Jamy Ian Swiss – Skepticism and the Art and Philosophy of Magic

May 23, 2008

Jamy Ian Swiss is universally considered one of the world’s top sleight of hand performers, famous to magicians for his subtlety, skill and depth of understanding of magic’s history. He has appeared on a number of television programs in the United States, Europe, and Japan, including on The Today Show, CBS’s 48 Hours, Comedy Central, CNN, PBS Nova and the PBS documentary, The Art of Magic. He’s performed internationally for corporate clients, lectured to magicians in over a dozen countries, and is a co-producer of New York City’s longest-running Off-Broadway magic show, Monday Night Magic. He is also a co-founder of the National Capital Area Skeptics and the New York City Skeptics, and a long-time contributor to the skeptical movement and its magazines.

In this conversation with D.J. Grothe, Jamy Ian Swiss talks about his skeptical beginnings, and argues that magic done well is an “entertaining form of skepticism, rather than a debased form of mysticism” (as described by Adam Gopnik in the recent profile of Jamy in The New Yorker). He explores some of the philosophy of why and how magic works, and examines ethical and artistic issues related to the performance of contemporary magic and mentalism, as reflected in the work of a spectrum of performers ranging from Derren Brown to Marc Salem to Uri Geller. He also wonders about the effectiveness of the skeptical movement overall, and the value of getting involved in the skeptical community.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Friday, May twenty third, 2008. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry, I’m D.J. Growthy Point of Inquiries, the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing science and reason and secular values in public affairs. Before we get to this week’s guest on one of my favorite topics, Jamie Ian Suess on magic and the philosophy of magic and skepticism. Here’s a word from Skeptical Inquirer magazine. 

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I’m happy to have Jamy Ian Swiss back on the show, he’s universally considered one of the world’s top sleight of hand performers. He’s famous to magicians for his subtlety, his skill, his depth of understanding of magic. History has a longtime column in Genie magazine, a magic periodical. He’s appeared on a number of television programs in the United States and in Europe and Japan, including the Today Show. CBS has 48 Hours, Comedy Central, CNN, PBS, Nova on and on. He was prominent in the PBS documentary The Art of Magic, the companion book of which he also coauthored. He’s performed internationally for corporate clients, lectured to magicians in over a dozen countries, and is co producer of New York City’s longest running off Broadway magic show. Monday Night Magic. He’s also a longtime skeptic and co-founder of the National Capital Area Skeptics on a new organization in New York City. New York City skeptics. He’s a longtime contributor to the Skeptical Movement and its magazines. Welcome back to Point of Inquiry, my friend Jamy Ian Swiss protegé. 

Thanks for having me back. It’s really a pleasure. I, I listen to the show regularly and subscribe to it on my on my iPod, as a matter of fact. 

And occasionally I’m embarrassed by friends. I just happened to miss one and it just happened just the other day. And somebody said, oh, did you hear that last episode? And so I had to go back and listen. 

So when you were on the show before, Jamie, we talked really about the relationship of the magician’s art to skeptical inquiry. You know, that’s one of my favorite topics to explore. And you’re an expert in it. Our listeners will know that some of the most effective skeptics have also been magicians Joe Nicole, James, Randi Penn and Teller, you many, many others in the history, skepticism. 

So to start off, Jamie, do you think you’d be as big a skeptic as you are if you weren’t a magician? 

Today, it seems to me that the two are so intertwined, both in my work and career and as well in my sort of intellectual development. It’s hard to answer definitively. I will say that my father raised me with great lessons in critical thinking tools. He was a logical thinker. It wasn’t for, say, a science buff. He’s actually more of a philosopher by nature. But, you know, I can remember at 11 talking about the size of the universe and how it might have started and things like that and religion and sort of rational ways. And so I think to some degree, there’s a good chance I would have ended up with it even without magic. But I also think that magic is actually a great learning tool for young minds. 

I was recently at the home of Danny Hillis well-known technologist, who, among many other things, is in the process of working on a project to build a clock that will run for 10000 years. And Danny is a brilliant guy, has a wonderful family. And we were talking about the fact that when his kids were younger, he hired a magician to come and tutor them essentially in magic. Not that he intended for any of them to particularly stay with it. And most of them have fallen away from it. But he just felt that it provided good critical thinking skills and good lessons about about the world. And I was, in fact, talking to one of his young daughters about it, and she still thought of it finally and thought that it had served her in in those ways. 

