Laughs, Love, and Skepticism: An Interview with Carbon Dating creator Kyle Sanders
I met Kyle and Abbey at last summer’s The Amaz!ng Meeting (TAM). They have the delightful passion and enthusiasm common to TAM-goers as well as to people who are relatively new to interacting with organized skepticism. Kyle serves in the Air Force, as I did (until 2009). I enjoy meeting fellow skeptics with a military background, it does not happen much. Anyway, I found them to be lovely people and I am glad to see more like them in the skeptic community. One thing skeptical activism doesn’t have enough of, and perhaps can’t have enough of, is creative and entertainment products that promote skepticism. Such works can be powerful at reaching large, general audiences and not merely the conference-going or magazine-subscribing public. That’s why I wanted to feature them and Carbon Dating here at Incredulous.
Skeptic Ink Who are you, and how did you get in here?
Kyle Sanders I’m a combat pilot by trade but have been a hobbyist cartoonist all along. Abbey and I went to The Amaz!ng Meeting during our Vegas honeymoon to launch the project and get pranked by Randi at the buffet line, it was a very exciting week for us. Plus I won a hundred bucks as we left the casino!
SIN How did you get started in active skepticism?
KS The catalyst was a drive to Springfield, Missouri for Skepticon 3 in fall of 2010. I had been previously involved in the secular movement as an organizer, but Skepticism was the community I was looking for. I established Little Rock’s Skeptics In The Pub immediately afterwards and found my nerdy niche. I drew my first sketches at the convention that would later become Carbon Dating. But even more than that, I was inspired. My ambitious goal was to return the following year with a completed skeptical comic strip in hand.
SIN Though we did not meet, it’s amazing how many of my current friends and allies were at Skepticon III- I was there. Briefly for the uninitiated, what is Carbon Dating about? Is it autobiographical?
KS Carbon Dating is about Rob, a fledgling science journalist who is frustrated by pseudoscience and desperately single. When long-time friend Kate moves in, an awkward geek romance ensues and she nudges him towards Skeptical activism. I publish two traditional-styled comic strips per week, I even do the drawing and inking by hand. I certainly fictionalize elements from our relationship and our other friendships while writing, although sometimes I don’t have to exaggerate much. I spent two overseas deployments fine-tuning the characters and a story about how to promote science and did my best to give their personalities plenty of room to grow on the pages.
SIN What is Carbon Dating‘s target audience?
KS Everyone has friends or an aunt who buy into some wacky ideas. At each [Skeptics in the Pub] event my cohost Ben and I have seen a roughly even mix of regulars and first timers, with the occasional chiropractor carrying a binder of “research” looking for a fight. We almost had a real fight once! I think it was about organic produce. Anyway, with the comic I try to balance poking fun at pseudoscience with character-driven humor, and hopefully new readers might learn about skepticism through the comedy. The great legacy of Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould was accessible science for all which really resonated with me, even if all I can contribute are comic strips.
SIN Organic produce has torn apart so many families, so many friendships. What do you think sets it apart from perhaps similarly situated web comics like SMBC, XKCD, or PHD comics (apart from failing to use an initialism as a title)?
KS These artists have paved the way for cartoons to be a champion of science, you can’t go on Reddit or Facebook without seeing them! They are clearly the professionals, but I think there’s still room for a comic that doesn’t speak directly at the intended audience. I’m hoping that I can be more subtle, and introduce skeptical topics through dialogue and some character development that draws in other readers. I wrote the comic with the long game in mind. Each of my characters has their own pet pseudoscience and flaws that our protagonists will eventually have to confront. For example: Mitch is a hockey coach best described as a blunt object, who buys into the supplements and ‘performance enhancing’ products marketed to athletes. How do you tell a friend that their favorite products are shams without getting defriended? That’s what I’m hoping to figure out as I script these interactions, and also occasionally get in accidental arguments with my own friends at dinner parties.
SIN That’s a great tact to take. People are not made more skeptical by ridicule or denigration, but by education with compassion and sympathy (plus none of us are perfectly rational in our beliefs). Speaking of that…You were slated to speak at a “skeptic” conference on the topic of aviation and skepticism, but were suddenly disinvited. What happened?
