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Likelihood and the Paranormal

by Daniel Loxton, Oct 01 2013

Kyle Hill has a great cryptozoology post up on his But Not Simpler Scientific American blog today, titled “Why Bigfoot is Unlikely Only If You Know What ‘Unlikely’ Means.” The piece includes a shout-out for my new book with Don Prothero, Abominable Science!, and also includes some quotes drawn from an email exchange with yours truly. I thought I might share some more of those comments here for your interest:

Hill: The theme of the piece is “The Unlikely” and I want to look at how the un-likelihood of something is treated differently in science and pseudoscience.

Loxton: In some ways pseudoscientists and paranormal enthusiasts such as cryptozoologists assess probability very differently from scientists. A scientist generally starts with the conservative working assumption that proposed new ideas are not true or that hypothetical new entities do not exist, and then revises her probability estimate upwards only when the evidence forces her to do so. A pseudoscientist typically starts with the assumption that a novel proposal seems to be true, and then revises her probability downward as the evidence leaves her no choice—if she is willing to surrender the possibility to any degree at all. (Some paranormalists are very reluctant to do so. Despite all the exposed hoaxes and bad ideas in cryptozoology, for example, I’m not sure that any cryptid or class of evidence has ever been abandoned or ruled out by the community of cryptozoologists overall.)

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Breaking Down a Criticism of Abominable Science

by Daniel Loxton, Sep 12 2013

Abominable_Science_cover-576pxMy critical cryptozoology book with Don Prothero, Abominable Science!, continues to garner kind reviews from readers and press, with one perhaps predictable exception (or partial exception): monster proponents. While some cryptozoologists have generously received the book as “sympathetic to cryptozoology…a favor and a contribution to Bigfoot research,” or even “a superb contribution” that “goes on the ‘must reading’ list for anyone interested in cryptozoology,” others are less positive.

The other night, for example, I noticed a lengthy negative review of Abominable Science! posted by Loch Ness monster proponent Roland Watson, published on his blog and also as a one-star Amazon customer review. It argues that Prothero and I “dig a hole for themselves in terms of accuracy” and engage in a “lot of misquotes.” Mr. Watson’s numerous rapid-fire arguments about fine details of the Loch Ness literature pose a bit of a conundrum—a conundrum familiar to skeptics as the so-called “Gish Gallop.” I do not agree with Watson’s arguments, and I feel that I can give a robust accounting for my positions on each and every point that he raises, but it might take me days to walk readers through them all. So I read the review, considered his points, and resolved to move on without comment. You can’t respond to everything, after all—and a blogger who throws around accusations of poor scholarship while admitting he wrote his review before bothering even to read the whole book? I trust you’ll forgive me if this was not at the top of my list of priorities.

But then I received a note about this same review from Daniel Perez, publisher of the Bigfoot Times newsletter. Perez emailed me the text of Watson’s critique, quoted Watson regarding something Watson calls “an astonishing act of omission” on my part, and expressed his feeling that this “omission” confirmed his own poor opinion of Abominable Science. (Perez earlier offered his own harsh review, which he ran in the Bigfoot Times and posted as another one-star Amazon review. I responded to Perez’s review here at Skepticblog—I thought, pretty charitably.)

So, what the hey. Let’s dig down specifically into Watson’s “astonishing act of omission” complaint in detail, just because we can.
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Ghosts, Knowing, and a Lesson at Bedtime

by Daniel Loxton, Sep 11 2013

Story time is a big deal at the Loxton household. For years, my young son and I have been working through a stack of some of the great adventure novels, just as my dad used to read poetry to me and my brothers. I’m delighted by my son’s edge-of-his-seat immersion in the worlds of hobbits and pirates and talking lions.

On other nights, we lie awake talking about ideas. As Carl Sagan once said, “Kids can understand some pretty deep things.”1 My son has long since discovered the irresistible trick of asking fascinating questions about those deep things right after I turn off the lights. I’m a sucker every time. Recently, our conversation turned to “true” ghost stories related by his young colleagues on the playground.

“You know I investigate strange mystery stories for my job?” I asked him.

“Yes,” he answered, recalling what I had taught him at other times. “I know that no ghost story has ever turned out for sure to be a ghost.”

“Many such cases have been investigated over a very long time. Very, very often they turn out to be mistakes, or tricks, or just made up stories. It seems that ghosts probably do not exist.”

“Or they’re very rare.”

“Yes. But my own opinion is that they do not exist. What do you think?”

He thought about this. “I think they might be real. Not for sure, but we don’t know.”

“That’s true,” I said. “We don’t know for sure. But we have learned that most ghost stories have other explanations.”

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Bigfoot Times Denounces Abominable Science

by Daniel Loxton, Sep 05 2013

Bigfoot Times coverAbominable Science! was the work of several intense years, so you won’t be surprised to hear that its warm reception by media from The Wall Street Journal to Nature is very exciting to me. It may surprise you slightly more to hear that I looked forward with particular interest to the review of Abominable Science! in an altogether smaller, niche publication: the Bigfoot Times newsletter.

