This is point of inquiry for Friday, March 24th, 2006.
Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe a point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank collaborating with the State University of New York at Buffalo on the new science and the public program.
Additionally, CFI maintains branches in Manhattan, Tampa and Hollywood.
Each week on point of inquiry, we look at some of the most fundamental assumptions of our culture, focusing on three research areas. First, pseudoscience and the paranormal. Second, alternative medicine. And third, secularism and religion. We do this by drawing on CFI, his relationship with the leading minds of the day, including Nobel Prize winning scientists, public intellectuals, social critics and thinkers and renowned entertainers. On today’s point of inquiry. I talk with Jamie Ian Suess, one of the world’s top sleight of hand magicians, about his views regarding psychics, science and what magic can contribute to the work of skepticism of the paranormal. But first point of inquiry contributor Lauren Becker has some thoughts about the dangerous distractions hiding over the counter at your local drugstore.
Some teenagers, when they need to make a little extra money, get a job waiting tables, scooping ice cream or sitting babies. Me. I sold drugs. Ever since my first job in high school, often on here and there for a total of almost 10 years in my other life. I’m a pharmacy technician. When they think of skepticism and critical thinking, most people first think of ghosts, psychics and haunted houses. But if you really want to go where the mystery is. Stand next to someone trying to decide which cold medicine to buy retail pharmacy is a frontline of magical thinking on one side of the counter. You have real science evidence, repeatable and reliable results, even have the white lab coats. But on the other side, over-the-counter reason gives way to weirdness. In a land where hopes and dreams can be fulfilled by the contents of a little brown bottle, all for only five ninety nine plus tax. There are many reasons why fuzzy thinking goes hand-in-hand with the personal care aisle. First, people seem to have no idea how their body really works. One day a man came up to me and said he would never buy a multivitamin again. He had just watched a news report that said vitamins were a waste of money because they were too dense to ever dissolve and be absorbed into the body. To prove this, the TV reporter threw a big tablet into a glass of water. Nothing happened. 30 seconds later, the vitamin was still there. No dissolving, no absorption, no need to take the vitamin. I asked the man if he had ever eaten a carrot. Of course, he said. I asked him if he had ever put a carrot in a glass of water. He said, Does anything you eat dissolve within 30 seconds of being dunked in water? He thought for a minute. Do you think there might be something in your stomach to dissolve that vitamin besides water? Obviously, he was missing some vital information about how the body and a good experiment really works, and it limited his ability to think critically. General consensus holds that a daily multivitamin can have positive effects on a person’s health. But he fell for a deceptive and possibly deceitful story that could have led to a poor health decision. A second challenge. Our critical thinking skills are constantly sideswiped by marketing strategies that are explicitly designed to please the eye and dull the brain. The glucosamine and conjoin craze of the past few years is a perfect example. Despite studies that show this stuff is ineffective in humans, it’s still a hot product. Bottles of one hundred and eighty tablets often sell for 35 bucks a pop. Beautiful boxes with silver, red and green labels proclaim triple maximum strength and high potency formula. In fact, they have the same milligram content as every other tablet. Read the label more closely. If you want triple maximum strength, you have to take three tablets instead of one. But who is going to bother reading a label when there’s a bright, shiny flashing red light on the box? I’m not kidding. One manufacturer has gone so far as to wire a little electrode into the packaging that powers a blinking light on the front of the box. I guess when the content of your product isn’t special, you have to make up for it in deceptive exaggeration and distracting flair. It’s ridiculous. But it works. Countless shoppers have been trapped by that blinking red light.
On, off, on, off.
