Richard Wiseman – Theatre of Science

November 10, 2006

Psychologist Professor Richard Wiseman started his working life as a professional magician and currently holds Britain’s only Professorship in the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. He frequently appears in the media, and has written over 60 academic articles and several books, including the best-selling The Luck Factor. His new show in collaboration with Dr. Simon Singh, Theatre of Science, is making its American debut with a run at the Theater for the New City in Manhattan as part of CFI’s Science + Art festival, and is sponsored by Skeptical Inquirer magazine. Featuring lie detectors, bolts of lightning, backwards masking, and contortionist Delia Du Sol, this show revives a Victorian tradition in which audiences attended the theatre to see scientific demonstrations as entertainment. Theatre of Science previously played to sold-out audiences and rave reviews at the Soho Theatre, in London’s West End.

In this conversation with D.J. Grothe, Professor Wiseman discusses Theatre of Science, the intersection of science and art, and the role science plays in our society. He also explores strategies for science advocates to use to confront anti-science trends in our society.

Also in this episode, Nathan Bupp explores a humanist answer to the question “Where are we going?”

This is point of inquiry for Friday, November 10th, 2006. Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe a point of inquiries, 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 master’s degree. CFI also has branches in Manhattan, Tampa, Hollywood, California and Washington, D.C., in addition to now 12 other cities around the world. Every week on this show, we look at the big questions from the perspective of the scientific outlook. What does science say about the fundamental assumptions of our culture? We focused mostly on three research areas. First, pseudo science and the paranormal. Second, alternative medicine. Third, on secularism and religion. We do this by drawing on S.F. I’s relationship with the leading minds of the day, including Nobel Prize winning scientists, public intellectuals, social critics and thinkers and renowned entertainers. Before I get to this week’s guest psychologist, Richard Weisman, I want to welcome some of our new campus groups that have affiliated with us that we’ve helped found since last week. Show new group at University of North Carolina, Pembroke. A new group that’s starting up at Blackman High School in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. A group in Sierra Leone, the Western African nation at the Friends Computer School of Technology. And also at the University of Toronto, the Militarists Society. These groups work with us to advance science and reason at their schools. And if you want to work with us to start a group at your school or to get involved with a group that’s already there, you can find out how at Campus Inquirer dot org. Now, before we get to Richard Weisman, I’m joined in the studio by Nathan Bupp, who is our communications director here at the Center for Inquiry. He answers for us the question, what does a humanist say about where we’re going? 