It’s appropriate and welcome that the Bigfoot Times should take a crack at a critical review of the book; after all, Don Prothero and I offer a fairly robust critique of cryptozoology (certainly a critique offered in good faith). I was hopeful that they and other cryptozoology proponents would weigh in with substantial contributions about what they see as the merits and roadmap for future development for cryptozoology, while also giving serious, honest consideration of some of the deep problems with the field.
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Abominable Science! Media Round Up

by Daniel Loxton, Sep 03 2013

Abominable_Science_cover-576pxAs we finish the first full month of release for Abominable Science!, I’m pleased to say that a number of reactions and reviews have emerged. My co-author Don Prothero and I have also had the pleasure of a number of interesting interview conversations about the book.  I thought that I might take a moment to round up some of the press highlights to date:

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Should Scientific Skeptics Care About History?

by Daniel Loxton, Aug 22 2013

Today I’d like to share a slightly adapted version of my introduction to the “Preserving Skeptical History” workshop at The Amazing Meeting 2013 conference in Las Vegas. After the pleasure of introducing a distinguished panel (including Today in Skeptic History app creator Tim Farley, Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia project organizer Susan Gerbic, 36-year veteran Skeptical Inquirer columnist Robert Sheaffer, and psychologist and CSICOP co-founder Ray Hyman) I took the liberty of opening the discussion with some conceptual remarks:

A classic science-based skeptical investigation of a paranormal claim, translated into English for the first time in Skeptic magazine

A classic science-based skeptical investigation of a paranormal claim, translated into English for the first time in Skeptic magazine

Does History Matter?

Should “scientific skeptics” care about history? You’ve chosen to attend a workshop with the dusty title “Preserving Skeptical History,” so I imagine you have opinions on this yourself. But you’d be surprised how often this question comes up.

It really breaks down to two different questions:

Should skeptics care about studying or preserving or exploring our own history?

And, to what extent should skeptics devote resources and time and attention to the study of the history of claims and hoaxes?

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Some of My Work In Skeptical History

by Daniel Loxton, Aug 19 2013

Advocating for the importance of skeptical scholarship is a bit of a theme for me—the scholarship practiced by skeptics, and also scholarship about skepticism. In particular, I’ve devoted quite a bit of attention to the exploration of the history of (“scientific”) skepticism. Especially over the past couple of years, historical reflection has become a larger ongoing concern that unifies much of my work.

With that in mind, I thought it might be useful to start a post here in which I can collect, list, and link to some of my work relating to the history of skepticism. The idea is that I can return to update this post with new links as time goes by.
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Abominable Science Update

by Daniel Loxton, Jul 31 2013
Daniel Loxton (left) and Donald Prothero (right) at The Amazing Meeting 2013

Daniel Loxton (left) and Donald Prothero (right) at The Amazing Meeting 2013. Photo by David Patton

Hi, guys! A quick post today to update you about the release of Abominable Science, my big Columbia University Press cryptozoology book with Don Prothero.

The book is hitting stores right now. It’s officially “in stock” at; at, available in both hardcover and Kindle; at the iTunes bookstore; and, also on Kobo! (As of this writing, still has it listed for pre-order—not too surprising, as it’s officially an August 6 release.)

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She Protects Planets

by Daniel Loxton, Jul 23 2013
Cover of Junior Skeptic 47

Junior Skeptic #47 cover illustration by Chris Wisnia with Daniel Loxton

One of the great pleasures of writing Junior Skeptic is getting to answer the questions that bother me at the back of my mind—the questions I daydream on the bus, that fill me with excited curiosity when I should be settling into sleep. Another great pleasure is the discovery that scholars and scientists are extraordinarily generous with their time.

When I sat down to write the current Junior Skeptic, “Alien Invaders!” I was reminded of something that had long bugged me: is anyone concerned that our spacecraft might carry microbes that could contaminate other worlds? After all, bacteria are tough little buggers. And—consider The War of the Worlds as a cautionary tale. What if returning spacecraft carried dangerous microbes back to Earth? Could alien bacteria devastate our own planetary ecosystem, as H. G. Wells imagined terrestrial bacteria annihilating his Martians?

Turns out that there are people whose job it is to worry about those hypothetical contamination dangers—and to work to prevent them. With some pointers from Bad Astronomy’s Phil Plait and the Planetary Society’s Emily Lakdawalla, I soon learned that this is an entire field that dates back to the first tentative human steps beyond the Earth.

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Abominable Science:
Exclusive Pre-Release at The Amazing Meeting!

by Daniel Loxton, Jul 10 2013

Abominable Science — due out August 6, but exclusively available to TAM-goers July 11-14

I’m thrilled to announce this morning, with my co-author Don Prothero, that our big new book Abominable Science (in stores August 6) will be available as a special pre-release exclusive at the James Randi Educational Foundation’s upcoming The Amazing Meeting 2013 conference in Las Vegas this weekend. Thanks to Columbia University Press and the Skeptics Society, TAM-goers will have the opportunity to get their hands on the book weeks before anyone else!

This has been in the works for months, but the schedule was so tight that we dared not share the good news until the books were safely shipped and on site. They came straight off the presses and straight into boxes to the South Point resort for TAM. Touch and go! Happily, they were delivered yesterday.

Don and I will both be at TAM to chat about monsters and things that go bump in the night. Find us at the Skeptics Society table, or anywhere on the convention floor. Looking forward to seeing you all!

And with that, I’m off to prepare psychologically to sit in a chair in the sky…

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