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PORTSIDE  March 2012, Week 4

PORTSIDE March 2012, Week 4

Subject:

Why Magicians Are a Scientist's Best Friend

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Mon, 26 Mar 2012 01:01:16 -0400

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Why Magicians Are a Scientist's Best Friend
By James Randi
Wired Science
March 23, 2012 | 
http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2012/03/opinion-randi-magic-scientists/

A magician will instantly see the truth behind any
colleague's illusion. But we have a bit of an advantage:
We know we are being fooled. Scientists are instinctive
doubters who employ a rigorous method to zero in on the
truth, but they aren't necessarily trained to expect
deception by subjects and collaborators.

We can't make magicians out of scientists - we wouldn't
want to - but we can help scientists "think in the
groove" - think like a magician. And we should.

For most of my life I've pecked away at a certain type
of swindler: faith-healers, mystics, mind-readers. Those
of a certain age may remember my appearances on The
Tonight Show with Johnny Carson - a skilled amateur
magician himself who introduced my exposure of flummery
to a huge television audience.

Mine was a lonely voice back then, but I'm not alone
anymore. The immensely talented and popular Penn &
Teller long ago joined me as foes of harmful deception,
along with other magicians; the president of my
foundation, D.J. Grothe, has a background in magic, and
many of our associates are professional magicians, as
well. They all agree with me that the Society of
American Magicians and the International Brotherhood of
Magicians should re-establish their once very active
investigations of the fakers who claim supernatural
powers.

It's not something that is generally done, or maybe at
all - I'd love to see one funding grant that has a line
item for the services of a magician, if somebody out
there has one. But it is long overdue that my peers in
the conjuring profession try to take a more active role
in the elimination of nonsense science by joining forces
with scientists, and that scientists be open to the
proposition.

Please bear with me while I offer you a peek behind the
curtain, a cursory glance at what we magicians are - and
aren't. First, we're entertainers, actors, showbiz
people who have as our primary objective the delight of
our audiences. We're deceivers, yes, taking on roles and
characters to express our art, just as any actor does.

We are not scientists - with a few rare but important
exceptions, like Ray Hyman and Richard Wiseman. But our
highly specific expertise comes from knowledge of the
ways in which our audiences can be led to quite false
conclusions by calculated means - psychological,
physical and especially sensory, visual being rather
paramount since it has such a range of variety.

The fact that ours is a concealed art as well as one
designed to confound persons of average and advanced
thinking skills - our typical audience - makes it rather
immune to ordinary analysis or solutions.

I've observed that scientists tend to think and perceive
logically by using their training and observational
skills - of course - and are thus often psychologically
insulated from the possibility that there might be
chicanery at work. This is where magicians can come in.
No matter how well educated, or how basically
intelligent, trained, or observant a scientist may be,
s/he may be a poor judge of a methodology employed in
deliberate deception.

I particularly like the way our associate, magician and
skeptic Jamy Ian Swiss, has expressed this point:

    Any magician worth his salt will tell you that the
    smarter an audience, the more easily fooled they
    are. That's a very counterintuitive idea. But it's
    why scientists, for example, get in trouble with
    psychics and such types. Scientists aren't trained
    to study something that's deceptive. Did you ever
    hear of a sneaky amoeba? I don't think so. You know,
    they don't get together on the slide and go, "Hey,
    let's fool the big guy."

It's not a novel notion to call in a trickster for
advice. In England, famous magician John Nevil Maskelyne
[1839-1917] appeared in a courtroom to demonstrate how
spiritualist fakers were working their swindles on
vulnerable victims, with great success. French
illusionist GĂ©rard Majax and Italy's Massimo Polidoro
have repeatedly exposed a variety of swindlers in
throughout Europe.

Harry Houdini stood on the floor of the U.S. Congress
and stridently denounced a variety of hoaxers, flaunting
his cash prize for an example of a supernatural feat
that would prove him wrong. Magicians like Penn & Teller
and others have stepped forward to express their expert
opinions concerning expensive and wasteful pursuits of
chimeras.

What we need now is to formalize this. We magicians have
to make it clear that the insights we need to be
magicians can be leveraged in the scientific method, and
that we are on call. And scientists have to be open to
the idea that a magician just might be the most
important research associate on the team when it comes
to looking into anomalous claims.

Sir Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law states: "Any
sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable
from magic." Had I been at Arthur's elbow as he wrote
those words, I'd have suggested adding: "to the
uninformed observer."  The techniques of the conjuror -
or of the "psychic" performer - are apparently magic to
even some of the best-intentioned scientists.

So, scientists, what do you say? We magicians look
pretty good in lab coats, too.

___________________________________________

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