Recently, I was asked to take part in an interfaith discussion at the University of Buffalo on the question, where am I going? Humanism was included, even though humanism obviously is not a religion. Rather, it is a worldview to tackle this question. Where am I going from a humanistic perspective is to remain grounded in an empirical and naturalistic reality for humanism, by and large, rejects any idea of salvation or schemes or supernatural mornings. So to ponder this question from a humanistic perspective is to ask what is the good life? What kind of life do I want to pursue? How ought I to live? What plans, projects and goals might I strive for in the limited but precious amount of time I have on this earth? Here we are confronted with the real significance of humanism, for humanism is basically an ethical and moral posture to living at attempts to answer questions about meaning and purpose in life. It draws upon ethics, philosophy and science and attempts to deliver normative wisdom. It is concerned about the life well lived or the art of living. It is concerned with the cultivation and refinement of experience in this world. This life for both the individual and the society at large, humanism is uniquely qualified to respond to many of the basic existential perplexities inherent in life. The need for meaning and purpose. And the acquisition of knowledge about the universe around us. And the vast wonderment of nature for humanists. Meaning is not something that is writ large in the nature of things or handed down from on high, but rather a kind of meaning that is pluralistic, unique to each person constructed by individuals in concert with other human beings. Drawing from arterials found in nature, culture and human intelligence, it must be admitted that humanism will never deliver the kind of absolute certainties promised by many of the world’s religions. Rather, humanism provides answers that are tentative, always evolving, open to revision in the light of actual circumstances. One could take comfort, however, in the fact that this kind of knowledge is grounded in empirical reality. We are living in an incredibly fascinating time in history. We are bearing witness to the fruits of an amazing convergence of knowledge gleaned from the humanities and the modern scientific enterprise. What has emerged is a new kind of scientific wisdom. From the viewpoint of the humanist insights derived from the rich, fun to philosophical wisdom drawn from the ages can become refined and enlarged in the light of knowledge emerging in the modern sciences. The sciences explore and discover new ways of looking at the world and the physical processes that sustain life. The wisdom of the ages and the humanities bridge the present and the future with a view to the past, providing us with an anchor, a kind of practical wisdom where we can discover the virtues of excellence and certain limits which circumscribe and inform our existence as humans. It is in this combination of two worlds, humanism and science, where we begin to see a mature enlightenment, a sensibility that steers a course midway between dogmatic religiosity and postmodern subjectivism, able to provide a synoptic and comprehensive vision of the nature of things and the genuine possibility of achieving a kind of cultural renaissance, which I submit. We are in desperate need of today. This is coming to be known as the emerging third culture. The kind of wonder and all inspired by the discoveries of science far surpasses, in my opinion, anything found in the kind of grandiose, supernatural claims proffered by religion. There is, however, a kind of natural piety. An unbeliever can experience a naturalistic spirituality, if you will. This is a kind of reckoning with the universe and the sense that a person comes to realize just how connected we all are to the awesome and vast natural processes at work in the world. And yet at the same time, how insignificant we are as individuals in the grand scheme of things. There’s a line and a great old song that says you think of yourself as any mortal creature, but you’re just a cartoon between a double feature. This can give us some valuable perspective in life. Finally, this all leads to the real possibility that humans just might be able to direct evolution themselves for the better, meaning that we as humans bear the responsibility for a better future. It is up to each and every one of us to attempt to transcend the siren call of our genes and those pesky cultural means, like commercialism and fanatical religiosity and to grow beyond our primitive past. The well-known Catholic and classical theologian St.. Thomas Aquinas said that all earthly happiness is imperfect and tainted with bitterness. Well, for many, there just may be something to that. But the kind of meaning offered by a naturalistic approach to life is more than enough for the humanist know the humanist doesn’t need religion or the promise of an afterlife to be imperfectly happy. This world and this life are sufficient. 

Hi. Car 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, I think, as an essential magazine, The Skeptical Choir. This is the magazine for Science and Reason. Subscribing to the Skeptical Inquirer helps us continue to advance science and reason in our society. And so sure that you love this magazine, but I want you to have a complementary issue to see what we’re all about. To get your sample copy. Just call one 800 six three four one six one zero. I mentioned the point of inquiry podcasts and ask us for your free copy. We’ll get it right out to you. And you can begin to join the Skeptical Inquirer. Thank you. 

I’m pleased to have on the show today Professor Richard Weissman. I first met him in the late 90s when he was teaching a summer course for CFI on parapsychology. He holds Britain’s only chair in the public understanding of psychology at the University of Hurt for sure. He’s conducted a number of skeptical investigations of parapsychology in the paranormal off throughout Great Britain and has published dozens of papers and academic journals and gained an international reputation for research into other unusual areas of psychology, including deception, luck and the paranormal. He’s a passionate advocate for science. He frequently appears in the media in the United Kingdom and the United States, and he gives public talks and performances about his research. His book, The Luck Factor, is a bestselling title that explores the lives and minds of lucky and unlucky people. He’s also a former professional magician. So, you know, I like him. He’s on point of inquiry today to talk about the new show of it. He and Best-Selling Science author Simon Sing are putting on in Manhattan. It’s called Theater of Science, and it’s sponsored by the Center for Inquiry and Skeptical Inquirer magazine. It’s part of the Center for Inquiry’s Science Plus Art Festival in New York City. The sellout show Theater of Science got rave reviews when it first ran at the Soho theater in London’s West End. It starts tonight at the theater for the new city on First Avenue. Richard Weisman, welcome to Point of Inquiry. 

It’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you. So theater of science, what’s the theater of science? 

