Jamy Ian Swiss – “Overlapping Magisteria” – TAM 2012


UPDATE: For a higher quality version of this video, click here:

Magician and skeptic Jamy Ian Swiss shares his passionate vision for the scope of modern scientific skepticism, live from the stage at TAM 2012.

With a special musical introduction by TAM emcee George Hrab.

Written By: Jamy Ian Swiss at TAM 2012
continue to source article at youtube.com


  1. He was angry about Maher’s irrational arguments about vaccines.  Anti-vax kills people and that’s something that should make all of us angry. 

    It was a wonderful speech.  There were so many important points he made. 

    I really loved his point that people are fooled, not because they are stupid, but because they are human. 

    It’s important to never lose sight of the fact hat anyone can be fooled.

  2. I thought his criticism of Maher was a bit over the top. If you look at what Maher has said, at least recently, he’s not really an anti-vaccine nut, just someone who thinks it is worth discussing the cost vs. benefits of vaccines, which I think is a reasonable discussion to have. Here is where Maher describes his position: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/

    But in spite of that minor issue I liked his talk a lot. I think you can understand his anger a bit more if you stick through to the end, the story about the woman who might have cancer was infuriating. 

  3. What struck me is his comment that, as a magician, he has proven to himself that everyone can be fooled, and that he can understand when and how we are fooled. And as a skeptic he has compassion for his distracted audience.

    I know that magicians have published explanations for their illusions. I haven’t read any, because I’m not really as interested in the mechanics as much as I am eager to appreciate the illusion as a thing in itself.

  4. Yes, now. But Maher’s position has changed (which is a good thing). Before, I definitely considered him an anti-vax nut … and I’m an avid Real Time viewer and fan of his.

  5. I found his explanation of the relationship between Secular Humanism, Atheism and Skepticism to be very useful and interesting.  I was encouraged when he explained that although he is a Skeptic and an Atheist, not all Skeptics are in fact, also Atheists and that they still are welcome in his tent.  He speaks positively about Humanism and then proceeds to rant about two Atheist activists, Richard and Bill Maher, in hostile and humiliating tone of voice!  He was definitely trying to elicit audience laughter at the expense of the two guys. Apparently he feels welcoming to wayward Skeptics but certainly not to wayward Atheists!  I find this to be quite unacceptable since I self identify primarily as an Atheist.  I agree with his point that we have tremendous overlapping interests and goals with these two other groups but how did this rant do anything other than contradict his point?!!!

    I started out interested and optimistic but now I’m just feeling an even greater chasm between us and the Skeptics than I did before.

  6. “I started out interested and optimistic but now I’m just feeling an even greater chasm between us and the Skeptics than I did before.”

    I wasn’t aware that there already was a gap between “us” atheists and the Skeptics. As one atheist I feel no chasm at all with The Skeptics. 

  7. What’s the difference between skepticism and atheism? Atheism is a one issue skepticism. Both should be manifestations of evidence based thinking. Simple as that but at the same time complex as that. Thinking for yourself is a never ending story.

  8. I was unaware of it too and shocked when I realized that it existed at all.  Did you catch it in the video when he mentioned that there are a number of Skeptics who are not also Atheists?  It’s this bunch that are making the trouble. They maintain a strong skepticism of all subjects but when someone (usually an Atheist who believes that they are with like-minded folks) puts forward a skeptical criticism of religion, suddenly, they become outraged that we would have the audacity to insult them in this way!

  9. Nice talk overall, but I, too, was put off by his criticism of Bill Maher. Maher’s heart is in the right place, not just concerning atheism (which also include science education and gay rights) but equally importantly, climate change, and also race relations. I don’t have to agree with him on everything but he is on the right side on simply too many issues to write off.
    That said, I have also met atheists whose broader world view is not skepticism and I found them deeply embarrassing. What is the point in tossing the bible/koran if you are going to replace them with something equally baseless? The “raelians” are the best example I can think of.

  10. Truly great presentation. Yes, magicians have a special skill for skepticism because they are required to find out just how far they can go and still fool people. From this they have explored our natural hair-trigger reflex for fitting events into our own expectations. It is human nature to “know” the answer and then to contort and misread data to fit that answer. There is no point beating ourselves up for it; it may have been critical to getting us here. The more we acknowledge it in ourselves, the better we can get others to see it and move past error and superstition. His most important point: we are not fooled because we are stupid, we are fooled because we are human.