I think I remember hearing that Carl Sagan was of the same mind. One of his sons, I think, took magic classes from one of our mutual friends, Max Maven, kind of with that same intention, you know, learning some magic, like Harlyn Tarbell says in the beginning of the Tarbell course in magic kind of opens you up to critical thinking. 

Yes, that’s right. I mean, it teaches you some important lessons about the world. Perhaps the first and foremost one, which is things are not always as they appear. 

So, Jamie, I’m curious how it all started for you. How how did you get into skepticism and magic, your earliest memory? Tell me that. 

Well, I started in aggregate about seven when my father bought me a magic trick. He was directed to the magic shop by a friend of his who was an amateur magician, you know, within a couple of years. I was reading about Whodini when I first read about Whodini. I was really fascinated, not so much by the escape that didn’t interest me so much, but by the psychic busting, busting, phony spirit mediums and so forth. Something about that captured my imagination. And I remember having friends in elementary school who were reading Sherlock Holmes books, and I was reading them because I would say, well, we’ll go. You know, the day that the guy who wrote the stuff was an idiot, you know, he got fairly close. But I think I probably my first real experience and perhaps the sign that I was I was destined to be a lifelong skeptic was I was about eleven years old and my parents brought me to the World’s Fair and at the World’s Fair, which was all about technology and the future. I saw this machine that did a computerized handwriting analysis. Now, computers in those days, because course, gigantic machines that use punch cards. And some of our audience, I suppose it’s like talking about was drawn buggies before the car. But nevertheless. And so I paid a dollar, which was a lot of money and the machine word and smart and all of that. And then it handed me a although it’s given have all supported by what I had to sign my name on one of these punch cards. And then the operator put the punch card in in the computer. And then all of this activity went on mechanical activity, and then it delivered a little stack of punch cards. And each punch card had printed at the top a personality trait. 

So it was kind of a technological recasting of a psychic reading. 

That’s exactly right. And the reading seemed okay and kind of interesting. But I was troubled by wasn’t valid because what little I understood about computers, I did understand that they had to read the punch marks, that this was the way you essentially communicated with a computer in these coded punch marks. And I thought, well, if that’s true, though, how can the machine look at the signature? And this troubled me. 

And some months later, my elementary school class made a field trip to a computer center. And we were taken through a place with these gigantic computers that filled rooms and noisy and all of this. And we’re going along on this tour and we walk into this, another room and the tour guide points to machine. 

And she says, and this is not a computer. She says, this is a machine that simply sorts postcards. And I look at it and if it doesn’t look exactly the same as the machine that I saw at the World’s Fair, was it at all? Some time goes by and my parents say, well, we’re going back to the World’s Fair. And I say, oh, we have to go back to the. The handwriting analysis machine. And my parents said, you know, we’ve already done that. We were building that building that pavilion. And there’s lines you have to wait on for hours. Let’s go see something else. And I begged and insisted and pleaded. And I had to go back. We have to go back. We have to go back. And finally, they they relented and we went back and I looked and sure enough, I confirmed that the machine was the same. It was not a computer. It was simply a card sorting machine. And I was on the one hand outraged by this because they had taken they had basically scanned me. They had taken my allowance, you know, a week for this slowly handwriting analysis that basically gave me a list of cards that were universal cold read statements, essentially. But on the other hand, I was proud of myself for having busted the scam myself. And I that’s that’s really my first personal adventure and skepticism. 

You were recently profiled, Jamie, in this great New Yorker piece where Adam Gopnik says at some point that you really started thinking of magic as a way to entertain with skepticism rather than as a debased form of mysticism, something like that quote. In other words, magic for you is a kind of skepticism, even as it’s filled with mystery and wonder, right? 

Yes. I thought that that was a very interesting observation on Adam’s part, because it actually describes something that I completely believe and I’ve spent my life on. But it was a very cogent and insightful description. And what we’re really talking about there is that many people and many magicians even think that magic is the wake up and puts it is the based form of mysticism, though the way to put it is that magic is an attempt to express almost a wish for a supernatural power. 

And in fact, there are some theatrical magicians who see magic really as a way to connect. More with the spirit world. You know, they perform at New Age festivals and the like. You’re on the other side. 

That is exactly right. And there is there is a movement in magic. 

And I think it’s somewhat of a fringe movement, but nevertheless, one that’s very present, invisible, that is very interested in the links between conjuring and the occult, or at least Magic’s historical occult underpinnings and even historical, spiritual and religious underpinnings. I’m not very interested in this and I actually question the relevance of it. And in some ways, I think that what makes magic most interesting as an art is the cognitive dissonance, if you will, the fact that the audience is completely aware. 

