Eugene Burger – Magic and Mystery

January 12, 2007

Eugene Burger, “universally recognized as perhaps the finest close-up magician in the world,” (Stagebill magazine) has written fifteen best-selling books for magicians, starred in a number of instructional videos, lectured widely to magicians’ groups in over a dozen countries, and his writings have been translated into several languages. His deep understanding of the psychology and philosophy behind magic has won him international accolades, cover stories in conjuring magazines, and four awards from the famed Magic Castle in Hollywood, California. When the leading international trade journal Magic compiled its list of the one hundred most influential magicians of the twentieth century, Eugene Burger was included for his ability to “arouse feelings of astonishment, as well as a host of other indescribable sensations.” His talk, “How Magicians Think,” applies his special understanding of deception and perception to the corporate world. He has performed on numerous television shows in Great Britain, Canada, Belgium, Finland and Japan, and has been featured on PBS’s The Art of Magic and The Learning Channel’s Mysteries of Magic. He’s also been been profiled twice on CNN.

In this conversation with D.J. Grothe, Burger discusses belief in the paranormal, “Spirit Theater,” and the possible deception of the public by paranormal claimants or entertainers such as Israeli psychic Uri Geller and American psychic medium John Edward. He also explores the relationship of magic to religion and to science, what magic can teach us about how we believe, and the kinds of benefits the student of magic receives from learning the art.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Friday, January 12th, 2007. 

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 master’s degree. CFI also has branches in Manhattan, Tampa, Hollywood, Washington, DC and Toronto, Ontario, Canada, in addition to 14 other cities around the world. Every week on this show, we look at some interesting questions in our society through the lens of the scientific outlook. We focused mostly on three research areas. First, pseudoscience and the paranormal. Second, complementary and alternative medicine. And third, secularism and religion. The intersection of religion and science in our society. We look at these three research areas and others by drawing on the Center for Inquiries relationship with the leading minds of the day, including Nobel Prize winning scientists, public intellectuals, social critics and thinkers and renowned entertainers. Before we get to this week’s guest, Eugene Berger, and I’ll be talking with him about magic and its relationship to skepticism and some other subjects. Here’s a word from our sponsor. 

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As some listeners may know, I’ve had more than a passing interest in the art of magic conjuring since I was a little boy. And even more so these days because of what I think it tells us about the psychology of belief. So from time to time, I like to bring someone on point of inquiry who can inform our understanding of public deception, why we believe what we believe from a magicians perspective. There’s also been a role historically that magicians have played in the skeptical enterprise from before Whodini to James Randi now and Penn and Teller today. So it’s a great pleasure for me now to be joined on point of inquiry by Eugene Berger stage. Bill magazine proclaimed him universally recognized as perhaps the finest close up magician in the world. Formerly a student of religious studies, he’s written 15 bestselling books for magicians, starred in a number of instructional videos for the magic community, lectured widely to magicians groups and over a dozen countries, and his writings have been translated into several languages. His deep understanding of the psychology and the philosophy behind magic has won him international accolades, cover stories and conjuring magazines and four awards from the famed Magic Castle in Hollywood, California. His talk how magicians think applies his special understanding of deception and perception to the corporate world. He’s performed on a number of television shows in Great Britain, Canada, Belgium, Finland and Japan, and he’s been featured on PBS is the Art of Magic and other programs. He’s also been profiled twice on CNN. He joins me today to talk about deception of the public in general and by certain claimants of the paranormal in particular. Maybe we’ll get to that. Maybe we’ll also talk about the relationship of magic to religion and to science and what magic can teach us about how we believe, what we believe. Welcome to Point of inquiry, Eugene Berger. 

Well, nice to be here. DJ Grothe. 

Well, I’m glad that you’re on the show, which is we’re going to be able to get into some of my interests and I think some of the intersection between magic and skepticism and the critical rationalist outlook. Also religion, all the things we talk about on point of inquiry. So let’s begin by talking about your background. You got into magic. It was while you were at Yale Divinity School. 

Well, really, I got into magic when I was in second grade. I saw a performance of a magician and at the Oriental Theater in Chicago. And truthfully, at that moment, I felt called to be a magician. But of course, when I went to school, particularly to college, they convinced me that I had to do something worthwhile with my life. 

