Saturday, January 24, 2009

Skeptics revealing magicians?

I want to highlight an intriguing discussion that popped up on Skepticblog. It starts out with a video of Michael Shermer performing a magic trick called "The Magic Cube". He says that he will reveal the trick tomorrow, but "tomorrow" is several days past already. Perhaps he had a change of heart? Mark Edward, the magician member of the Skeptologists, said the following:
Is the Skeptologists to be a constant stream of magic trick revealers? To me that’s just wimpy. I find this annoying. There is no special or new scientific inquiry involved in the revelation of magic tricks that can be bought in any magic store or as part of a child’s magic set. This has all been done before, breaks no new ground and places us on par with The Masked Magician.

There’s so much more truly malicious fraud, pseudo-science and mumbo-jumbo going on out there, it seems a shame to waste any more time on trickery.
D.J. Grothe, host of the Point of Inquiry radio show and podcast, chimed in to agree with Mark Edward.
Revealing how a magic trick is done to people who have no interest in the art of magic in no way encourages critical thinking. It requires no effort to learn. Long debates in the magic community have ensued exactly on this point: when, if ever, is public exposure OK. I don’t think it is ever OK, except in the case of measurable harm resulting from secrets being kept (example: ) No one is being harmed by avoiding public exposure of this simple trick, and so I object to its exposure, even as simple as it is.

To take a magic trick, reveal it to a non-magician audience, and to call that “skepticism” is what increasingly gives organized skepticism a bad name in the magic community, even when it is a trick that one might consider very basic.

You should recognize that Randi *never* exposes the secrets of magic to scientists or to the public in the hope that they will be wary of, say, psychic claims. Instead, he duplicates the exact supposed psychic feats, which he argues should encourage the gullible scientists and public to realize that if a magician can duplicate such psychic feats, there are other, more rational, explanations than the supernatural.
I had no idea that the magic community felt that way. I mean, there are many magicians (James Randi, Penn and Teller, even Houdini) who are prominent skeptics, so I thought they were generally sympathetic. I didn't realize that skeptical magicians had to walk on eggshells with the magic community. In fact, I distinctly recall that Randi revealed several of Uri Geller's tricks (see here). However, I think this falls under the category of secrets which cause measurable harm. Uri Geller convinced many people, even experts, to put money in his pockets, and write books supporting him. Still, I wonder if Randi's actions caused any backlash among magicians.

I would prefer to respect the wishes of the magic community, but what if it becomes an obstacle to the goals of skepticism? Revealing basic magic tricks may hurt the reputation of skepticism among magicians, but doesn't it also advance the cause of critical thinking? D. J. Grothe claims that it does not.
If someone thinks that knowing the secret to this or other tricks makes them authoritative experts on the methods that psychics or other paranormalists may use, not only are they mistaken, but they are in fact dangerously exposed to being fooled hard by other methods that they haven’t learned. Its what Jamy Ian Swiss calls being “half smart” — like when a cheating gambler learns that some mark at the table has been bragging about knowing one method of cheating, he knows not only which methods to avoid during the game, but how to better cheat the guy who has only a little knowledge. As Alexander Pope warns, “A little learning is a dangerous thing.”
This is a very good point. I think it can be extended into an even deeper principle of skepticism. You just can't keep track of all the different ways that the human mind can be fooled. If you think that you can, you risk being unpleasantly surprised.


Anonymous said...

I hadn't thought about this issue much either, but I'd say that just revealing the trick is not advancing skepticism or critical thinking--skepticism is not about having knowledge, it's about a process of obtaining knowledge. I think watching a magic trick performed and trying to figure out how it's done is a good exercise in critical thinking and therefore a better way to advance the cause.

Hugo said...

I concur! Magic tricks are fun.

Incidentally, I bought a book on magic when I was something like 10, 11 or 12. The influence of fundamentalism on my mind though, had me worried/ashamed about it. (Because we all know, magic and satan worship / the occult is all related. Yea. Um...) So I hid this book and didn't want to display it on my shelf.

Now isn't that scary? The way such memes can ruin yer youth...