So a void of information gets filled with an abundance of distraction and skepticism fails to make it over-the-counter. But of course, these difficulties are everywhere, not just in front of the pharmacy. In our culture, there’s an unwritten buyer beware agreement between companies and consumers. We understand that anyone with something to sell will hype and even lie to move a product. And it has taught us to bring a healthy dose of skepticism into the marketplace. So why don’t we bring it into the health care aisle to. There’s a third factor at play here. One that makes the promises of the over-the-counter health care industry more difficult to block and far more destructive if believed. While most sales tricks take advantage of human vices like vanity and pride, the claims of RTC products are aimed at a valuable virtue hope. And though it might be good to have a few uncritical, I told you so. Learning experiences, hacking away at our vices. Hope is a precious resource that should be nourished, preserved and protected. When people invest in unproven products that claim to ease this pain or cure that ill, they risk more than a few dollars. They invest a little hope. And when the product fails to deliver, they lose the promise of relief. And ever so suddenly, a bit of optimism toward the future. Sadly, hope is the basis for every scam, and that is the opposite of health care. People have told me that I shouldn’t be so skeptical that I shouldn’t be such a killjoy. Going around telling folks that this or that product won’t work. But I see it differently, I think. Tricks, scams and lies are the killjoy. Skepticism instead is an armor that shields us from the harmful effects of deceit. It’s a sword that cuts through the Brier patch to find a safe road home. Beyond just giving us money or protecting our physical well-being. Skepticism is a guardian of hope. So if you find yourself in the health care aisle and feel your skeptical faculties starting to wane, ignore the flashing lights and go talk to the scientist behind the counter. They’ll help you find some hope. They know all about it.
Hi, AM Barry Carr, executive director of Psych up here at the Center for Inquiry. We’re celebrating our 30th anniversary this year, making the world safe for science and skepticism and dealing with fringe science and paranormal claims. We publish what I think is an essential magazine, The Skeptical Inquirer. This is the magazine for Science and Reason. The March April issue is now on the bookshelves and can be ordered online at w w w syk up. That’s CSICOP dot org. Or by calling our toll free number one 800 six three four one six one zero subscribing to the Skeptical Inquirer helps us continue to advance science and reason in our society. And I’m so sure that you’ll love this magazine. Didn’t want you to have a complementary issue to see what we’re all about. To get your sample, copy the Skeptical Inquirer. Just call one 800 six three four one six one zero. You mentioned the point of inquiry podcast and ask us for your free copy. We’ll get it right out to you. And you can begin enjoying the Skeptical Inquirer. Thank you.
Why should a famous magician speak out in an attempt to discourage devout belief in the supernatural? That’s one question we’ll be exploring with today’s guest. I’m very happy to welcome this week to point of inquiry Jamie, Ian Suess. He’s universally considered one of the world’s top sleight of hand performers. Famous magicians for a subtlety, skill and depth of understanding of magic history. He’s lectured to magicians in 13 countries, made a number of television appearances in the United States, Europe, Japan, including on the Today Show, CBS 48 Hours, Comedy Central, CNN, PBS. He’s been all over the place, including the PBS documentary The Art of Magic. He’s performed internationally for corporate clients and co producers, New York’s longest running off Broadway magic show called Monday Night Magic. He’s also co-founder of National Capital Area Skeptics and a longtime contributor to the skeptical movement and its magazines. He has a new show called Heavy Mental, where he seems to demonstrate real psychic powers. He also regularly lectures on the history of parapsychology, where he explores the ethical differences between those who use magic to entertain and those who claim to have paranormal or supernatural powers. What’s most amazing about his shows and lectures is how he demonstrates how, he says psychics may use techniques of magicians to deceive the public and the scientific community alike. He’s an author of the book The Art of Magic, which is the companion book to the PBS documentary of the same name. And he contributes a monthly book review column to Jeannie, the Conjurers magazine. Jamie, welcome to Point of Inquiry.
Pleasure to be here, T.J..
I’m interested in exploring today, Jamie, the intersection of magic and skepticism. There seems to be a definite connection. Some of the greatest skeptics of the paranormal were also magicians Harry Houdini, Martin Gardner, James Randi, Ray Heim and Joe Nicole Penn and Teller yourself. So, Jamie, what is that relationship between magic and skepticism?
Well, there is a historical relationship. And I also think there’s an intellectual and even a moral connection as well. The first book that ever contained instructions for magic tricks in English was published in Elizabethan England and 50 in 84 was called The Discovery of Witchcraft by Reginal.
