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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.
My name is Jamy.
(Hi, Jamy!)
And I'm a skeptic.
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...
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 —
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.
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!
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.
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...
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.
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?!"
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!"
"Oh yes, it did!"
How do you say: "Oh no it didn't!" in a British accent? I don't know.
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!
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.
It's not a minor footnote to me that Bill Maher is anti-vaxx.
It's not just something, it's everything!
He's not an atheist and a *kind* of weak skeptic;
he's an atheist and he's my goddamn enemy!
He's an enemy of my movement.
He's making the world a worse place.
A more dangerous place by promoting anti-science and bad thinking.
He's not even close to being my ally; I don't give a damn he's an atheist;
Screw Bill Maher!
[Cheering, applause]
So as a skeptical activist, I welcome believers into the skeptic tent,
with the proviso they get *no free pass*
and they must be prepared to be argued with about those beliefs
— and occasionally mocked —
but I think it's quite possible that
the genuine skeptic and critical thinker who *happens* to believe in God,
is probably making my world a better place today
than a faith-based atheist who is not really a skeptic.
So what do I think all this means for the skeptic movement
and for the discussion of the skeptic mission?
It means this: that skepticism is not atheism, is not secular humanism.
All these movements have things in common and share parts of their world views,
— big parts for many of us —
but the distinctions between them are critically important.
Not because they're distinctions we should be battling over.
Quite the contrary in my view.
Rather they are distinctions we should be clarifying
for everyone's comfort and focus and mutual effectiveness.
Not to draw battle lines between us, but to allow allies to better focus
their particular armies on their particular battlefields in the same war.
The army, navy, marines, air force; all fighting on the same side.
But I said we got misdirected by success.
When the so-called New Atheists came along, skeptic were delighted, and why wouldn't we be?
Many of us are in fact atheists,
and much of the New Atheism was "science-based atheism" if you will.
And, you know, that's atheism that grows from a scientific world view,
and certainly that's the message Dawkins brought the table,
Daniel Dennett among others put forward;
and what's more: all these folks self-identified as skeptics!
"Hell yeah, we're skeptics!" they declared.
Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens both spoke at TAM and then became regulars.
Dan Dennett spoke in here as well.
And atheists particularly seem to share priorities with secular humanists.
Important priorities: they're deeply committed to issues about church-state separation,
the encroachment of religion on education and freedom of speech,
creationism versus evolution and so on...
What good skeptic doesn't agree with all that?
So there's little question that in a Venn diagram portraying
skepticism, atheism and secular humanism, there's a great deal of overlap.
But I would say that these are, to adapt a phrase from Stephen Jay Gould:
"overlapping magisteria".
I think that for those whose atheism springs from a scientific worldview
that atheism, humanism and skepticism are overlapping, non-competing magisteria,
that should not be a conflict, but they are also not the same things.
If anything, [Applause]
I'd suggest that the most unifying, overarching vantage among the three is probably skepticism.
Oddly enough in my personal experience,
skeptics often do possess the broadest vision among the three magisteria.
I've been to humanist gatherings and had countless conversations
with people there who had never heard of Randi, never heard of CSICOP.
And yet many skeptics in my experience tend to be reasonably informed
about the basics of both atheism and secular humanism.
one way that skeptics and skeptic organizations set ourselves apart from
other overlapping movements who may be more focused on religion,
is by saying that we are purely concerned with testable claims,
whereas we hold no position in so-called "faith claims".
That is to say, if you believe in God based purely on faith,
that's not a testable claim, so we have no argument with you;
if you claim that prayer works, that's a testable claim,
and now that's where the skeptic enters the argument.
This is a workable stance so far as it gets you.
Philosophically it's a bit of a cludge.
It's a practical if imperfect workaround.
I mean, after all: if someone comes into a skeptic meeting
and says they believe in ghosts purely on faith,
or in ESP, UFOs, Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster based on faith and faith alone,
and they don't claim any of the claims of epistemological evidence,
would we, as skeptics, give such folks a completely free pass?
