Retrospective: Jamy Ian Swiss on critical thinking, scientific skepticism, and the magic of learning

It’s one thing to spend time in the company of an artist, a master craftsman, and an uncompromising intellectual; in this conversation, Jamy takes things to a whole ‘nother level. The man is a mensch. Thanks once again to Jamy, acclaimed magician and author of The Conjurer’s Conundrum, for taking time to share his perspectives on critical thinking, scientific skepticism, and the magic of learning/ learning of magic.  We were joined by learners who work with me, Jamy’s publishers, attendees from Japan, Canada, New York, Ireland, and – in a historic first – my son’s room down the hall.

Here is the recording, followed by a timeline with links and notes. I hope you find a rabbit hole worth exploring further. If you’d like to contribute an idea or a resource, or if you’d like more examples and links to the coursework I do with learners on the public internet, please Contact me – I look forward to continuing the conversation.


Before the webinar even started, Jamy dived right in and we discussed a few things worth sharing:



From here on, the notes and links correspond to the timing in the recording. Enjoy!

00:05 The publishers of Jamy‘s new book, The Conjurer’s Conundrum

00:30 Open-Source Learning

00:55 Neil Gaiman

01:56 Penn & Teller (Jamy has been a friend and associate of Penn & Teller’s for decades; he was a writer, magic designer, and associate producer on their FX variety series, “Penn & Teller’s Sin City Spectacular” circa 1998-99)

03:59 “All Along the Watchtower” performed by Jimi Hendrix (to illustrate Jamy’s point by comparison, here’s the original version by Bob Dylan)

04:51 Jamy’s mentor Johnny Thompson (Jamy wrote Thompson’s collected works, “The Magic of Johnny Thompson,” published by Magicana)

05:26 Alex Boyce

05:57 Tannen’s Magic

07:36 Lou Tannen

08:39 Michael Weber: “We don’t keep secrets from you. We keep secrets FOR you.”

09:46 Ricky Jay

09:50 The Prestige

11:16 From The Conjurer’s Conundrum: story of the white owl exhibition by Mark Wilson

11:45 The Asrah Levitation

15:04 “The audience needs something, the audience is seeking something. And if I give them what they need, and I have a little patience…”

16:03 Leon Festinger

16:48 Website that focuses on Jamey’s skeptic activism

17:04 Karl Germain: “The conjurer is the most honest of professionals.”

17:25 James “The Amazing” Randi / “In many ways, the founder of the American skepticism movement.”

19:52 “It’s the awareness that what’s being done is impossible. That makes magic interesting, compelling, engaging memorable, because it violates people’s knowledge and experience. It creates that cognitive dissonance, what my friend Whit Haydn calls a burr under the saddle of the mind.”

21:25 psychokinesis

21:42 “Neuro-linguistic programming is merely a self promoting self-sustaining industry that has absolutely no substantial science to support it.”

24:40 “The scientific skepticism movement is basically a pro science movement.”

25:25 “Bad thinking leads to bad decisions and choices, which leads to bad outcomes. And the anti-vax movement is the absolute crystallization of that… The world became more dangerous for my kids in school because of the anti-vax movement.”

28:43 “Magicians have crossed paths with issues of critical thinking and rational inquiry – and promoting that – for at least 400 years in the literature.”

28:58 First book written in English about magic: The Discoverie of Witchcraft by Reginald Scot, 1584

31:09 Artscience by David Edwards

34:27 Brooklyn College

36:36 David Laibman: Marxist economist, ragtime guitarist, inspiring professor

37:56 “If you’re going to be an artist, you need to do three things…”

40:51 Autodidacts

43:06 Jamy’s sword of social justice was forged as a student activist, beginning as a trick-or-treater for UNICEF when he attended the Woodward School in Brooklyn. Jamy would go on to help close his high school twice and take over his college.

45:48 Dr. Strangelove

45:56 First Earth Day during college –> Jamy becomes a wolf handler

48:06 Robert Kennedy: “There are those who look at the way things are and ask why… I dream of things that never were, and ask: ‘Why not?’”

48:45 Edward Tufte (Jamy – the only person to co-author one of Tufte’s books – co-authored the chapter “Explaining Magic” in Tufte’s book, Visual Explanations published by Graphics Press)

49:02 National Capital Area Skeptics

49:06 Chip Denman

57:31 Jamy talks to a UX/UI audience about empathy

1:02:36  Danny Hillis

1:04:16 Mistakes Were Made But Not By Me: Why We Justify Foolish Decisions, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris

1:09:26 Occam’s Razor

1:10:39 Ernest Hemingway on evaluating the credibility of sources of information: “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.”

1:10:56 Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan

1:16:01 Marshall McLuhan: “Anyone who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn’t know the first thing about either.”

1:18:12 William Conrad

1:19:42 Bubkes

Thank you for joining, watching, and/or reading. For more on the magic of learning, Contact me – for more on the learning of magic, Contact Jamy.