I’m confident that what they are seeing, convincing and impossible as it is, is still intellectually at least not possible. That when they see a woman float in the air and the magician pass a hoop over her, every single visual signal, every bit of evidence supports the notion that she is defying gravity, that the magician is defying gravity and that she is levitating. And yet the audience knows intellectually has absolute confidence, even though they don’t know how that’s happening. They know that ultimately it can’t really be happening. And they do knowledge that duality, I think, is beautiful and fascinating and speaks to many things about the human condition, about mystery and how we encounter it and how we think about it. And that is not a debased form of mysticism. It’s the contrary. It’s actually the connection with a rational, inquiring mind. So I think that that wonder, you know, we often kick around this term, wonder and very often wonder is associated with a childlike notion of not knowing. Childlike wonder is really about not knowing. But I don’t think that’s real. What do I think wonder is really an adult emotion that the people who know the most about how the universe works, the more you know, the more you really can understand awe and wonder of mystery. Because the scientist is the one who looks at the world and with every new discovery, is faced with all of the things that he or she doesn’t yet know, that we still need to know that we still seek to discover. And that ultimately is truly what the embrace of mystery and the understanding of wonder really is. And I think magic links us to that. 

And that’s really why you argue magic has a central role, that society needs magic to kind of keep itself honest. In this New Yorker piece, you kind of imply that every magical experience, every experience of seeing a great magical performance is in a way an experience of skepticism because people know it’s not real yet. They can appreciate it. And if only people had that same kind of approach to all the other claims that they get day in, day out. 

Yes, but I don’t want to suggest that. I therefore think that magic is just about presenting people with puzzles to solve. As a matter of fact, it’s kind of the other way around. I think that when you can capture someone’s imagination by giving them the experience of mystery, by giving them an experience that seems impossible, wondrous, beautiful, imaginative, I think that’s an inspiring thing. It’s a very human thing. And I think then it informs people about how they face mystery in the rest of the world. This is one of the things I’m interested in is truth telling them, very interested in how we determine what’s true and what’s not true. And magic is sort of an artistic expression of that. But there are many other expressions of that. And I just gave a talk coincidentally yesterday about confidence games and street scams. And I also do demonstrations of and have clients of the world of casino cheating and things like that interested in psychic fraud. I’m interested in all these areas of perception and where they can hurt us and where they don’t hurt us and where they really help us. As you say, in magic. And I’m also interested in how people face mystery. Because some people are really challenged by the mysteries of magic, which ultimately they’re a rather trivial and harmless. And yet they do not apply their critical thinking skills to really important questions like their style of health care, like whether homoeopathy is nonsense or not. Whereas there are other people, you know, I love audiences of science, for example, I find that sometimes they tend to be very embracing of magic because they look at magic as a burlesque of their work. They understand. So clearly, what is and is not possible. They got confused by magic. Instead, they can sit back and relax and enjoy this pretend version of the world, and they will waste their critical energies by trying to figure out how the magic trick works because they spend their lives doing that in larger ways. And I think that’s a good lesson for all of us. 

You just spoke about all the domains in which you kind of apply your background to Undeceived. You’re talking about confidence games or cheating at casinos. Your background in on deceiving goes way back. You were one of the founders of the D.C. Area Skeptics Group and now a new skeptical organization in New York City, right? 

That’s right. Twenty years ago, we celebrated our 20th anniversary last year, as a matter of fact, of the national capital area. Skeptics, she dot org. When I was living in the Washington, D.C. area for a while and almost exactly 20 years later last year, I helped begin the New York City skeptic’s. We are NYC skeptics dot org. And I remember way back in in Washington, D.C., talking with some friends who helped start the group with me, Chip and Grace Denman, among others. And I remember us talking about how, boy, you think in the seat of government in Washington, D.C. If ever there was a need for some rational inquiry, that would be the place. And there would not skeptics group at the time. And one could certainly say the same for New York City. 

Yeah. And in fact, that’s the reason debt for CFI being both in D.C. and New York City and this growing skeptic’s movement that you’ve been a part of, the growing humanist and rationalist movement, the Centers for Inquiry, growing everywhere are all with the with an eye toward advancing this critical rationals point of view. But I have to chime in and say it’s not just about debunking your activity, isn’t just about being skeptical of others beliefs. You’re advancing kind of a positive and affirmative view of life when you’re talking about this wonder this this appreciation of kind of understanding where we fit in the universe. 