I don't think so.
Similarly, it's pretty much a fiction that people believe in God purely on faith alone.
It misunderstands the realities of faith and the complexities of belief.
Most people will claim that they've arrived at that position reasonably,
rationally, and that they have evidence to boot.
And they do have evidence.
Whether it's the blind watchmaker or the working eyeball that might lead them
to conclude it's all too complicated to be made at random, right?
Now, we think that's not good evidence, sure, but that doesn't make it *not* evidence.
You have to realize that to someone else, it *is* evidence.
It's just weak evidence by the standards of critical thinking
and the scientific method, which are our guiding principles.
Our challenge is to help explain to people the difference
between that kind of evidence and better evidence.
But for practical purposes and perhaps even for strategic purposes,
testable claims and empiricism are very sound places to pitch your tent
in the skeptic movement.
And atheism, I would say, is not the best ground for skeptics to pitch that tent.
Now, not because you might offend people,
or because religion should be given any sort of special pass.
It's not only a weak position,
I don't think it's a real position, it's an imaginary one.
It's one I only seem to hear or see
as a straw man that atheist activists accuse skeptics of promoting.
I've never seen an actual position presented these days by skeptics.
I can't find any skeptic organization or skeptic thought leader who thinks today
that any area or subject should be given a free pass from fair and open inquiry,
and in fact, skepticism is generally promoted within the movement
as a thinking toolkit that must be broadly applied to *all* available subjects.
As the Skeptic Society says, right? "No sacred cows."
But again, testable claims is the skeptic's home turf.
Among the JREF's most visible and successful projects
– besides this remarkable and fabulous conference –
is our legendary Million Dollar Challenge,
and quite simply, the MDC is literally about testable claims.
Testable claims is a viable dynamic cause for skeptics,
because we address testable claims where no one else does.
We care in ways that no one else does,
and we are uniquely qualified to do it and talk about it.
Quick story: I was once sitting next to Carly Simon in a random celebrity encounter
in a beautiful Manhattan movie theater, the Ziegfeld.
I tried to conceal it when she sat down, but she noticed this pack of cards
I'd just been sitting there practicing with, waiting for the movie.
And she asked if I could do her some magic, so I did,
and somehow that led to a brief conversation about mysticism and skepticism and psychics...
And so finally she asked me: "So you don't believe in *anything*...?"
And after trying to explain testable claims for a while,
she finally pulled back, wound up and hit me
with the biggest gun she could muster:
"But, what about the flowers?! What about the trees?!"
Ok, well that's why she's a songwriter, not a scientist. But alright!
But anyway, interestingly enough, thinking about testable claims though,
can also help us to think clearly about where skeptics can appropriately extend our reach
to a wider range of social issues and the subject of diversity.
Barbara Drescher, who has written extensively and very articulately
about the skeptic mission, has said this, quote:
"Skeptics promote scientific skepticism,
because they agree that it is the best way to evaluate claims.
They don't necessarily agree on political, economic and social issues."
And that was the point that DJ Grothe made in last year's panel discussion on diversity,
which unintentionally became a debate about the skeptic mission,
– a debate engaged in, as it turned out, by a rather non-diverse panel of all atheists –
DJ said this, quote:
"Where testable claims and pseudoscience cross paths with social issues like gay rights,
that's where skeptics can and should take up the charge."
If you want to focus on gay rights as your issue beyond the realm of testable claims
– this is me talking now –
join a gay rights organization.
JREF, led as it is by two gay men, is not a gay rights organization.
The JREF is a skeptics' organization,
that will *aggressively* address issues of concern to the gay rights movement,
when those subjects cross into our particular areas of interest, expertise and activism.
And finally, here is Daniel Loxton, another important contributor
to the ideas and principles about the skeptic mission,
on this relationship between testable claims and diversity.
