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Pat Linse is an award winning illustrator who specialized in film industry art before becoming one of the founders of the Skeptics Society, Skeptic magazine, and the creator of Junior Skepticmagazine. As Skeptic magazine’s Art Director, she has created many illustrations for both Skeptic and Junior Skeptic. She is co-editor of the The Skeptic Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience.
Pat Linse: I was definitely being an artist from preschool, I was churning out art. It runs in my family. Nobody ever developed it professionally, but I don’t think I have a single one of my eight brothers and sisters who doesn’t have some little art knack!
It was back in the mid ’80s when I noticed that there was a local skeptics group explaining firewalking. That really rang a bell with me, because I was so sick of the load of crap that was coming in through the media. I investigated them and went down and offered my art services, because they dearly and gratefully needed it. Their stuff was really awful and amateurish, so I offered to do stuff for them.
Kylie Sturgess: When was that?
Pat: I think it was 1984, way back then, and they promptly turned me down. But I just kept at it, and did a little stuff for them before the group collapsed. Then, years later, when I ran into Michael Shermer – I said, “Hey, I’ll help you start this up”. I have all this vast experience in printing and production. I was a movie poster illustrator for the most part at the time and a freelance artist. In fact, one of my big clients was the Smurfs. Another big client was Joe Camel. On the opposite sides of the scale there!
Kylie: Are you comfortable with the term “skeptic?” What’s the response of people when you tell them about your job?
Pat: Well, we had a big discussion about that when we started the group, you know? Michael had some long and evolved name for the magazine, so I told him “no.” The magazine, and the group and whatever has to be named the nickname. You want the little, short, quick memorable name. A lot of people will develop an elaborate acronym. That’s bad. No one can ever remember it. No one could ever remember CSICOP, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. Too long! Unfortunately, they then turned around picked CSI after “CSI” was embedded all over the Internet as a TV show.
Anyway, long story short, you want the nickname. I argued mightily for just calling the magazine “Skeptic.” Bam! That’s it. Hitler knew how to pick a logo and a nickname; “Nazi” was already a nickname. The short, catchy phrase is what you want. Now, then you have a problem – like, for instance, the Brights went through a long thing to try and pick out a name. The mistake is to think that you can pick out a name that means everything and doesn’t carry any baggage. That’s usually impossible. That’s why a large corporation spends millions of dollars to make up a name, so that they can control the meaning. If you start a group, don’t think there’s going to be a name that means all and doesn’t carry any baggage. It doesn’t happen.
That’s why you have “Exxon” and “Xerox” and “Jello” and all of that. It’s because then they can control the name. A skeptic used to have a slightly negative connotation, but we’ve done a pretty good job making it a positive because we get phone calls on a daily basis of people who say, “We wanted to include the skeptical opinion.”
Kylie: Oh, good!
Pat: That’s what we’ve done over many years. You can see that it’s actually entered the subconscious and the culture, because you see cartoons about skeptics groups and that sort of thing. People definitely know that we’re out here now. The whole skeptical thing came into being largely because cable TV came in and editorial went out the window. People would put almost anything on the air without any critical look at it whatsoever. That’s, basically, our job is to come in and coach the media a little bit that the skeptical viewpoint can be just as good as the paranormal viewpoint. That’s basically the gist of it. I think we’ve done a pretty good job in making the skeptical viewpoint something that people want to hear.
Kylie: Of course, “The Skeptic Magazine” is popular worldwide. I’ve seen it pretty much in every country. Every conference I’ve gone to I’ve seen someone carrying a copy or wearing a Skeptic logo, the branding, while they’re there. “The Skeptic Magazine,” all the work that has been done, you’ve created a number of projects which have had a great influence. One of them that I first came across was “The Skeptic Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience,” which appeared to be a massive undertaking. It stretches to two volumes. What were the challenges in creating something like that? Was it difficult narrowing down the topics to make an entire encyclopedia of pseudoscience?
Pat: That’s actually a Michael Shermer question because he did all the editing. I don’t think it was that hard because we now have this huge volume of work and we’re struggling to get it on the Internet and so forth. We’ve been around for 20 years now. I don’t think it was that hard. I don’t know if we even had to go out and ask anybody for any outside thing. I did the pyramid one. I don’t think so. But Michael’s the one who did it. He’s got a killer mind, as far as an editor goes. He’s pretty good at that.