And it was a debunking book. It wasn’t a book about magic. It was a book intended to debunk the witch burnings of that time. And the chapter on Magic was basically had some instruction and said, look, here are the heroes house and simple magic tricks work. And if you see someone doing the cups and bowls, this is not sufficient evidence to burn them at the stake. Fortunately, my job is a lot safer these days. But this goes to that connection between magic and deception and critical thinking by the same token. Also, when I use the word magic on stage, I’m really stating a simple moral social contract with the audience. I say I’m an honest liar. I’m going to promise to fool you and then I will do it. And that’s a very different thing than someone who uses such tools dishonestly and misleads the audience about what their claims are.
In the history of skeptical investigations, a lot of really intelligent people have been deceived. I think of studies at various universities in the 70s and 80s, even earlier with J.B. Ryan at Duke, it seems like they were deceived by people who were using tricks of magicians. It seems that you were suggesting investigators of the paranormal would be better off if magicians were included in the investigation.
Yes. Well, indeed, the history of parapsychology as an alleged science is wrapped up with the notion of magicians being part of that research.
Harry Houdini was involved in the very first committees on psychical research, and he denies involvement was based on the premise that if you’re going to be looking at someone who might be cheating, you need a professional cheat.
A trained scientist may know many things, but he or she does not have to learn anything about deception. There’s no such thing as a sneaky amoeba that gets together on a microscope slide and says, hey, let’s get together and fool the big guy. And so deception is my very narrow, admittedly narrow, but also very deep expertize as a magician. I know how to fool people. I know how to recognize when people are being fooled. And although it’s a counterintuitive notion, any magician will tell you that actually the smarter an audience is, generally, the easier they are to fool, because indeed magic happens in the mind. It doesn’t really happen in the eye so much as it is in the mind. And we’re using your smarts against you. All those human intelligence tools that make us uniquely human and that are by and large survival skills can also be manipulated by a smart user like me who wants to use them against you.
So when a scientist is investigating the paranormal, you say a magician should be involved. That’s. That brings. Someone like James Randi, who argued it’s not enough to be a scientist. You need the background in magic if you’re not going to be duped in these investigations.
Smart people always get fooled not only in magic shows, but also in terms of people who are using deception, whether it’s a con man, whether it’s the so-called psychic smart people or are readily fooled. In the days of spiritualism, for example, physicists, judges, other prominent members of society were involved because you get this kind of intellectual arrogance that, well, I obviously could not be fooled by a simple magic trick. But in fact, you can be or else magic wouldn’t work.
So, yes, I think that any paranormal research where the potential for cheating and deception is present cannot really cannot be taken seriously unless there is someone with a serious expertize and magic present. And by the way, that’s not just any magician. That’s a magician who has that particular area of interest and expertize available to him.
So in the era of 19th century spiritualism, just as Harry Houdini, as a prominent magician, was a vocal expert in the bunker of Spiritualistic, claims of the science and so forth, of that time, you know, by the time of Harry’s death, physical phenomena as evidence of claims of the paranormal, physical phenomena, meeting ghosts, walking and writing on slates and things of sound chamber were pretty much dead for about 50 years until someone else came along and began to use physical phenomena as evidence of the paranormal. And that was the Israeli magician, Uri Geller, who was using bending spoons, using essentially magic and sleight of hand techniques for claiming that they were thinking. And so another magician comes along at the time. And that, of course, is James Randi. And James Randi is probably the most visible sparkplug of the modern skeptical movement.
And he took that took that role again of reminding us, reminding scientists that you need a magician present in order to figure out what it’s like he’s doing if he’s cheating.
What kind of influence did Randi have on on your career or even your, let’s say, your world view, your perspective on life? To listen to Penn and Teller, Joe Niccolò, other people involved and interested in investigating paranormal, Randi seems to be really the seminal figure for many of those top names in in skepticism.