Well, it’s thought his life a few years ago when Simon thing was that the co presenter of it. So we give a talk. And I’d been sort of using my magic background in the academic and public talks have been given to make them as entertaining as possible. And the fireman was doing a similar sort of thing. And he said, you know, hey, we haven’t we come back the clock sort of Victorian times when people would go out to the theater. No, he’d see a play or musical, but also hear scientists talk about their latest discoveries. And they would show these amazing demonstrations on stage. And that was considered a very acceptable form, went to tainment. Would there be an audience for it? And I said, you I’m absolutely convinced there’s not, but let’s give it a go. We staged it at the Soho Theater in the West End in London and sold out. We did it again, filled out an extended ROM. We took up to the Edinburgh Festival, sold out. So there is an audience for it. It’s about doing the science together. We do some very dangerous demonstrations. We make it as engaging, as entertaining as possible. But fundamentally, it’s about putting science on stage. 

So the audience at the theater of science, they actually see scientific experiments and are entertained by it. 

Yes, I mean that the feel that we’re best known for is the million volts across the stage, which we end the show with. That’s where we have two very large test, the coils that are about six feet apart. They generate about a million votes. We then have a kind of coffin made out of metal which goes between them. Andy, the firemen and myself goes into that, and that struck by the lightning. Now, if the physics or the science is wrong, then this stuff is absolutely lethal and it’s kind of dangerous for the audience because there are only a few centimeters outside the strike zone of the coils. So we’re really trying to push back the boundaries just in terms of the arts as well as saying, OK, let’s do something which is genuinely dangerous. And then let’s have all the safety procedures in place. But still, we know lots of people come along because they’re going to see something they cannot see anywhere else at any other time. 

So you actually shoot lightning during this show? You could get electrocuted if something goes wrong. What’s your goal with experimenting like that? What’s your goal with a show like this? Are you just trying to turn people on to science more? Are you doing something a little more subversive? 

Well, we’re doing a few things. I mean, first of all, there’s lots of people that simply won’t go out to a science talk in a lecture theater, because that’s just not the sort of thing they do. As soon as you put it into a theatrical space, then you get out to a wider demographic. So about about half of the people that attend our shows have no background in science at all. Also, it’s saying, look, you know, science is a path of science, is entertaining, engaging, and it’s not particularly difficult. Lots of people just shut down when they. Numbers. Well, if you come along to Asho, you will get everything we do, you don’t need to have a background sign. So it’s really opening it up for people. 

I’d like to let our listeners know that you can get more information about this acclaimed show, Theater of Science, through our Web site Point of inquiry dot org. Richard, what are some of the other experiments you do in theater of science? 

There’s optical illusions, optical illusions. There’s a lie lie detector test. So we we find the best liar in the audience. We get them out and we rig them up so we can see that physiology being projected onto the screen. We ask them all sorts of questions. The audience see whether they can tell the difference, story, line the truth. We have a sort of explanation of the Big Bang, which revolves around the pickled gherkin getting voltage put across it. We have some stuff on the the Bible code in there as well. So it’s a real kind of mixed bag. 

Let’s take these one at a time. Optical illusions. People are interested in optical illusions, but you don’t think of them all the time as science. I guess they are scientific. What do they tell us about the way people think? Why do you focus on optical illusions for part of your show? 

It’s very difficult, I think, to see a really compelling illusion and not to be curious about what’s going on inside your head. So it’s very closely related to the psychology of magic, which I also talk about in the show. So in one off the show, I make a coin disappear, which takes all of five seconds and then deconstruct the sleight of hand. How you know, where I’m looking influences where the audience look and so on. So the deconstruction takes about five minutes. But by the end of it, we’ve understood about the psychology of illusion. It’s the same sort of thinking behind the optical illusions. We do that. We’re making the point that what you see often is not a very accurate representation of the world around you. 

So you draw on your background in magic for this show. You wrote a well reviewed book on the psychology of magic that comes out in the presentation. 

Some of that. Yes. I mean, we take, as I say, the simplest piece of sleight of hand, the varnish, the coin and unpack. It’s an impact and unpack it. And so the audience realized that when they see a magician perform something incredible, what they’re looking at is amazing psychology at work. 

One of the things you have in the show is contortionism. What’s what’s contortionism have to do with science. I’m interested in. 