  11. Faith based atheist? So does he want Maher as an ally or not? Highly insulting while contradicting himself multiple times, not nearly as clever as he regards himself. This guy just gets uber jelly if someone dares to disagree with him, I’ll take Maher over this sour sausage any day of the week.

  12. I was a bit iritated with the showbiz delivery, but I thought the content was pretty good.

  13. “I was unaware of it too and shocked when I realized that it existed at all.”

    I’m still not convinced it exists at all. 

    “Did you catch it in the video when he mentioned that there are a number of Skeptics who are not also Atheists?  It’s this bunch that are making the trouble. “

    Who exactly are the individuals in this bunch that are making the trouble? Do you know any specific people?  IMO the trouble is people drawing arbitrary boundaries and identifying people that aren’t in that boundary as good or evil. Actually, to be clear I’m not a moral relativist. I’m perfectly fine with branding people who want to commit FGM or torture as evil. But to say that anyone who is a Skeptic but not an Atheist is automatically part of a bunch making trouble seems an illogical leap to me. 

  14. So on the one hand anyone can be fooled as they are only human and we shouldn’t blame the victims, yet on the other he dismisses a person (Bill Maher) for being fooled by an article published in a medical journal (later shown to not be a valid conclusion) and the political hysteria that came from it. Perhaps engaging in conversation explaining how the whole anti-vax argument began and why it is an unreasonable position would be a better course of action than shouting one’s hatered.

    This asside some valid points were made during the talk.

  15. This is wonderful & inspiring. I’m sad that I wasn’t able to see it live, as Jamy is an excellent speaker/performer. I would’ve loved to, but the panel I was on at TAM immediately preceded Jamy’s talk, so I was being shuffled off-stage and such and wasn’t able to get back into the ballroom in time to catch it. Anyway, I’m very pleased that the JREF posted the video so quickly. It’s great stuff.

  16. The extent of delusion non-atheist skeptics exhibit is quite impressive.

    Instead of tackling the most blatant and penetrating  delusions in society with most far reaching detrimental effects they focus on tiny fringe stuff which in most cases is nothing but a fad.

    That’s some heavy duty cognitive dissonance.

  17. Enjoyed most of that, but there are a few points:

    Unfortunately, it is possible to be an atheist without being a skeptic, but I don’t see how one can be a skeptic without also being an atheist.

    Regarding the assertion that people are not stupid but merely human, I don’t see why the two are necessarily exclusive. Humanity is generally stupid, the sooner we all acknowledge this the better off we will be.

  18. I have to agree with you on that. Besides, I think characterizing Maher as “anti-science” is an overstatement.

    Yes, message is more important than style, but this guy put me off from the very beginning and I stopped listening after “Screw Bill Maher!” . Imagine sitting at a dinner party with this guy.

  19. What’s wrong with Bill Maher. I’m not from the US, so I just recently discovered his shows. I love them. Hilarious. Funniest guy since George Carlin. Not to accept him as an ally is idiotic. It’s just like some silly  people did not accept Hitchens as an ally just because he was pro-Iraq war and anti-abortion or yet other dunces who reject Sam Harris just because he is pro-profiling.. People should be allowed to have different opinions, even if their opinion is not ‘politically correct” or “scientific”. We should not make another religion out of science.

  20. A strong candidate for my “most annoying speakers” list.  He might have a good point, or even several, but I tuned him out after a while and likely won’t bother listening to him again.

  21. Am I unique* in thinking some people are infatuated with the sound of their own voices? Why is it so hard to get to the point without droning on & on; anyway I have admiration for Bill Maher as he does just that, very effectively.
    I just couldn’t see this vid thru to the end.
    (*Apparently NOT- well said, Rod the Farmer!)

    Just viewed the Maher/Frist item- shocked that Bill was so ignorant of the science of vaccination. He embarrassed himself.

  22. What’s wrong with Bill Maher.


    Other posts here say he has changed  his mind on vaccinations.

     We should not make another religion out of science.

    Science isn’t a religion. It is just the only reliable way we know of understanding reality. It works.  