So I did worthwhile for many years. And then when I was about thirty nine, I realized that, you know, either you’re following your own dreams, you’re following other people’s dreams. So I quit my job and became a magician. And that’s what I’ve done since then. 

And you’ve done more than just be a magician. You’ve impacted the magic community in what many magicians think about the art of magic. Do you think the academic study of religion gave you a leg up as a magician? 

Well, I think so on one level. I mean, you know, religion is about mystery and magic. Theatrical magic is about mystery. So there’s an intersection. Sure. 

Earlier in your career, you became kind of famous for doing magic shows that were dressed up as something like a science. 

Yes, it was a show called Hauntings. And we originally did it in the attic of the house and would show these friends and I were reliving. And then we went on to do it, a Playboy Resort in Lake Geneva. And I’m proud of the Playboy Hotel. And then we took it to colleges here and there. Yeah, it was just it was a show about the history of safe houses. And the idea was that you’d start out as an objective spectator and then suddenly you would realize that you’re participating in a say and you’re holding hands and breathing deeply in these things are happening to you. 

So it was a fun show to do because it had this element of switching the audience from objective to subjective. 

And in that switching where members of the audience were participating in something, at least theatrically, they thought was a science. Did you ever have someone come up to you after a show and and say that not only were they impressed with the performance, but it really impacted or maybe even changed their world view. Now they’re a believer in the spirit world because of your shows. 

Sure. And, oh, you got away. 

But I really want you to get in on that. That’s an interesting subject. 

Well, it is an interesting subject. Part of it is people you know, people write letters to soap opera stars as if they were real people. 

When you came to see our show, you walked into even when it was in the attic, you walked into a space where there were theatrical light rates. You were given a program on the back of the program. There were someone listed as the technical director of the event you’re about to see. And I mean, if you can’t put two and two together, you know, this is a failure of American education. 

The context shows you that this is a show wake up now to start the show by saying and by the way, what we’re going to do here is a show. It’s completely deflated. What you’re trying to create, which is an experience for people. 

So you’re saying we don’t. You didn’t necessarily give a public disclaimer at the beginning of your show, but for the same reason that actors, before they get on the stage, don’t give disclaimers that they might die in Act three? 

Exactly. Exactly. Yeah, people would have come up to me afterward and told me, you know, they had seen their grandfather and so what? And I would just kind of take their hand and say, you must remember, this is a show. And that’s all I would say. I would not go into it. I mean, my job is not to have philosophical debates with people, you know, to be an entertainer. So that’s what I would do. That was my way of dealing with this. You know, take their hand, look them in the eye, pat their hand and say, you know, this is just the show. Now, let’s go to the other side of that question, though, T.J., which I think is much more interesting. Namely, did people after the show tell me stories that surprised me? 

And the answer is yes. 

I had three groups of people come to the show who did not know each other. All of them lived in the same house in Chicago, 14 or Sickle-Cell, which has this reputation, although the present owner has had no experience because I talk to these people, or at least a recent owner and I saw this along the building. 

But but here were three groups of people of the first group told me the story, and then the second group told me about it. And when the third group got there, they said, have you ever heard of a of haunted houses in Chicago? 

And I looked at him and said, You mean like 14 or six Lascelle? Yes, we lived there. I said, yes. The man in the bathtub. And they almost fainted because they had had the same perception that they were in the bathroom. And you’re standing at the sink and you turn around and there’s a man in the bathtub. So, yeah, that story surprised me. 

Right. You mentioned that story to me before. And I met some of our listeners will really get a kick out of hearing it. Now, you’re saying that three people gave you an account of a paranormal experience they had in their lives right in this house? Right. And it was after the show, you know, they met you at the show and told you these two stories. 

Right. And they and they all lived in the house, but did be different times. 

It’s a three story house. And the first floor has the first floor and the. The second floor and then the other party, he has the back of the second floor and the entire third floor. And then there was also a smaller apartment. And I knew that the guy that lived there and that’s how I got to meet the people that own the house maybe 10 years ago. 

What do you think about those kind of scientists or the people who are interested in these kinds of questions after hearing three reports about a haunted house, let’s say like this one on LaSalle? 