Randi certainly had a profound influence on the and at various stages in my life. He’s been an inspiration, a colleague, and eventually, I’m pleased to say a friend. You know, Penn and Teller have have said publicly that without James Randi, there probably would not be a Penn and Teller. And that’s because Randi really addressed this idea of honest lying. I often call myself the honest liar. Again, I promise to fool you and then I do it. And Randi really was the epitome of this. And I saw Randi on television when I was a young boy just as a magician. And in that regard, he could be he inspired me in that way. But later, when he wrote the book, The Magic of Uri Geller, which then was eventually reissued under another title, although I was already a kind of a natural skeptic from reading about Houdini as a young boy, it kind of radicalized me about these subjects. It heightened my interest and my passion for it. And years later, when I went on to help start the National Capital Area, skeptics in Washington, D.C., from that point forward, he really became a working colleague. And today, I’m very pleased to say we’re close friends as well. And I have appeared in some capacity or other at every one of the amazing meetings that are produced by the James Randi Educational Foundation.
Again, I’d like to let our listeners know that you can pick up a copy of Jamy Ian Swiss, his books, The Art of Magic and Shattering Illusions through our website Point of Inquiry dot org.
I want to switch gears a little and talk about one of the classics. Imagine the eight volume Tarbell Course in Magic begins with an essay on how learning magic may help people from being duped by charlatans, fake psychics. Some magicians, though, are kind of, oh, I don’t know, pro paranormal. It seems like they look at theatrical magic stuff like you do, or David Copperfield, David Blaine. Do they look at that as just being symbolic for real magic that actually exists? Do you have an opinion on this?
But I do think magic is a great way to, especially when you get hit by magic when you’re young. I think it’s a great way to develop critical thinking skills. It’s also a great way to learn some of the fundamental lessons. Don’t believe what you see. And I think magic is can be enormously useful in those ways. That said, you know, magicians are a very diverse lot. And although there are many skeptics and rational thinkers among us among our ranks, there is also a whole nother school that use magic to invoke the traditions of the occult and of mysticism. And so I you know, by no means are we philosophically homogenous.
Jim Underdown, do you think some of these well, in magic, the called mentalists people who do magic tricks to make it seem like they’re doing mind reading or some other cool practices, do you think some of these people take themselves too seriously?
I don’t know about taking themselves too seriously, but I think the audience sometimes takes them too seriously and that as some of these performers encourage that. What I mean to say is mentalism is just the jargon term that magicians use among ourselves. I means the branch of magic that creates the illusion of psychic powers and mind reading, predicting the future, things like that. It’s another branch of magic and has a long history as such. But today there’s a popular theme among Mentalist to claim not psychic powers per say, but instead to claim that they are using remarkable levels of expertize and ability with regard to things like body language, neurolinguistic programing, which is a complete pseudoscience and other psychological techniques, hypnotic techniques. This and that. And some mentalists magicians satisfy themselves with saying that since we’re not making a psychic claim, therefore they’re telling the audience a responsible truth. I don’t think so. I think this has become the modern day psychic claim or, if you will, the modern day paranormal claim. And although psychology has always been an element of magic, there’s no question about that. Nevertheless, I think a lot of people make these kinds of claims on stage. And the audience, since it sounds more rational and reasonable than a direct psychic claim often falls for it. And I think that’s a mistake and it’s terribly misleading. It’s a different kind of supernormal claim.
Do you think mentalists or psychic entertainers, those kinds of performers? Do you think they should begin the show with a disclaimer?
Well, it’s not for me to tell someone exactly how to do their art. And a show is a show and a lecture is a lecture. So I think there are many, many different ways.
It’s not for me to demand that someone turn their entertainment into a lecture. I think that’s kind of presumptuous to say so. And it’s probably a bad idea. But there are many ways to communicate the truth to your audience. And it’s not just about making a simple statement before or during or after that. There are many ways to to communicate a point of view, after all. Penn and Teller, for example, talk about these subjects very often and they don’t. It’s not they don’t do it by standing there and issuing a press release.
So you don’t mentalists are very quick to claim the idea that, well, I can’t stand there in front of the audience and say, you know, it’s all a trick. What good is that? And I agree that’s not very good. But that show shows a failure of imagination and commitment on their part. As to the many ways that you can communicate an idea to an audience and also what your responsibility as a performer is to an audience. I like to think that my audiences will leave the theater a little better prepared to live their lives and deal with the outside world rather than being a little worse off or a little more confused.