Well, that’s pretty the most beautiful part of the show. We work with a very talented contortionist group that devia to solve. And what I wanted to do that was take something. I mean, she does these impossible body bends, but as an audience member, most of the time we have no idea of what’s going on inside her anatomy that would allow her to do that. And most people are not to do it. So we took the idea to a hospital in in London that had an open MRI scanner. We had to do this kind of impossible. Benn’s inside the scanner so we could see what’s happening to her bones, ligaments and so on. And that’s what we feed into the show before they see the act. So now they’re watching it, knowing so much more about kind of wonders of anatomy. That’s what that part of the show is all about. 

It seems like there’s something for everybody in this show, not just scientists, but people are interested in a good performance. There’s gambling comedy. There’s real life lightning, like you talked about before. We talk about some of those other things, I want to step back a little and just talk with you about science in general. Here you’re putting on a show about the wonders of science. How exciting, interesting, compelling science could be. But you’re doing it during a time when many trends in our society seem positively anti science. Has there been any backlash to this show or I mean, people aren’t picketing outside saying down with science, right? 

I don’t think so. I haven’t noticed them. They’re keeping very quiet. They’re kind of very so introverted. 

Pick a. Which would be good. 

No, I mean, the reviews have been very positive. And I think what we’re saying to people is, look, you know, often people will be anti science because they feel excluded from me and they don’t get it. And if they come to our show, I think they feel empowered because they understand what it is we’re talking about and we don’t pull any punches. I mean, Simon does a section on probability theory, but he does it in the context of winning money, in gambling scams and all those sorts of things that people are interested in. So there hasn’t been a backlash. I mean, we’ve presented it mainly in the U.K. where it’s not funny and sort of empty science trend that you have in the US. And if anything, it’s people who come away and say that, you know, if science was that entertaining when I was at school, I’ve been doing a lot more of it. 

So there’s not a big backlash. You’re saying that’s partly because you’re making science interesting, but it isn’t also maybe because you’re not treating all the topics were science definitely just juts up against some of the sacred cow beliefs of our society. You’re not spending hours about why evolution trumps creationism, for instance. 

No, I mean, we don’t spend hours doing anything. I think I longest item is about five minutes, which in itself is a reflection of my own attention span. So we do talk about Bible code. We do talk about. Bang! 

But it’s really what I wanted to be a celebration of of science. I think that it’s very easy to get into a negative mindset, get taken. All you’re doing is just bashing all the sorts of mediums and psychics that you don’t like. And the message that you’re not getting out there, it is a very positive side to this. So we wanted to be a celebration. We don’t really want people to think that science may be bad or, you know, anti science position and so on. It just doesn’t talk to that agenda at all. 

I’d like to let our listeners know that you can get a copy of Richard Weisman’s book The Luck Factor, as well as some of Simon Sing’s titles through our Web site, Point of Inquiry dot org. Richard, to finish up or to start finishing up anyway, I want to ask you, given the works of people like Carl Sagan, other science popularizers, while your work. Richard Dawkins work. Do you think that science is gaining ground in our society against all these calls of unreason? 

Is is the world getting saved for science or is the very state of things the reason why you need to put on a theater of science? 

No, I think science has never had it so good. I mean, I think now if people go into a bookstore, the amount of science that is available to them in a form in which most people can understand is absolutely colossal vs. 10 years ago, when you look at what’s on television with the myth busters and so on, that kind of science programing really wasn’t around certainly when I was a kid. So much so it’s there as well. I think what we’re seeing is science moving far more into mainstream culture, and that’s reflected in theater, science and some other trends as well. I think that there is a celebration of science among the vast majority of people. When they get ill, they go to a hospital. We use cell phones all the time and they’re extremely reliable. All these things are a celebration of science. What you have, I think, is a minority of people that kind of don’t like science and are very good at making their voices heard. And I think we just need to take that away from that and think the majority of people out there are very, very grateful. The scientific progress and that huge majority of the people that we should be speaking to. 