Who would want to go to that space and poke around, investigate, explore what the causes might be, paranormal or otherwise? 

Well, I was kind of like that. I wanted to get in there. And when I met this guy who was a bartender and he was gone and we got under the subject of magic and and this and that. And then somehow it came up and do I live there? And. And I just kind of, oh, I’d love to visit it up. And so I came to visit and I got to meet the owner who lived on the first floor. 

And they had had no experiences of any kind. And even the stories about the place kind of surprised them in the 60s. I think Sibylle leak to a radio shands from that address, really? 

This was a real science. 

Well, whatever she did. All right. Simply say up and up. 

One of the things that supposedly happened here is that you would come home and there would be someone in your living room. 

I mean, someone who came there because of this reputation, the place. And you walk into your house from shopping and every server in your living room and they would say the blood. The blond guy let us in and told us to wait here. 

But there wasn’t any blood guy. 

As a magician, did your background in magic and reconstruction of memory and how you know that the fish storying that people do do that give you pause about any of these accounts? I love hearing these kinds of stories. They’re kind of a hobby. 

I think I’m a true skeptic on this one because I really don’t know the answers and drive. Just leaving this open. What’s going on here? I mean, there seem to be should ensure experiences that people have. And one of the tactics, you know, throwing everything out of this book by calling it anecdotal evidence. I mean. In one sense, anecdotal or anecdotal evidence is pretty much all we have in life. It’s called personal communication. 

You’re bringing up a topic that we talk about a ton here on point of inquiry, and that’s the paranormal. 

What could it be? That’s why I brought it up. 

Sure. And there is a whole host of certain questions. I want to ask you about this, but I’d bet a lot of listeners to point of inquiry would consider themselves skeptics in the kind of way that you just described skepticism in conversations you and I have had before. You’ve said that a lot of the people who are in the public eye as skeptics, you know, kind of public skeptics, well, that you don’t really consider them skeptics at all. No, not at all. 

Because what happens, I think maybe there’s a distinction to be made between methodological skepticism and metaphysical skepticism. You know, I guess I’m a methodological shakeup. I really don’t know. You know, I when it comes to say for me, I guess I’m like jump or sharp. Does the wall beyond which I came out, she. 

The and and so I don’t know what’s going to happen after it does. 

So you’re saying that you were open minded, but you were skeptical at the same time, you don’t reject the paranormal just out of hand? 

Absolutely not. I get too many people told me too many weird stories. 

And to just dismiss all of that and say, well, that’s anecdotal evidence. I don’t know if that’s a very. 

Scientific, rational thing to do. 

Yeah, I’m not sure if that is the best reason to dismiss a claim. 

Claims should be looked at. It’s fascinating stuff. 

You know, when we’ve talked before, I’ve marveled at how similar some of the things you say are to the things that Joe Niccolò here at Cyclopes says. He says, no, respect these claimants, take them seriously, go out and look, explore. Don’t reject anything out of hand. And for God’s sake. That’s kind of a joke around here. But for God’s sake, don’t be a debunker. 

Well, that’s a joke. I think the danger of skepticism is that it becomes debunking and that skepticism at all becomes fundamentalism turned inside out. 

And it’s just as rigid and just as crazy. And in the same way that on the other side of the spectrum, the danger of belief. 


Creating an authority that no one can challenge and we see around the world problems with that kind of thing, that that credulous a.. 

Thank God for Sam here. 

All right. He’s been on the show a couple times and he’s, well, getting off the subject, so we won’t go there. I want to get back to what you mentioned earlier, and that’s the subject of disclaimers. 

It seems like magicians, when they’re not talking tricks, they’re talking on and on about ethics. Here’s the question. Does the mystery performer, The Mentalist? We haven’t really talked about what that is, but the magician have a responsibility to not be too deceptive to the public. It could be argued, just like I was talking about the actor on the stage earlier, not needing a disclaimer. Well, that Uri Geller, you know, he’s the Israeli psychic for our listeners who might not know that James Randi went up against years ago. Well, that Uri Geller is just a great mystery performer, a great magician like David Copperfield or like you. And that he’s not responsible of some people in his audience are so gullible that they actually believe he has real psychic powers. Where do you come out on all that? 