Quote: "This empirical focus has allowed the skeptical community,
old and white and bearded as it may have been...
[Little laughter]
to enjoy other kinds of diversity.
If political ideology is not a topic for our movement,
then anarchists, libertarians, liberals and conservatives
can happily share the same big skeptic tent.
If science-based skepticism is neutral about non-scientific moral values,
then the community can embrace people who hold
a wide range of perspectives on values issues.
On the environment, public schools, nuclear power, same-sex marriage,
taxation, gun control, military, veganism, and so on."
Close quote.
So, skeptics educate about science and about thinking.
We are also interested in particular importance
the dangers of paranormal and pseudoscientific claims.
And finally, we are consumer advocates.
As DJ Grothe put it to me in a recent email:
"What the topics in the Skeptical Canon have in common,
are where consumer protection meets science education;
that's the skeptics' unique work.
Normal scientists don't have the time to tackle all these issues,
normal consumer protection folks lack the expertise."
And Daniel Loxton has pointed out
that working scientists don't only lack the time,
they often lack the expertise in the nonsense side of things.
He makes this interesting comparison.
"Consider the example of debating creationism.
In the past, creationists typically ran rings around biologists.
This is not because scientists lack knowledge of science,
but because scientists lack specialized knowledge of nonsense.
That's where *we* come in!"
This is Loxton talking. [Applause]
This a great point, and this is... I'm still quoting from Daniel.
"This is where we came in:
the history and rhetoric of nonsense as a specialized niche area for our arena.
Skeptics perform an essential public service when we concentrate on that."
Close quote.
Now, when talking about long-standing strengths and
subjects of the skeptics movement these days
eventually we run headlong into the notion of so-called "Skepticism 2.0":
of the dangerous and I would even say *offensive*...
idea, suggestion that the long-standing Skeptical Canon somehow doesn't matter
or no longer matters.
Daniel Loxton puts it well. He writes this:
"In my view, consumer protection is the most foundational function of the skeptics movement.
We investigate, report on and promote awareness about products
which are generally ineffective, sometimes dangerous and occasionally deadly,
and which no other watchdog group bothers to research.
That work is important, it's hard, we're underfunded,"
– this is still Daniel –
"we're underfunded, we're overwhelmed and it's often hard to see the stakes.
Who cares about yet another distasteful little scam?
Yet somebody has to do it! I can't drive that point home hard enough.
The job isn't done. It will never be done.
The need for this work has not diminished just because we grew sick of doing it.
People have no less need to hear the message, just because we grew tired of saying it."
Close quote.
And I agree.
I believe that skeptics should unapologetically reaffirm our commitment to these strengths
and not be embarrassed about these concerns,
and not retreat on these concerns,
and not dilute our priorities in the name of subjects or problems
that are somehow supposedly "bigger" or "more important".
How can anyone claim that pseudoscience and the paranormal doesn't matter
when significant portions of the American population
believe in all sorts of pseudoscientific and paranormal claims?
How can you say these core subjects and causes no longer matter
when Americans spend billions of dollars on bottles of *nothing*
because they're advertised widely as "homeopathy"?
Billions of dollars that could make the world a better place
if spent in a number of countless ways, as long as they were real.
How can you say pseudoscience and the paranormal isn't dangerous
in the face of the anti-vaxx movement?
Or the fact that a dowsing machine was used
to find bombs that were killing American soldiers?!
How can you say psychic fraud doesn't matter
when there is a steady stream of news stories about victims
who give up life savings to psychic con artists?
Do you think it mattered to the victims?!
If you self-identify as a skeptic,
but these issues somehow don't matter enough or particularly to you,
and you think the dangers and ills of religion, for example, are what really matter,
then I thank you sincerely for your support of skepticism.
Please continue to attend our conferences, maybe even send us a contribution.
And then also, please go and devote yourself
to the cause which you believe should be your personal priority.
That's fine!
All of that is good!