So turning away from the minority who are anti science, you’re suggesting we celebrate all the wonders of science and the progress that science affords us. A lot of our listeners might describe themselves as science advocates who are doing exactly what you are saying, cherishing science for all the reasons you just mentioned. What’s something that a listener to a point of inquiry can do or someone who goes to your show can do in addition to just going to your show? What can they do to help science and reason in our world? 

They can come back and see the show again. And the. 

I think that’s the best thing that we do as they have some some repeat customers who kind of come back again, which I find amazing and very gratifying. 

I think that we that we don’t need to be out there really kind of pushing science in that way. And I think of our everyday lives with celebration of it when we use, you know, cell phones, we use computers, whatever we are engaging with finds all of the time. You know, we are winning the battle. We don’t need to worry so much about it. So I think, you know, it’s working out in the way in which I would certainly want it to be working out here. 

I’m trying to finish up. But you just said something that causes me to ask one more question. If we don’t need to go out there and be such advocates for science because defacto we’re winning the in quotes battle because science is triumphing in all the areas you mentioned. What do you have to say about those popularizers of science who really frame everything in terms of science versus religion, the smart guys versus the dumb guys? What do you have to say about all of that, especially in America, that that contention is portrayed a lot in the in the public mind? 

Well, you know, the smart guys vs. the dumb guys is, to me, just one of the most insulting and patronizing ways of framing the whole debate and then pretty much a way of ensuring that a lot of people would be turned off against science. 

Well, yeah, when people were at school, we know this from a lot of research, they found math and science really difficult. They didn’t find a very positive experience. They were right and wrong answers. And often they were told they got the wrong answers. So when they think of science, they think a filling was difficult and associated with negative emotion. And that’s what we need to change. We need to say to people, you can appreciate science. That’s understanding it. We’re having a deep understanding of it. Anyway, science is not that difficult is the natural way of thinking about the world, and it provides us with more positive experiences of wonderful technology than we’ve ever had in the history of mankind. And you can be part of that. So you should be very inclusive. We should be celebrating science and we should certainly not be framing this as us against them. We are all in this together. 

Richard, I’m interested in. Outsider’s view of American culture, you’ve been to the United States a number of times, but you live in London, so you have a good vantage point. I’m interested what you think about all the things we’re hearing about America being anti science, this intelligent design versus evolution controversy, the stem cell research battles in America. What’s your take? 

Well, it’s certainly the perception in the U.K. is that there is a huge problem in America with creationism and some of that is starting to come over into the U.K. I mean, it just really hasn’t taken hold in the way that it seems has done in the U.S. But for all of that, I think America also lead the way it is seem to lead the way in terms of scientific advance. And so you have this rather bizarre situation that both ends of the spectrum in terms of the kind of creationists and the scientists are world leaders. And I think certainly for most people I speak to in the U.K., they would just say, well, there’s some kind of weird people that creationists or anti science, but actually that the rank and file, the vast majority of people in America are bright, intelligent people that are using the scientific advances that science is providing every day of their lives. So it would be ridiculous to think that they’re anti fine. 

It’s one thing to say that science is more useful than some of these other ways of looking at the world. But you seem to also be suggesting it’s actually a better way of looking at the world. The answers are right when it comes to the scientific worldview versus the answers that you get from some other world views, maybe ancient world views based on religious texts, let’s say. 

Well, certainly I think they’re more helpful. If I’m may I go to a hospital? If I’m fortunate to be a victim of a crime, I want the police to be using forensic methods, not employing a psychic. And I think most people think like that. Most people feel like that. And that sense is a huge ringing endorsement of the scientific method and scientific findings. So I think people are very happy to make the most of whatever technology offers them. And it’d be ridiculous to think that empty science. So I think we should be out there celebrating our successes rather than worrying so much about the kind of anti science movement. 

Thank you very much for joining me on point of inquiry. Richard. Professor. 

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Thanks for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry. Join us next week for a discussion with Michelle Goldberg, the author of Kingdom Coming The Rise of Christian Nationalism. To get involved with an online conversation about the topics in today’s show, go to CFI dash forums dot org. 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 inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of Inquiry’s music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael Whalid, contributors to today’s show and Nathan Bubb Debbie Goddard and Sarah Jordan. I’m your host, D.J. Growthy. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.