Kylie: Of course, you’ve worked with a number of skeptical writers, not just Michael Sherman. But Daniel Loxton, Tim Callahan, Donald Prothero… What’s it like creating a skeptical book? Even just thinking about creating a magazine seems a tremendous challenge. How does a book differ?
Pat: I don’t think it differs that much. It’s just more in the same stuff. That’s actually what we have on our plate right now. We’re trying to take the stuff that’s in “Skeptic Magazine” and, for instance, we get a lot of calls for psychic stuff. I would like to take all the psychic stuff that we’ve ever published in “Skeptic Magazine” and condense it into one issue, so that a person who’s really interested in getting up to speed on psychic stuff could just get that little issue. They don’t have to buy five back issues. That’s what we’re up to now. A lot of that is just cut and paste work on the computer.
We can do a certain kind of an iPad thing, but I don’t know how to do HTML for Kindle yet. We’ve just got a massive amount of work ahead of us, to adjust to the Internet world. Things are always changing rapidly. You’ve got to keep on top of it!
Kylie: What’s it like keeping on top of it? You’ve been there, helping this all happen from the very start, as it were. Have you seen the changes in technology in the outreach? Is it a positive thing?
Pat: It’s just a thing. You just have to deal with it. Running the organization, I compare it to tumbling down the stairs sometimes! It’s all this stuff coming at you constantly, that you have to deal with. But that’s just the way it goes. I’m happy to do it, it’s actually a lot of fun. You never know, when the phone rings, who’s going to be on the other end of it!
Kylie: I’m glad. I was wondering if it might be overwhelming, sometimes. Is there a particular pet or favorite skeptical topic that you enjoy writing about or find particularly fascinating?
Pat: I myself don’t do that much writing where I sign my name. I will end up writing if we get something that I think is really great and no one else wants to pick it up. I wrote that little thing about the UFO artifact which turns out to be a piece of industrial waste, for example. But it was just a great story, so I wrote that. I wrote on “Cow‑tipping,” because…
Kylie: Oh! Really, cowtipping??
Pat: …I’m from Wisconsin! I spent years, after I came to LA, running into people who claimed they’d tipped a cow! They absolutely swore they did it.
I’ve had cows stand on my feet and they are not easy to tip! It turns out that this is actually an ancient legend that Julius Caesar was taken in by. It changed from the elk or moose, as it would be called in the United States – the European Elk, to cattle, when it came across the Atlantic and got implanted in the United States. It’s a hunting, “I outsmarted a dumb animal” legend. The Celts told Julius Caesar about it, and he wrote it up in his Gallic Wars.
Kylie: There you go. It turned up in the movie, “Heathers.” Everyone believed it. Wow.
Pat: Yeah. It’s just an extraordinary thing! If I ask a typical cow‑tipper claimant how big those big black and white cows are, they’ll hover their hand around navel height. They have no idea that their backs tower five feet off the ground and they can weigh 1,500 pounds. So it goes!
I wrote that, just because I’d spent years rolling my eyes. When I actually wrote it, I Googled the net and I didn’t run into a single website that suggested it was an urban legend. Now they almost all do – so, victory!
Kylie: Well done. Excellent!
What’s it like not only writing about skeptical topics, but, of course, illustrating them? Do you ever get complaints about how your artistic vision might not match that of the proponents of Big Foot and so forth? How much leeway do you have, when it comes to artistic interpretation?
Pat: We don’t have any, “To be continued,” so all our articles are set within a format. I just plug something in the empty hole that’s left. We do occasionally get complaints. I had a complaint once that there was too much nudity in “Skeptic Magazine.” It turned out to be an illustration where I had some fellow bending over, throwing a monkey wrench into the works. Since he was an every man, his pelvic area did not even show. I pointed that out to the complainant. She said, “Well, he could be nude!” Then she made the mistake of saying to me, “Why do artists use nudes in art??”
There are reasons why people use nudes and why the nudes look like they do and so forth. But I don’t think there’s a lot of nudity in “Skeptic Magazine,” if you’ve never seen it. I usually try to pick an illustration that either adds to the information in the article, and sometimes it’s just a decorative space filler.
Kylie: What’s some of your favorite things to draw? What’s some of the favorite art works that you’ve been involved?