You're still welcome in my skeptics tent.
But the one thing that is neither fine nor good,
is to come into my skeptics tent and declaring that you are moving it.
[Little laughter, applause]
The fact that an expanding movement is clarifying its different points of focus
is a fine and logical and reasonable and *inevitable* phenomenon.
The fact that an expanding movement is *fighting* over those differences
is *not* a good thing.
We waste our valuable time, our limited resources,
not to mention damage our perception in the public eye
when we treat 'fences between good neighbors' as Daniel Loxton likes to call it,
as battle lines between combatants.
I don't get it, and I'm here to tell ya, I don't like it!
Now, magicians have been at the forefront of skepticism
since before there was a skeptics movement.
There is a reason it says 'magi' in 'magisterium'.
Thank you, Thomas.
And there are a number of reasons for that.
One is that a key subject of the skeptics movement has been the paranormal.
And the job skills of magicians and in particular mentalists
include creating the illusion of paranormal abilities.
Combined with our particular expertise in deception,
recognizing it, understanding how it works,
these knowledge bases are all critically pertinent to observing and testing the paranormal.
Many years ago I heard Randi say, and I've been saying it ever since:
"My expertise is narrow and deep.
I know how to fool people,
and I know how to recognize when people are being fooled."
There's also the appropriate role of the magician in parapsychology laboratory
or anywhere, that we can help scientists protect themselves, specifically from deception.
Randi wrote about this very eloquently recently in
an excellent opinion piece in Wired Magazine.
If you haven't read it, go look it up.
But what magicians have to offer does not stop there.
Magicians also deeply understand a profoundly important lesson:
that anyone can be fooled.
That may be the greatest lesson that magicians have to teach.
Anyone can be fooled, including skeptics.
Many years ago, no less CSICOP and CFI founder Paul Kurtz
was taken in by the double-talking mentalist The Amazing Kreskin,
who was then embraced as an ally at a CSICOP conference stage.
Incredible but true.
Because in my book, if you're a magician or a mentalist and you claim to be a skeptic,
and you want to be an ally,
you want to be considered an ally of the skeptic movement,
you need to be willing to do one thing:
stand up and say clearly that you use deception and trickery in your work.
If you a equivocate on this subject, you may be many things,
but as far as I'm concerned you're not a part of my skeptical alliance.
It's not enough to *know* the truth to be a skeptic.
You have to have the strength of character to be willing to *speak* the truth,
and care enough to try to help other people understand what truth means.
And with that knowledge that anyone can be fooled
comes another important perspective that magicians bring to the table.
An understanding, an insight,
and I hope empathy, into how and why people are fooled,
and it's not because they're stupid.
When I post a story on Facebook about someone taken in by a psychic or some street scam,
I invariably get some comments: "People deserve what they get",
"they're stupid", "there's a sucker born every minute" and so on.
This is blaming the victim,
and it's another element about which skeptics in particular should be educating the public,
presuming they have educated themselves sufficiently first.
Just two days ago, I think it was DJ posted a psychic scam story on Facebook,
and somebody posted this, quote:
"Psychics and their ignorant fans deserve one another."
And when skeptics make those kind of comments, I am horrified and disappointed.
I don't know if that was from a skeptic, but if it was, shame on you!
I sometimes find that skeptics on the ground, if you will... you know, in the trenches...
Club skeptics, Skeptics in the Pub, skeptics on a blog, can all too often
- and that's real skeptics.
I mean, that's the real skeptics movement. And community.
But they all too often can seem more concerned with being right,
than with explaining their thinking.
I see this with the subject of psychics and believers all the time.
The message should not be to blame the victim or the believer.
The skeptic mission in my view is more compassionate than that.
And trust me, Randi's always been more compassionate than that.
Rather understand what the believer believes, and why the believer believes,
and why a victim becomes a victim.
These are not easy phenomena to understand or explain.
