Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles ♪ Jamy said he wanted a song But the intro he emailed me was long So I'm gonna have to just play a drone And read what he sent me off my phone ♪ Magician, author, speaker and skeptic. Co-founder of the National Capital Area Skeptics. Co-founder of the New York City Skeptics. For the JREF he serves as chairman of the Advisory Committee to the President and on the Million Dollar Challenge subcommittee. ♪ He was onstage to host the opening night proceedings of the very first TAM! And has been a presenter, moderator and performer at every TAM, except for one, but who's counting? So Jamy said he wanted a song ♪ That's it. Ladies and gentleman, the one and only Jamy Ian Swiss! [Cheering, applause] I got a song. Hi! My name is Jamy. (Hi, Jamy!) And I'm a skeptic. [Cheering] What does that mean? What does that mean? Well, here's a book, with the definition of 'skepticism'. There's been a lot of heated discussion about this subject lately... [Laughter] That's it, that's all the magic crap you get from me this morning. Maybe you get a card trick later at the bar, try me out, no promises. That's it for now. As a skeptical activist for more than 25 years, one of the discussions I've engaged in countless times, probably from my time helping to write the first by-laws for the National Capital Area Skeptics in 1987, is the meaning of 'skepticism'. Not only in terms of what it means to individuals, but also organizations and indeed from the vantage of being part of a social movement, because skepticism is all those things: it's a personal world view, it's an organizational mission and it's a social movement. So what does it mean to be a skeptic? And what is the skeptic mission? The original skeptic organization created in 1976: CSICOP Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, now known as CSI, — I guess those folks don't watch TV — [Laughter] offer these words as part of their mission statement, quote: "The mission of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry is to promote scientific inquiry, critical investigation and the use of reason in examining controversial and extraordinary claims." Michael Shermer's Skeptic Society, in addition to its online mission statement, defines skepticism nicely as follows: "Skepticism is a provisional approach to claims. It is the application of reason to any and all ideas — no sacred cows allowed. In other words, skepticism is a method, not a position." Many such precedent-setting mission statements, including from groups I've personally been involved with: National Capital Area Skeptics, New York City Skeptics, the JREF itself, — and you can read the JREF mission statement right in the TAM program — ...many such skeptical mission statements will be useful and informative in defining the meaning and scope of skeptical activism. You can find mission statements of countless skeptic organizations online. You'll see many such ideas similarly expressed. But I had to summarize or abbreviate all of that, I would say this: That scientific skepticism is a way of thinking. It is *not* about how- It is about *how* to think, and not about *what* to think. And the question of what it means to be a skeptic, or what the mission of a skeptics organization comprises has always been interesting to me and to us. But today, as the movement continues to expand in many directions, and indeed succeed in many ways, the question has become as or more important than ever. Because I believe that in some ways we have become victims of a kind of success. A success that has led at times to confusion within and among ourselves. It might be hard to think of the skeptic movement as a success when you look at the numbers of percentages of Americans who believe in psychics and conspiracy theories, anti-vaxx paranoia and so much more toxic nonsense. But everything's relative and surveys show that fewer Americans for example today believe in psychic phenomena than they did twenty years ago. A 2009 CBS poll... identified a decline of about 7% over a twenty year period. That is one kind of success, and I think skeptical activists can likely claim a hand, part of that progress. That's good news. Also the movement has grown wildly in numbers: numbers of individuals, numbers of organizations and activities and gatherings... And that too is very much a measure of success. I mentioned last night there is some 200 skeptic-related groups who include meet-ups — Skeptics in the Pub and such — and that is not including atheist or humanist groups, just skeptical activities and that's great. That's a very different thing than 36 years ago when there was only one organization trying to define itself and a fledgling movement. When it's just one group, it's easy to keep everybody under the same umbrella or in the party line. But as a movement grows in size, activists and organizations spend more time refining and often arguing about the more finely tuned differences in focus and opinion and perspective within the movement. And this is where we find ourselves now. Often to our detriment. It's not a bad thing to be having these conversations; we will always need to continue to have them, but it can be unfortunate to be battling over those conversations and allowing those battles to distract us and to spill over and in view of the larger public to whom we are trying to communicate a message. And I think that, to use the magicians' term, we've been misdirected in a way. By our successes. We've all been so happy and excited to welcome everyone into the club, for a while we didn't realize there were significant differences between various kinds of folks in the clubs, all of whom self-identify as "skeptics". Specifically for one example, I think we've been misdirected, and we've misdirected our own selves, by the visible growth and success of the so-called New Atheist movement. Now, don't get your undies in a bunch. At least not yet. [Laughter] I'm an atheist! As I've said on countless first dates in my life. I'm not just an atheist, I'm an atheist with an attitude! BUT! But! But! But! I'm not an atheist activist. I'm a skeptical activist. I have nothing against atheist activism, I'm in favor of it! I support it! I'm a strong supporter of the Richard Dawkins Foundation, and their approach to atheist activism; I've got a red A on my badge. But neither am I a skeptical humanist activist, for that matter. I don't particularly