science on these animals and their habitat to the greatest possible degree. I had wonderful support in the goal of accuracy, both from my editor Valerie Wyatt and from the good folks at Kids Can Press (see this post for an epic example).

Our science consultant—paleozoologist Darren Naish—was absolutely critical to my attempt at scientific accuracy (or given all the unknowns, scientific plausibility) on both Pterosaur Trouble and Plesiosaur Peril. Naish was involved in both books from the first steps, consulting on both the character designs and the story elements. I sent Darren rough plot outlines and shopping lists of activities, behaviours, and interactions that I pictured for the story. He gave me detailed feedback, drawing upon the knowns of the fossils record (all too few!) and the plausible inferences that are made currently by those who study the fossil evidence.

To give readers a window into this behind-the-scenes process and a chance to deeply explore the behaviours of plesiosaurs, Naish has posted a lengthy reflection on these weird and wonderful marine reptiles over at his Tetrapod Zoology blog at Scientific American: (continue reading…)

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Early Twitter Reactions to Plesiosaur Peril

by Daniel Loxton, Mar 05 2014

Plesiosaur_peril-cover
Whew! It’s always a wonderful and slightly dream-like experience to release a new book, and my latest paleofiction storybook Plesiosaur Peril is no exception. From signing a contract to holding the finished book in your hands, these things take years to bring to fruition. Sometimes it feels that they’ll never quite exist—and then poof, they’re out! It catches you by surprise.

Happily, despite my astonishment at this long-scheduled release, the book is now hitting stores (including Skeptic.com, Amazon.com, and Amazon.ca.).

Also gratifying, the first few Twitter reactions to Plesiosaur Peril seem quite positive:

(continue reading…)

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Revealing Cover of Junior Skeptic 50

by Daniel Loxton, Mar 03 2014

Cover of Junior Skeptic 50 (bound inside Skeptic Vol. 19, No. 1). Art by Daniel Loxton. All rights reserved.

I’m very happy (even possibly, I’ll admit it, a little giddy) to reveal my cover artwork for our special, celebratory 50th issue of Junior Skeptic, bound inside the upcoming Skeptic Vol. 19, No. 1! Stand by for more details this week, but I think you’ll know what I mean when I say that this Junior Skeptic hearkens back to the very best of the skeptical tradition—our warmest, strongest heart.

SUBSCRIBE to Skeptic today!

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Announcing Release of Plesiosaur Peril

by Daniel Loxton, Feb 24 2014

Plesiosaur_peril-cover

Hi, folks!

I’m excited to announce that my brand new children’s paleofiction storybook Plesiosaur Peril is hitting stores now (official release, March 1, 2014)! Look for it at Skeptic.com, Amazon.com, and Amazon.ca.

(continue reading…)

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Review of The Young Atheist’s Handbook—But Not Here

by Daniel Loxton, Feb 11 2014

YAH-CoverFor much of the past year I hoped to find the time to read and review UK science teacher Alom Shaha’s The Young Atheist’s Handbook, which had great buzz among softer atheist voices. Finally I found a moment last year to dig into the book. And loved it. It’s a brisk, wonderful read—and every bit as moving, and as laudably pluralistic, as its reputation suggested. It was an experience I really enjoyed. I wanted to tell people about it.

The question was, where?

As many readers know, I am an atheist in my personal life. At the same time, in my professional life I am an advocate for old school “scientific” skepticism (PDF). I regularly argue that the distinct and valuable tradition of scientific skepticism should be clearly distinguished from other parallel rationalist movements, and from the religious and political beliefs of individual skeptics—including my own. Skepticism is not an atheists only club. (continue reading…)

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Is Debating Pseudoscience a Good Idea? Carl Sagan Weighs In

by Daniel Loxton, Feb 03 2014

Tomorrow, as many of you know, Bill Nye “the Science Guy” will take the stage with Answers in Genesis frontman Ken Ham to debate the topic of evolution. For those of you interested, the event may be watched streaming for free, live at 7 PM Eastern on February 4, 2014.

Are such debates a good idea? As you might gather from the many divergent opinions on Nye’s choice, the answer is far from clear. Too much depends upon the circumstances, format, and participants of the “debate.” Also, it is often argued—and I tend to agree with this argument—that there are figures too cynical to be fruitfully engaged in any format. (My initial gut feeling was that Ham may not be a fair-minded opponent, and that this particular debate may not have been a wise decision for Nye for that reason—though Randy Olson has almost brought me around with this thoughtful post.)

But the wider meta-question is not a new one. I thought it might be interesting to share a decades-old argument in favor of public engagement with fringe ideas and their proponents by a pioneering voice for modern scientific skepticism: Carl Sagan. It reminds me that “debating pseudoscience” is, when you get down to it, what skeptics do.