When Banachek and I tested psychics on ABC Nightline a year ago,
we got to watch these people up close try to rationalize and explain away
why they failed to pass a test about which, when asked beforehand,
they were extremely confident in their ability to meet or exceed.
We knew this was to happen, we had seen it before.
These people's greatest flaw is not that they are stupid,
but that they are *human*.
And they're stuck with a human brain and all its evolutionarily pre-programmed foibles.
What we get to see in these instances is a working demonstration of cognitive dissonance.
A cognitive psychology experiment in real time.
If all the skeptic can do in the face of that is feel superior,
you have missed the point, and you have failed your mission as a skeptic.
If you're not sure why people fall for scams and cons, that's fine.
Bone up in your skeptical literature, talk to magicians, talk to psychologists,
but do not blame the victim.
Stop being right.
Help somebody to learn how to think better
and help them to maybe not be wrong the next time.
So, magicians bring all these facets of their work and expertise to the skeptic table
and perhaps above all one more:
a moral stance.
Magicians, at least those of us who embrace the skeptical vision,
are professional honest liars.
We are clear with our audience about the role deception plays in our work
and the social contract we maintain with our audience.
Skeptics are not only passionate about what is true,
but also about what is morally right.
And magicians take offense when psychics and con men and cheats
use these skills of our legitimate trait for illegitimate purposes.
To mislead and take advantage of the innocent, the ill-informed,
victimizing people, rather than uplifting them.
Magicians bring our righteous indignation to the table,
that fueled Houdini, that fuels Randi, and I hope in doing so we inspire
everyone in the skeptical movement to share that sense of moral outrage.
As activists, we're all trying to change the world;
that's right, let's call it what it is.
Becoming a skeptical activist for me
was a way to put my professional skills to use in service to a social movement.
I've been an activist of one sort or another all my life.
In my teens, I was involved Democratic elective politics and radical leftist politics.
In my twenties, I was a wildlife environmental activist.
I believe in constructive social activism, and my skills as a magician and expertise
in multiple areas of deception are pertinent, specifically to my work as a skeptic.
And my skills as an entertainer and communicator served me in this role as well.
H.L. Mencken said: "One horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms."
I love syllogisms, but my profession includes getting horse-laughs.
[Little laughter]
I heard a story many years ago, I've never forgotten.
Isaac Asimov was asked by a reporter a question many of us find ourselves constantly faced with:
"What's the harm?"
What's the harm in someone believing in something as seemingly innocuous as, say, astrology?
And Asimov said this:
"It is a loss of opportunity to humanity.
We all have limited finite resources in this life of time, energy, money.
Every hour and every dollar that is wasted on something that does not exist
will never be recovered, not by any individual, not by society as a whole.
Every dollar and hour that's invested in something that does not exist,
something false, something misleading,
is a dollar an hour and a quantity of human energy and effort
that could have been invested in something real and which in turn
stands a much better chance of contributing to
making the world a better place for all of us."
So before we even get to the victims,
who are robbed of dignity and joy and money and sometimes their lives,
by psychics and con men of so many stripes,
the cost, the human cost begins with that loss of opportunity.
I once attended and event in Washington, D.C. that was advertised as 'a week of healing'
by a rather famous and succesful traveling preacher.
It was in a very large hall, hired for the purpose.
On the road probably more often it was a tent.
It was filled to the brim with of thousands of people.
Several thousands had been similarly filled no doubt each night of an entire week.
After some singing, some prayer and some preaching, the healings began.
Various people came to the stage and claimed to be healed,
claimed to see what they could not see before,
hear what they could not hear before, walk where they could not stand before.
The crowd seemed to take quite a celebratory attitude
and I remained open-minded to many possibilities.
Including the possibility those witnesses who
were now testifying to wonderous deeds,
might have been on the wonderworker's payroll.
I saw him on a man with one leg shorter than the other
have his leg visibly lengthened to match the other under the hands of the preacher,
one of the oldest carny tricks in the business.