  23. well, no, not exactly the only one. The other is experience. I know that it will hurt if I stick my hand in the flames not by science (although science would demonstrate that too) but by experience. Besides often scientific opinions differ and are even in extreme opposition to each other.
    Science is perhaps the best way to find out how this world works, but we make a religion out of it if we start condemning or rejecting people because some of their views are not mainstream scientific.

  24.  Besides often scientific opinions differ and are even in extreme opposition to each other.

    Sure but that is part of science.  In the short term there are lots of opinions about how to explain some phenomenon and discussion and debate. In the long run there is a settling down to a scientific consensus.  

      but we make a religion out of it if we start condemning or rejecting people because some of their views are not mainstream scientific.

    No-one is doing that.  Maher got into trouble because he didn’t understand how disease works or how the flu-vaccination works.  He didn’t understand the facts it wasn’t a matter of opinion.

    Can you give an example of what you mean by not mainstream scientific ?


  25. Jamy says many good things.

    Just one point of order: is Bill Maher still in the anti-vax movement.?

    Bill is not a politician, so he doesn’t have a team of party people briefing him on every issue. He’s a comedian with one or two researchers who look stuff up to make sure his jokes hit all the right buttons.

    Jamy would say (quite rightly) that this is why Bill should apply critical thinking. But does that really justify Jamy’s harsh words?

    Bill wasn’t the only one to be taken in by the High Priestess of Bunkum, Barbara Loe Fisher. Simply being charismatic was enough to get her selected to serve on Government advisory panels. There is a lesson for us all here on how politics works in the 21st Century.

    In addition, Bill made it perfectly clear in his 2009 Huffington piece that he was never wholly anti-vax. Bill’s career has been about debunking politicians. He saw the bigger picture and asked us all to take a long hard look at how politicians, connected to narrow special interest groups, may not be asking all the questions, or the right questions, or even any questions. Again, no doubt, Jamy would argue that this is why Bill should be applying critical thinking when he himself is looking at a special interest group.

    Fair play, Bill screwed up.

    Bill himself has been silent on the anti-vax movement since 2009 – and his Huffington column tells us why. He did, however, give us a big hint during the run up to this years election when he used the HPV Vaccine as a reference point to take Michele Bachmann to task on this issue – and her apparent attempt to be even more loopy than Rick Perry on vaccines.

    Bill Maher is, by a wide margin, the leading rationalist on US TV. How many other Political Show Hosts ROUTINELY invite leading scientific figures on to their show? Yet Jamy wants to tick Bill off over an error – 3 years after the fact? Come on Jamy, give a the guy a break!

    Jamy; critical thinking is vital. So too is evidence. It took me only 5 minutes to find the above. It took another hour to make this post because I used an iPad, but that’s another story. Bill Maher is a skeptic – and he needs our help because he’s stuck in the political desert where true facts are like water: extremely rare and hard to find. Help him.

    Bill Maher: if you read this – I have a job for you! No, not the vaccine thing, I mean kick ass at HBO and get Real Time shown in London. I’ll even pay for cable if that’s what it takes.


  26. facts is not a matter of opinion, but the interpretation of facts often is. Look, I do not know Maher’s opinions on vaccination, why he holds/held them and know rather little on the topic. Maybe he was completely wrong. For me personally, vaccination has worked just fine, so Maher is not my authority and not my ally ON VACCINATION. But he is my ally on many other things. And he is smart and funny and entertaining and will stay that way even if he becomes the Chair of the Global Alliance for the Destruction of Vaccines.
    Back to vaccines, I know a lot of people  for whom flu vaccination had opposite results to those I experienced. As for mainstream scientific oppinions: in  my country the official view is that you should get flu-vaccinated and in the media and official sources every doctor will confirm that in a dry and formal tone. However, a recent poll found out that only 5 per cent of doctors get flu-vaccinated and vaccinate their children. The majority will privately advise you not to do it.

  27. Good talk … or rant, if you prefer. But I was put off by all the dog-whistle clapping. An interesting phenomenon when you think about it – an audience of sceptics getting all excited by style at least as much as by substance.

  28. You are not convinced that there is a chasm between Atheists and Skeptics. Alright then, I can concede that my use of the word chasm is a bit over the top.  I will downgrade to “some apparent inconsistency between those who self identify as Atheists and those who self identify as Skeptics as to what is fair game in our conversations having to do with what is real and true and what is delusion and therefore false”.