Your audiences leave a little better prepared to deal with the real world. But some people say that going to psychics is kind of a poor man’s psychotherapy, a way for people who believe in psychics to deal with the real world. In your lectures on this topic, you debunk the claims of the psychic even while demonstrating psychic abilities in your shows. You know, as a magician. But some people do argue that even if it’s fake. Psychics belief in psychics give people hope. This seems to be the central theme of James von Progs, John Edwards, Sylvia Browne’s messages when they’re on Larry King Live or whatever, that they’re giving hope to people that this life isn’t all there is. So isn’t going to psychics just sort of poor man’s psychotherapy, just another way of coping with the problems of everyday experience?
I just think some people can occasionally benefit from the so-called poor man psychiatrist if they happen to fall into the hands of a friendly and supportive psychic. The friendly and supportive psychic, however, is an extremely rare breed. More often, the allegedly friendly and supportive psychic is some sort of gypsy fortune teller storefront who is trying to take an old lady’s life savings and will walk out the door and move to a new location the moment they are successful.
And I think that inherently this is the risk involved in looking to a lie as something that helps you. The only thing, if I could ask anything of the people closest to me in my life or the people I rely on personally or professionally for help in my life, the if nothing else, I want to ask them all, never lie to me for my benefit. I will be the judge of how I will use truth to help me find my way in the world. But of course, this is the traditional tool of religion, is it not? Which is to give people this kind of hope of an afterlife without the stick of an afterlife. There’s there’s not much power in trying to get people to give up money to the church on a weekly basis. But the problem to me is, is that hope built on that kind of false premise takes away people’s responsibility for living their lives in the present. And so if the truth is, is that all you have is the here and now for as long as you’re on the planet, don’t you want to be encouraged to make the most of that? That’s what I want to do. And finally, I would say that in the in the case of the television psychics that talk to the dead types, I think their false hope is the worst kind of predation. I think what I find most offensive about that breed, and I find many things offensive about them. But the thing I find most offensive, and I’ve seen their work up close and alive, is that while they stand there and pretend to be helping people with their grief. In fact, they are not only preying on their grief, but they are making the worst of that situation because they prevent people from moving on. Part of the grief process is to eventually accept death and move on. And we commit yourself to living your life, living among the living. And I have seen these people constantly basically turn people back in on their grief and give them ways where they have to drive them to hold onto it. I once saw one of these demonstrations where a woman said, you know what, sometimes I get this feeling and this was a woman who had lost her child, the most terrible thing that could happen to a human being. She said, some times I get this feeling in the room, that sort of vibration is that my son trying to reach me and instead of telling this woman that it probably isn’t. But it’s understandable why she would hope it was, but that, in fact, she needs to move on with her life and deal with her daily needs instead of telling her to that was her that which would have been the greatest kindness. Instead, the so-called psychic told her, oh, yes, that’s definitely your son trying to break through. You need to stay attuned to that. Imagine how he has riveted her to the mock the pain of her grief and preventing her from moving forward with her life. I think it’s vicious and awful.
I’m interested, Jamie, in whether or not you think paranormal belief is growing. You just talked about the TV psychic. Do you believe belief in the paranormal is bigger these days than ever? In other words, I’m wondering if the skeptical movement has actually made a dent in this. Has it influenced people to look at these claims more critically?
Well, this is the perennial question for skeptics, isn’t it? This is the question we are asked by others, and this is the question that we ask ourselves. And this seems to lie via a larger view of the role of skepticism and of what you’re really tackling.