Then the preacher extended his arms in benediction
and announced that many, many people in the crowd
were also now healed of their ailments and concerns.
And he asked them to come forward, and any of them who had felt the healing
to come forward and testify to their personal miracles.
And several people began to come forward to explain they had felt the healing.
Their descriptions didn't strike me as particularly wonderous or inexplicable.
Seemed more like these folks wanted to just step forward, be part of the excitement,
sharing the joy and the attention... Okay, why not?
But then a woman came to the microphone.
She was shy and awkward, and spoke gently,
with what was clearly great gratitude and an overwhelming sense of relief.
She stepped up began to speak.
And she explained that recently she had detected a lump in her breast.
And it had made her afraid.
And she had eventually seen her doctor, who had wanted to run some tests.
But she was afraid of the tests, and she had waited.
And she had not returned to the doctor, because she was afraid.
But now, she said, trembling with the release from the weight of her fear,
she knew that on this very night, she felt she had come to be healed.
And now she knew she *had* been healed.
And she *knew* this with such certainty -praise be!-
that she knew she did not now even have to return to her doctor again.
And she was relieved and grateful, and she thanked the preacher, who then embraced her.
And perhaps she contributed some money before the evening was out.
It would not surprise me at all; few things do anymore.
It was probably the first skeptic talk I ever gave
in the 1980s, I think it was some scientific research association,
in the Q&A I heard a couple of questions I've consistently heard more talks than not ever since.
Question: "Do you believe in God?"
Answer: "No, but so what?"
Question: "Are you optimistic?"
"Hell no!"
"I just see skepticism as a dirty job that somebody's got to do."
But, I'll add to that.
It may be a dirty job, but it's not without its benefits.
There are worse ways to spend your time than with the great minds of your generation.
With the Murray Gell-Manns, or Adam Savage, or Christopher Hitchens, or Dan Dennett,
or Richard Dawkins, or Carol Tavris, or Lawrence Krauss,
and all the great many friends that I've made here,
and I make new ones every year, at TAM.
But in fact, as I've said on a panel here about grassroots skepticism,
the first and foremost reason for skeptics to organize on a local level
is *not* create campaigns and battle pseudoscience,
and hold these lectures and write letters to the press,
– even though all those things are of inestimable value –
but the first and foremost reason for skeptics to organize,
is to connect with like-minded individuals.
To help support one another.
To educate one another.
Enlarge the circles of skepticism by connecting the dots and creating linkages and alliances
and going to have a beer together at Skeptics in the Pub.
And feel a little less like an isolated fringe.
These are perfectly good and legitimate reasons to join together
and talk about these issues and ideas that we care about
and that we care about,
– to invoke the name of the JREF podcast –
that we care about For Good Reason.
I'm gonna quote Daniel Loxton one more time.
Quote: "It is a false dichotomy to suggest that anything short
of eradicating the paranormal is a waste of our time.
Thankfully, it is possible to make progress.
The assertion that pseudoscience will always exist,
is no doubt true, but it is a trivial observation.
Disease will always exist, but that doesn't mean we close medical schools.
The persistence of paranormal beliefs should not distract us
from the truth that skeptics can make progress."
Close quote.
So, am I optimistic?
Hell no!
Am I glad to be here with 1200 friends and colleagues who are as jacked up
about the cost of pseudoscience and the paranormal
and junk science and alternative medicine and and and...?!
You bet I am!
Will I be glad to sit down with a few of you, old friends and new ones at the bar later tonight,
to talk, perhaps argue loudly with and with whom, with even more fun, sometimes violently agree?!
You bet your ass I will!
Because... I'm a skeptic!
Are you a skeptic?!
Are you a skeptic?!
Great! Me too! Thanks for listening! I'll see you at the bar!
[Cheering, applause]
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Jamy Ian Swiss - "Overlapping Magisteria" - TAM 2012

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Alec Tsai published on July 12, 2017
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