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  • 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 ideasno 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