identify as a "Secular Humanist" capital "S" capital "H" kind of way. Even though I certainly am a humanist philosophically, and I've attended and presented and performed at humanist gatherings on behalf of CFI and the American Humanist Association. But I say it again: I'm not an atheist activist. I'm not a humanist activist. I'm a skeptical activist. And by very deliberate choice. And I think that I can explain why for myself in pretty simple terms. If skepticism is a broad-based way of thinking about claims, and trying to figure out what is and is not true, then atheism is simply skepticism applied to a single extraordinary claim. But I care about *all* of 'em. We've all heard the statement: give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime. Here's my version for skeptics: Tell a man what to think, feed his head with one idea; teach him how to think, feed his head with a lifetime of ideas. That's why I'm a skeptical activist. [Applause] I'm not arguing against atheist activism, I'm just talking about why *I* am a skeptical activist, and how that's different. As skeptics we should not be committed to what to think, but to how to think. We don't need to tell other people what to think in order to be accepted as students of critical thinking, which is what we all are. And that's what we should be modelling. I have little interest in devoting myself to advocating simply for an outcome. I have great interest in advocating for a particular process of thinking. And I have zero interest in any implication that there should be any sort of litmus test of conclusions reached that should serve as requirements for entering the skeptic tent. If you're interested in the scientific method... [Applause] If you're interested in the scientific method and rational means of inquiry, if you're interested in empiricism and what it tells us about the world and methods of critical thinking as a way to discover more about that world every day, then you're welcome in my skeptical tent. And I don't really care if you bring some pet cooky idea with you, or on the other hand you simply haven't gotten quite all the way down the path yet to atheism. I don't in any way believe in or support that kind of political correctness in skepticism. [Applause] My reasoning is this: if someone embraces the basic tenets of critical thinking, of reason and rational inquiry, of the scientific method as a way of determining truths about the natural world and the universe then I believe that person is going to make the world a better place. And if they embrace that way of thinking just a little more today than they did yesterday, they're going to make the world a better place *today*! Because they're gonna make better decisions and help others to make better decisions and that's the only way the human race is going to solve the problems we're faced with in our world and that's the way I want my fellow human beings to contribute to making decisions that affect me, and affect us all, everyone of us, on the planet. So I want to welcome people who are willing to apply a process of using scientific and critical thinking to reach a conclusion regardless of what they believe today. I don't have to agree with their conclusions. As long as they are willing to apply that process and are open to revising those conclusions. So while I personally might like to think that embracing scientific skepticism is likely to lead to an eventual embrace of atheism, I'm willing to bide my time, and accept the best of what people have offer along that path even if they never get there. As Steven Novella has written, quote: "I prefer to give people critical thinking skills and a love for science, and not worry about their faith." But there's another reason why, as skeptics, we need to think clearly about these distinctions. And that's because the world is full of atheists who are not skeptics. When we were starting up the New York City Skeptics, one of my co-founders was involved with some atheist meet-ups. When were calling our first public gatherings, I cautioned my skeptic colleagues that, while the atheist meet-ups were very good places to start to get the word out and attract new people to our new skeptic organization, nevertheless those meet-up folks were not necessarily going to comprise a lot of our eventual target demographic. Sure enough, at our first Skeptics in the Pub, I ended up arguing with a woman about the book The Secret. You know? Oprah Winfrey fragrant. Now, that book is a toxic... sorry. That book is toxic pseudoscience, *cover to cover*! Filled with ancient recycled ideas that are both wrong and very, very bad. But this woman was an atheist who didn't have the first clue about what I was saying and could see nothing wrong with the book, no matter what I said. Several years ago my wife Kandace set out to form a... a rational parenting meet-up group. She decided to call it Atheist Parenting. So I cautioned it might not attract the demographic she was looking for, which was: we were looking for like-minded skeptical parents. But at the same time our boys were just entering school and hearing the word "God" for the first time in their lives, thanks to the Pledge of Allegiance, and we were suitably freaked out by all that... ...and so it became the Atheist Parenting meet-up. And at the very first meeting, a woman turned to Kandace and asked: "So, what's your sign?!" [Laughter] We were at a dinner a couple months ago with Elizabeth Cornwell, Sean Faircloth and Richard Dawkins and Kandace told the five of us this story. And when she finished, Richard's eyes got literally wide and he goes: "That did not happen!" [Laughter] "Oh yes, it did!" [Laughter] How do you say: "Oh no it didn't!" in a British accent? I don't know. [Laughter] You know what you get when people come to skepticism... sorry. You know what you get when people come to atheism through routes other than scientific skepticism and a scientific worldview? You get Bill Maher! [Applause] A guy who is an outspoken atheist, which some of us love, and also an anti-science anti-vaxxer dangerous ignoramus, promoting toxic anti-science nonsense that KILLS people! This is a place that as a skeptic, I have to disagree with Richard Dawkins. He's indicated on this stage in a conversation with DJ Grothe that he's ok with accepting Bill Maher as an ally because Richard's priority as an activist is to combat religion. I'm not willing to accept that brokered alliance.