In December of 1969, a symposium on the topic of UFOs was hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Organized by Sagan and Thornton Page, it almost didn’t happen at all. For over a year, the symposium faced passionate opposition from scientists who believed that hosting such an exchange would lend inappropriate legitimacy and stage time to the fringe, and all at the expense of the science. “A distinguished scientist once threatened to sic then Vice-President Spiro T. Agnew on me,” Sagan later recalled, “if I persisted in organizing a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in which both proponents and opponents of the extraterrestrial-spacecraft hypothesis of UFO origins would be permitted to speak.”1

(continue reading…)

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Hoaxed Bigfoot Bodies Floating at the Disreputable Low End of Bigfootery

by Daniel Loxton, Jan 07 2014

Have you heard that Bigfooters finally have the proof we’ve been waiting for? At long last, after half a century of hunting, they have finally gotten their hands on a really seriously genuine Bigfoot body—again! And by astonishing coincidence, this totally completely real Bigfoot body is being offered up to the media by one of the exact same guys who gave us the previous totally real “Georgia Bigfoot” body, way back in the storied yesteryear of 2008. That case was a hoax. As the hoaxers explained, the 2008 “body” was really a costume stuffed with roadkill.

“It’s just a big hoax, a big joke,” said car salesman Rick Dyer. Dyer told Channel 2 he never intended to put it across as the real deal. “It’s bigfoot. Bigfoot doesn’t exist,” he said.

Now that same hoaxer is now back, making headlines with the claim that he shot and killed another Bigfoot. “I’m going to go down in history as the best Bigfoot tracker in the world,” he boasts—and for some reason we’re talking about it.

Make no mistake, there is a disreputable basement level to Bigfootery, and this is it. I said as much when my Abominable Science! co-author Don Prothero wrote to me a couple of days ago to ask if we should put up a post about it. “It’s really the lowest end of Bigfoot beeswax,” I replied. “I kinda hate to publicize it. I don’t think I’ll bother writing it up at this point.”

Thing is, I’m fond of cryptozoology. I’m really only interested in dealing with the better cases and the more serious practitioners. I think cryptozoologists are mistaken, but that does not mean that I want cryptozoology presented as a complete circus. To that end, for example, I made a conscious choice years ago not to record and use the many interpersonal feuds and slurs that Bigfooters hurl at each other, even though they’ve cooked up some real humdingers. It’s not my job to make monster-hunters appear ridiculous, but to attempt in good faith to find out what’s true. (continue reading…)

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New NCSE Executive Director Ann Reid

by Daniel Loxton, Jan 07 2014
Photograph of Ann Reid

Ann Reid. Photo by Chris Condayan, asm.org. Courtesy NCSE

Our colleagues at the National Center for Science Education have welcomed their brand new Executive Director Ann Reid, who began her new job yesterday (January 6, 2014). A molecular biologist, Reid is the successor to outgoing executive director Eugenie C. Scott, who held the post for an astonishing 27 years. On her retirement, Scott became the Chair of NCSE’s Advisory Council.

With its mission to defend the teaching of evolution and climate science, the NCSE is among the most essential organizations to operate within the general sphere of scientific skepticism. It is also a shining example of the power of constrained focus. I happen to know, for example, that Genie is a fellow “Bigfoot skeptic”: she is not only the Chair of the venerable Bay Area Skeptics, but also a physical anthropologist with a specific interest in pseudoscience related to her field—which is to say, Bigfoot and the Yeti (video). Nonetheless, the NCSE has never tried to tackle a broad portfolio of paranormal and pseudoscientific topics. Instead, they picked a tightly focused mandate, and made themselves a credible, reliable national voice on that topic in particular. Very often, simplicity is strength. (continue reading…)

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New Organization: The Society for Science-Based Medicine

by Daniel Loxton, Jan 06 2014

Our colleagues over at the Science-Based Medicine blog, including Skepticblog’s Steve Novella, have announced the creation of a new advocacy and educational organization, the Society for Science-Based Medicine.

The attempt to confront medical pseudoscience, examine paranormal and supernatural healing claims, and expose outright medical quackery is one of the deepest and oldest of the pillars of scientific skepticism. From homeopathy to psychic surgery, such claims will always remain priorities for skepticism, and for skeptical organizations such as the one I represent, the Skeptics Society. Indeed, I write on medical claims myself, such as in this article or this for our own free eSkeptic newsletter.

But focus is a powerful thing. Just as I frequently advocate disentangling the unique mandate of scientific skepticism from atheism and other parallel rationalist movements, so too is there a clear value in having dedicated, full-time science-based advocacy organizations that discuss medicine and only medicine. The topic is certainly large enough (large enough, indeed, for hundreds of organizations worldwide) complex enough, and sufficiently pressing in ethical urgency to deserve dedicated watchdog efforts. (continue reading…)

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