You know, skeptics tend to think that if we only could make people aware of the scientific facts about astrology, for example, then people would stop paying attention to it. They would understand that there’s that there’s no scientific legitimacy for it. But to me, this is all wrong. The fact of the matter is, is that when you try and explain to someone to debunk claims of the paranormal, to debunk astrology, to debunk homeopathic remedies, to debunk speaking with the dead, I mean, the list goes on forever. These are people who have chosen a set of beliefs, not because of the evidence. The evidence isn’t what their world view was based on. They’ve chosen it for other reasons, other desires. It fulfills other needs. And you are indeed dealing with a world view. You start to argue with somebody about reading their daily astrology column. They get much more upset than you would think that they should. But in fact, it’s because you are trying to take on someone’s world view. And let’s let’s face it, the notion of magical thinking has been around for tens of thousands of years. Conservatively, Neanderthal buried is dead with food and tools, which we take to mean indicate some belief in the afterlife, some belief in magical thinking. So you’re taking on a lot. And, you know, there’s a scientific method as a way of of determining truth is a very recent it is the very existence of humans on the planet is a blip in geologic time.
The existence of the scientific method is a way of determining truth is a barely measurable blip. I mean, we go to court and we go to Galileo and let’s see what I look back a little bit. We had some precursor with the Greeks. And so I’m not convinced that that’s ever going to become a natural habit of the human species. And, you know, the skeptical activism may be a you know, it’s a dirty job, but someone has to do. But I’d be the last one in the world to be optimistic about the outcome.
Well, filled with such optimism as you are, Jamie, let me ask, what advice would you give listeners if they agree with everything you said in this interview and want to get involved in this dirty job, skeptical activists? What are some things they could do to get involved?
Well, speaking first.
First of all, with my own firsthand activities, I would refer people to the games, Randi Educational Foundation, which is W w w Randy R.E. and the dot org, the local skeptical group that I helped begin almost 20, 19 years ago.
Now the National Capital Area skeptic’s for people in the Washington, D.C., or that Tri-State area is easy to find as well, NCAA dot org. And that is only one of some 30 ared skeptical regional skeptic organizations that can be found all around the country. And you can find your way to those, often through national skeptical organizations and publications like Cyclopes, their magazine, The Skeptical Inquirer or the Skeptics Society in California, who publishes the excellent Skeptic magazine. There are many ways to get involved. And I would also say that despite my conservatism about the value and the effect of skeptical activism, I would also say as a longtime skeptic that there are many benefits for being involved in. One of those benefits also is to find like minded people where you feel let’s put a positive list of a fringe element for your rationality. And it’s just nice to have dinner with rational voices sometimes Jim Underdown.
Thank you very much for being on the show, Jamie.
My pleasure to be here, D.J.. Thanks for having me.
You’ve seen the headlines, Paranormal Goes Primetime Vatican hosted conference on Intelligent Design, More clinics to offer alternative medicine. Christian Fundamentalism Drives U.S. Extremism. These stories sum up the immense challenge facing those of us who defend rational thinking, science and secular values. What one adviser to the Bush administration dismissed as the reality based community. Who could have imagined that reality would need defenders? The educational and advocacy work of the Center for Inquiry is more essential than ever. And your support is more essential than ever. Show your commitment to science, reason and secular values. By becoming a friend of the center today, whether you are interested in the work of psychology and skeptical Inquirer magazine, the Council for Secular Humanism and Free Inquiry magazine, the Commission for Scientific Medicine, or a Center for Inquiry on campus. By becoming a friend of the center, you’ll help strengthen our impact. If you are just learning about CFI, take a look at our Web site. W w. W. Center for Inquiry dot net. We hosted regional and international conferences, offer college courses and conduct nationwide campus outreach on our Web site. You’ll also find information regarding our new representation at the United Nations and important national media appearances. We could not pursue these projects without your support. Please become a friend of the center today by calling one 800 eight one eight seven zero seven one. Or visiting w w w dot center for inquiry dot net. We look forward to working with you to expand our reality based community.
Thanks for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry. Join us next week for a discussion with Nobel Prize winning mathematician Herbert Holtmann. We’ll explore his views concerning religion and science. Views expressed on point of inquiry don’t necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dot org or by visiting our Web site. Point of inquiry dot org.
Point of inquiries produced by Thomas Donnally and recorded at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of Inquiries. Music is written and composed by Michael Palin. Contributors include Tom Flynn Lauren Becker, Benjamin Radford, Sara Jordan and David Kipsang. I’m your host, DJ Grothe.