Pat: I don’t have any particularly favorite thing to draw. I guess my favorite thing would be illustrating “Skeptic Magazine.” It is a challenge because there’s really very little time. I often have just a day or two to come up with, say, the cover art. It’s a pretty frantic scramble. We also have, basically, no art budget. All the art you see in “Skeptic” is pretty much either done by me or donated.
Kylie: That’s incredible. I never knew that. Wow.
Pat: Yeah. This isn’t true anymore, but I used to say, “I have spent as much money getting art for “Skeptic Magazine” as I used to bill in a hearty day of photo illustration back in the ’70’s.” I’ve gone over that now because we actually rented a costume for the last cover, which has George Washington on it. I’m over what I would have billed in one day now in 20 years.
Kylie: I’ve got that copy on my kitchen table right now, ready to read. I got it delivered yesterday. It looks beautiful.
Pat: Yeah, the background is a composite of about 20 different tree shots and the George Washington is a completely impossible pose because it’s actually done after a 1930’s “Saturday Evening Post” cover. You have a problem when you have a monumental figure and they’re in a prayer posture because those are two contradictory things. You do a lot of cheating, fudging, and so forth to keep that monumental, grand figure look and still have them in an attitude of prayer. That’s probably 20 different shots, photo‑composed together. But since I can illustrate completely realistically, I don’t have a problem putting stuff together. I used to paint right on photos for the film industry, so I have a pretty solid background there.
Kylie: It’s quite beautiful. It’s very lovely. Now, what’s coming up next? Is it more skeptical illustrations? Do you have other design works you’re doing?
Pat: Well, what’s coming up next is all this digital stuff. Right now, the magazine as it goes to print digitally is put together according to what printing press the various parts of it are going on. The cover’s printed out on one, the text is on another, and the Junior Skeptic insert’s on another one. Little thing that goes in the back’s on another one. When we go to digital, I have to put all that together. Then, the type is going out of style and out of date, so I have to replace some of it, so I have to re‑typeset that.
When you go way back, some of the magazines weren’t even digital. They were actually pasted up by hand. That’s my big project right now, is going back and putting everything in one long digital file. After that, we’re going to then have to find out how to Kindle‑ize it. It’s a huge project. That’s what I’m doing. Then, like I said, we’re going to have to make little specialty magazines. The one I want to use for psychics, ghosts is another big topic.
You want to get in all the transcendental, psychological stuff that makes people see ghosts. You want to put in the little cultural stuff on how much ghosts differ, and so forth, and so on. That would be another good single topic offering, and so it goes. There’s tons of stuff to be done.
It’s getting harder and harder to print things now. “Skeptic Magazine” has gotten slightly smaller over the years. That’s because the printing costs are skyrocketing. We are always scrambling to try and stay on top of that and get ahead of it. It’s not easy to put out a magazine and keep it going. Anyway, there’s much to be done.
Kylie: Digital is definitely the future for “Skeptic Magazine,” you think?
Pat: Both are the future. You just can’t ignore the digital part of it because there are kids these days who don’t even watch TV anymore.
Pat: They’re just totally hooked into their computer. Some people just spend all day on the ‘Net. To find a viable business model is difficult too, because everyone expects to get everything for free. Of course, the rent has to be paid. The whole thing is changing like crazy. In some aspects, it’s fun. In some aspects, you just have to hold on tight and go for it.
Kylie: There’s always a place for art, thankfully.
Pat: Yeah. That’s very important and often neglected, in skeptical groups. People often don’t understand its purpose, but they know it when see a good job. For instance, when our group came out, people immediately thought we were the senior magazine, compared to a magazine that had been around for some 20 years, when we came out. The difference was just slightly better production qualities. That’s a subconscious decision that’s made on the part of the person. They don’t even realize that it’s the design work or the artwork that’s making them think that.
When we first started out, we were packed into this little garage, with triple‑shelved books and so forth. Big networks would come out to film us. They could not believe that we were in this tiny little garage, rather than some grand building. That’s because of the facade we put out.
It was basically because we had slightly higher production qualities than one would expect from somebody sitting in an unheated garage. Yeah, it’s very important, but it’s a subjective thing. You can’t quantify it, “If I add color, how much better will this be? If it’s four color, how much…?” You can’t really do that, but when the job is well done, people know it when they see it and it does have a big influence.