Well, once I say to an audience, welcome to the show. 

That’s a disclaimer enough. 

I mean, that’s the end of it, I think. I mean, because other would to say more or walk. I mean, sometimes I wouldn’t go there because what I did say and shows I didn’t go to. Welcome to the show. But there were other impressive disclaimers. Well, the theatrical lights, the program that was the disclaimer. It wasn’t visible verbal disclaimer. And people that stayed afterwards and talked, I mean, we would talk about it. 

But I think to get the moment, to get the experience, you have to put disclaimer on the backburner to get the theatrical experience, because, you know, it maybe it’s maybe it’s being a little too intellectual about it or. 

To get to this point, I mean, to me, once I say it’s a show I’m done with. That tells you everything. Now, we have people, as I said earlier, you know, the people who write the soap opera star is a real person. I’m not sure that anything I could say would convince them because they think I’m saying that just because it’s not true. 

Right. There are actors on the streets of New York who get yelled at because of something their character on the soap opera did. 

All right. So I’m not sure that the mystery performer. What about part of the deal is that if you’re an entertainer, what you would love to do is get controversy going so that your name is before the public. That’s one of the things that entertainers, Triboro, are to do. All entertainers and mystery performers do what they tend to do it by just pretending that they’re real. But it’s all let’s pretend to anyone who understands what a show was. 

So let me ask you. I mentioned Regalia. Let’s stick with him for a second. Do you think that there are implicit disclaimers in Wrigglers Act? Let’s call it that are strong enough? I mean, some people do report really believing that he has real psychic powers. 

I don’t know. I’ve never seen his act, so I really can’t judge them. 

What do you think about John Edward? The psychic medium who used to have that show on TV called Crossing Over. 

Kind of creepy. We were. 

I was performing in Atlantic City with Jeff McBride and John Edward was at the Taj Mahal to with us. 

But he did two shows at the two appearances. 

I think we should call appearances at the Taj Mahal. And it was expensive to go. And they had like twelve hundred people. Fourteen hundred people. 

It’s about the best. Certainly, Brad, if she went to it. And I said you my music I should know just take copious notes. So after the thing we got together, he went through his copious notes and one of the things that happened was he was getting no hits. 

He was having a very bad night. No hits. And finally he said, I’m getting grease and no head and no, no, no. And he stayed with it. You should know you’re out there somewhere. There’s someone here who’s thinking about green Jim Underdown, right. 

He gets he gets a little combative with his audience if if they disagree. Right. 

He famously someone said raise their hand and he said, OK, what’s the connection? He said it was my favorite movie. 

So that was that night. 

A weird thing that happened according to Jeff. Was it. 

Let me interrupt and say that this Jeff, you’re talking about Jeff McBride, another really celebrated paragon of the magician’s art and a great friend of mine. 


Who I got to be in the show with in Atlantic City some years ago. So the this happens is lady one of the front row to some kind of an attack. 

And people began to crowd around her and eventually she was taken out on a stretcher. But when the minute this began, John, China got off the stage and went to the back of the auditorium and began working with someone there until this lady was taken away and then went back to the stage and to just kind of just thought it was very peculiar. You never even mentioned anything about this lady being taken and just kind of walked away with a very bad taste about that. 

So, you know, I mentioned the word mentalist earlier. For our listeners who might not know, there’s this special breed of magician out there called a mentalist. He’s a magician who does magic of the mind, but performs it theatrically as if he has psychic abilities or paranormal powers. Eugene, you refuse to do mentalism per say, right? 

I mean, I, I do what is called mental magic in the profession. What’s the difference? 

Well, in mental magic, I perform as a magician. As a deceiver. That is my art form. Deception. And so what you’re going to see is not real. It may appear that way, but it really isn’t. A mentalist wants to get that question going. 

Is this real? You know that we were talking a moment broke up, getting the controversy going in there by becoming much more in the public eye for myself. You know, I think it’s a matter of temperament more than anything else, rather than upset. I think it’s just that I don’t want to have those conversations with people after my show. 

You don’t want people coming up to you and asking you about their futures. 