KS After a few days of coordinating, I was going to host a workshop titled “A Pilot’s Guide to Extreme Skepticism”. Everything was extremely pleasant and we were working out the final details when suddenly the admin changed their mind with a curt email, the only explanation was “sexist tones” in my comic. I was stunned at first and didn’t understand it. Now it seems the admin had seen a few comics and read into it something that neither I, Abbey, or our friends could see. In retrospect, perhaps I should have introduced my female protagonist first. Perhaps it was Mitch’s mention of “hot chicks” and that “cougars make waffles” they didn’t like, but in context I don’t find those statements too misogynistic or offensive for this crowd. Did I mention that the Skepchicks are hosting a panel called “Godless Perverts” at this event? What I found unfair was that I was quickly judged by a fictional character in my comic strip and that they were unwilling to have a conversation about it. And that they were wrong about me.
SIN I strikes me as counter-productive to dismiss and shun others we merely disagree with. Even if the “admin” were correct, it’s easily possible you could have benefited from hearing their perspective and having a conversation about it. Aren’t you just the sort of person a feminist should like to persuade? Shunning doesn’t accomplish that. On that note, would you call yourself a feminist, and why?
KS The sadly ironic part about my dismissal is that Abbey and I have been active in campaigning for women’s rights on a national scale. The real reason why the comic strip took two three years to prepare is that last year we experienced a very personal loss. We were hesitant at first and only shared our story with Planned Parenthood and the ACLU under pseudonyms, but this week an article about our story is being published in the National Journal along with our names. I do disagree [with some self-identified feminist/skeptics] that discourse on women’s rights and feminism is exclusively for women. What about the husbands? The brothers? So be it if they want to disqualify me, Abbey and I support equality together.
SIN Readers can now find Abbey & Kyle’s heart-breaking story reported in the National Journal. They understand better than most just how important women’s reproductive rights are.
SIN How do you avoid the appearance of sexism in a strip about dating?
KS Apparently I didn’t! My goal from the beginning was to write complete characters, flawed and irrational in their own way. Spoiler Alert! We all have a friend just like Mitch with a character arc of their own that hopefully teaches them how to respect people regardless of their gender or orientation. Yes, Rob goes out on a few less than intellectual dates, but so does Kate! Everyone has crazy exes, everyone has evenings and relationships horribly derailed by phobias and deal-breaking ideologies, some of us had crystals waved over us while we slept! Finding someone worth sharing your life with is daunting and frustrating, I don’t care who you are.
SIN Your experience prompts me to wonder, why is skepticism so hard? Even some among the so-called “skeptics” behave dogmatically without even realizing it.
KS That’s the question! I want to know the answer so bad that I’m pursuing the Science In The Public masters degree sponsored by Center for Inquiry. Critical thinking is hard work! Flying, the mechanics of being a pilot, is easy. Pull up, plane goes up. People don’t realize the amount of mental math involved, performing 5th grade algebra for an hour can feel like a workout! It’s hard to ask questions all the time, to be understanding with other people’s outrageous views, to give a benefit of the doubt. Human nature is to argue! Just ask my family about how an argument over zombies nearly ruined Thanksgiving. With that said though, I do hate to see skeptics attacking each other with logical fallacies and unfounded claims. It’s embarrassing and it sets back the movement.
SIN Do you think Carbon Dating is purely for laughs, or can it actually positively affect the skeptical sensibilities or scientific literacy of readers?
KS My goal is always to make people laugh with every comic strip. The challenge is presenting a pro-science message in a way that doesn’t bog down the comedy or lose its relevance. Anytime I discuss a pseudoscientific topic I try to dive deeper in the blog post in case an interest has been sparked. Abbey, Ben, and I also launched a Carbon Dating podcast where we can dive into these topics with the same approachable context of relationships. If you can plant that seed of doubt in someones mind, maybe later they’ll take a closer look at why they hold that belief. Can a comic do that? Maybe someone will read the comic strip about sunburns and think twice before rubbing a dead plant on themselves. If not, I hope they still had a laugh.
SIN Thank you, Kyle. All the best to you and Abbey and I hope readers will check out Carbon Dating.