    As for my phrase “bunch that are making the trouble”  I will also downgrade that to “a number of people who self identify as Skeptics but who don’t identify as Atheists and demonstrate an indignant attitude to any criticism of their deeply held religious beliefs but encourage critical thinking of any other subject matter that comes up in discussion.” 

    My original phrase is immediately indicative of my own subjective personal perspective as a lifelong Atheist.  A Skeptic who believes in God, and also, an Atheist who believes in Astrology, are two examples of people who are operating with some highly flawed, illogical ways of thinking!  

    You know, I’m not thrilled that we have divided into groups, factions, cliques, call it what you want. It’s so tribal.  So last millenium, right?  But at this point, it is what it is and I guess we have to make some adjustments. I don’t want to say the word “accommodations” here with my fellow Atheists since we are all fed up with that. I’m posting this link to a page that PZ wrote on this very subject. I think he explains the situation better than I can and he has included an example of one of my so called “bunch making the trouble” which you requested in your reply to me above. 


  29. Why is he having a go at legendary singer songwriter Carly Simon? The man is a fool. Her astrology, tree hugging may seem irrational but it’s part of who she is and a crucial ingredient of her talent. I don’t believe in irrational things but I cherish living in a world where people do. As for the whole “it’s dangerous” argument, yes in some cases it can be I guess, but that is their choice, evolved from the complex reasoning of “their” lives, not ours.

    I’d rather have a drink in the bar with Carly: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v

  30. “You know, I’m not thrilled that we have divided into groups, factions, cliques, call it what you want. It’s so tribal.  So last millenium, right?”

    Yes! Exactly!  What you said there was the point I was trying to make. I’ll take a look at that link.

  31. Maher isn’t really an anti-vaccine nut. At one point he said some outrageous dumb things about vaccines, one tweet in particular, but he’s walked them back, here is his current thinking on the issue:  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/

  32. Its funny that even for people who are devoted to reason, its still possible to have reactions based on emotion rather than reason. Most people here “anti-vaccine” and immediately assume anyone questioning vaccines at all is a “vaccines cause autism” homeopathy practicing new ager. In fact, as with any medical procedure, vaccines have risks associated with them. Usually they are worth it but its definitely not irrational to consider the science behind the costs and benefits. I actually think Maher (and btw I’m not a big fan of his anyway) is getting slandered a bit here, his current stand on vaccines is pretty rational:  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/

  33. Red Dog,

    Right! The divisions exist.  I don’t like it but we have to make the best of it. I’m not imagining it.  Swiss takes plenty of time in the video to state that they DO exist.  PZ writes a whole page to address the issue.  Let’s not dance around it anymore. My conclusion at this point is: Atheist to Skeptics; I to my work and you to yours.

  34. Also think calling any theists skeptics is a mistake. I would like for skepticism to be something all atheists can aspire to and don’t want to see it poisoned by religion before most of us even get there.

  35.  I concur that this talk had contradictory elements.  Everybody who is attempting to be a skeptic is allowed in his tent even if they do not take a skeptical approach to all topics.  Unless, that is, you’re skeptical about god but not (initially) skeptical about anti-vaccination.  Then you’re a bastard.  Get out of my goddamned tent!

    So was Bill Maher a victim of pseudoscience or a perpetrator of pseudoscience?  Clearly Mr. Swiss thinks very strongly the latter as I assume he would not direct that kind of anger at a victim.

    Finally, why are ‘stupid’ and ‘human’ assumed to be non-overlapping?

  36. I found Jamy entertaining and funny and he made some very
    important points as it relates to being skeptical and being an atheist however
    his assertion that atheist are mostly defined as being anti- religious and therefore
    have not provided sufficient reason  why religious
    dogma is not true strikes me as strange. Religion, I think, is a natural phenomenon
    and can be subjected to examination by science, by all means lets test it
    claims. Pz Meyers take on the matter is quite clear either you are a skeptic
    and that includes religious skepticism, or you are not.

  37. Interesting that there’s a range of controversial opinions under the atheist/skeptic umbrella:

    1. Hitchen’s view on the Iraq War and sympathy with Bush neocons
    2. Sam Harris’ soft-spot for eastern meditation/transcendental spiritualism
    3. Michael Shermer’s libertarian free markets as the cure of all our problems
    4. Bill Maher’s resistance to vaccination and ignorance over the double-blind randomised controlled clinical trial

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