Right. Or that or the children or the lost dog or their illness or to the sorrow in their life. I have no special powers to help anyone with sorrow in their life. The only powers I have are human powers to do. And suggesting that I have special powers to me is it is really a deception that goes over the line. 

Mm hmm. So you’re one of the magicians who think that it is going over the line to not believe in psychic powers, but to make a lot of people really believe that you have them and charge them money for healing services or past life regression or any of that stuff. 

Mm hmm. 

Now, at the same time, you know, I feel as if you were more cynical or Machiavellian, you could justify this as, you know, the placebo effect. 

Right. Or even the poor man’s psychologist. Right. Right. 

That’s been one just Katori scheme that you see in the literature out there in that great book by Jerome Frank, Persuasion and Healing. Of course. Of course I’m interested. Until recently, the history of medicine has been the history of the placebo effect. 

Good bedside manner and caring for someone does a lot. 

Now, why he thought that somehow Curt Anderson wasn’t also in that same category is beyond my comprehension. But that’s another’s program, I think. 

Right. That’s a program what we call complementary and alternative medicine. OK. Finishing up here, Eugene. Some people have argued that learning magic. And I know your prized teacher of magic. Some people say learning magic helps a student avoid not only being taken in by charlatans or fake psychics like we were talking about, but that, you know, it promotes creative and critical thinking. 

You teach magic to selected students. 

I’m also the dean of the MCBRYDE Magic and Mystery School in Las Vegas, Nevada, where we have eight programs a year. 

Well, do you agree that that’s one of the benefits of learning magic? It hones your mind or, you know, it teaches critical thinking skills. 

I think all that’s true. Yeah. And I think also I remember years ago we had a bright yellow convention and there is a sort of twelve year old kid who was quite fabulous and he was so savage to put him on the panel. And one of the things he said on this panel before, you know, an audience of a couple hundred people was, you know, if it weren’t for magic, I’d just be at home on the couch watching television, eating popcorn. And I thought to myself, well, I didn’t have that kind of self understanding when I was twelve years old. 

So in addition to promoting creative and critical thinking, you can open some doors. 

Sure. I mean, if it’s true that the greatest fear of the educated person in America is giving a speech. Well, magic is a great practice in the latter years, and it means it’s learning at an early age how to get up in front of a group of people and. 

Not only not be afraid, but light above and do it well and hopefully get a check and applause at the end of the Procrit. 

OK, last question, Eugene. You’ve lectured all over not not only to corporations, but you’ve lectured at universities on thinking like a magician for psychology classes and the like. If listeners interested in learning more about magic, about the perspective that magic brings to thinking about the kinds of questions we talk a lot about on point of inquiry, would you have any advice for him? 

I started at the library as a magician. 

Seven ninety three point eight in the Dewey Decimal. 


And so I took out all the books that they had. I read a mob. And then what did upstage, which was finding magic stories in the Yellow Pages and getting connected to Magic magazines and Magic Club and so on. I think that’s the part most people take. 

In addition, you’ve run a lot of essays on the art and philosophy of magic that can be found at your Web site. Correct. Correct. That’s w w w dot. 

Magic beard, dot com. 

So anything else you want to say about this great intersection of magic and. Oh heck, we’ve been talking philosophy and a little about religion and what to me, you know, there’s a point where even reason stops. 

It’s called mystery with a capital. And one of the reasons I think magic is derived from ancient times is that it reminds us in a highly technological society that the universe is really a mysterious place. 

I think a lot of scientists would revel in that same mystery would. Absolutely. 

Absolutely. And this is one of the strong things about magic is that, you know, mysteries. If I can solve that, it’s not a mystery. It was a problem. What we call a mystery novel is your problem novel because a mystery can’t be solved. It can only be experience. And one of the things I think religion and philosophy part, you know, is that when you have that kind of experience is transforming. 

Yes, I see what you’re saying, but I feel compelled to say that even while experiencing the pleasures of the mysteries of life. There is also a certain delectable pleasure in finding things out and exploring those mysteries in the spirit of science. I’d say that that’s pretty transformative or that it can be pretty transformative as well. Thanks for joining me on Point Inquirer, Eugene. Thank you. 

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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 Quailing. Contributors to today’s show included Sarah Jordan and Debbie Goddard. I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

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.