Well, I’ve always seen local skeptical activism as sort of being activists. Who was the scientific method promoters of a scientific worldview? I think that’s what it really comes down to in many ways. And yeah, I think that’s always, in the end, a positive message. I mean, all of us in this movement, we often bemoan the negative associations with the word skeptic, but nobody seems to be able to solve it. So we seem to be stuck with that. And I think that the other side would always attach some negative association deliberately to any word we choose anyway. So I think it’s a fool’s errand to try and waste much time on that. But yes, in the end, I think that the more groups, the better. There were all kinds of skeptics in the world. You know, it’s funny, when we first started the New York City skeptics and we were talking about how we attract members and so forth. And I had to point out that, you know, New York City is filled with skeptics, is probably millions of them here. It doesn’t mean they want to spend their Saturdays coming to a skeptic’s lecture and meeting. And there are many, many ways that people live out their skepticism and different types of organizations also have different points of focus. And so with New York City skeptics, we’ve already begun in earnest a public lecture series. And we’ve had a number of talks that have been more on science, as well as critical thinking and other related issues. And the other thing is that the skeptical movement provides the opportunity for like minded individuals to gather. And we do social events. New York City skeptics started something called Drinking Skeptically. And the last Wednesday of every month, we gather at a local watering hole and there’s no particular agenda except to socialize with like minded people. And oddly enough, a number of other skeptical groups around the country have picked up on the same idea. 

Right. In other words, it’s fun to hang out with skeptics. It’s not just a matter of getting together and arguing about another reason why Bigfoot doesn’t exist. Exactly right. Exactly right. I want to turn back to magic a bit. 

Last year, you and I did a number of daylong seminars around the country on the relationship between magic and skepticism, not just pushing skepticism, but really exploring, you know, the magicians art and what it has to say about skepticism. And we’re looking at doing some some others in the future. But I think we both bristle at teaching a ton of magic tricks to non magicians as a way to somehow make them a little paranormal investigators. It’s these seminars aren’t about that. 

Right. I’ve got a lot of fun doing those programs. And although you don’t particularly press this issue in your work for CFI, you actually have a strong background in magic and mentalism. And I think at one time you were actually performing professionally, correct? 

True enough. Yeah. So today we reveal some. Secrets of DJ Grothe, his background. And so it’s really a really great combination to go out and do those programs with you. 

We’re both interested in the same subjects. Both have related overlapping backgrounds. And yes, there again, there is this historical and philosophical, if you will, and perhaps even moral intersection between magic and skepticism and rational inquiry, a history that really goes back centuries. And I think that’s a great thing to talk about. And the skeptical movement, which, of course, really begins with James Randi and say Coppen, even among the founding members there. Besides, Randi, there was Michael Gardner, James Alcott, Ray Naiman, all these people with magic backgrounds. 

And so there’s always been and continues to be this intersection. The amazing meeting, the annual RANDEE Conference attracts academics and educators and scientists. There’s only a couple of magicians for color. I don’t think that’s a fun thing for us to go out and talk about, Jim Underdown. 

But the big question, look, all skeptics are not magicians. We’re into magic were magicians say that. But all skeptics don’t have a background in magic. What’s the best way for them to benefit from magic without having to teach them a storehouse? Magic secrets? 

Well, I do think it’s a mistake to go out and try and teach somebody to suddenly be a psychic buster or to be to be a magician, for that matter, who can therefore supposedly see beyond the secrets of the psychic methods of the body psychic. Because even in the world of magic, not every magician is is equipped to even understand exactly what the work of a 14 psychic is and what tools and techniques they are using or abusing. 

And indeed, some magicians are even a.. Skeptical, seems like in some quarters in the magic community, the worst thing you can do is be critical of beliefs in the paranormal. These are magicians who are kind of paranormal lists. 

That’s absolutely true. And especially in the world of mentalism, which is a term that’s starting to become a little better known to the public. But it has traditionally been a jargon term for magicians to refer to the branches of magic that duplicate psychic abilities. My reading and prediction and clairvoyance, so on, especially in those quarters where mentalism is tremendously growing in popularity in recent years. But there are many people in that end of the magic spectrum who actually promote to psychic readings either as part of their work or see it as a perfectly fine thing. They don’t care about psychic claims one way or the other, as Penn Jillette used to say many, many years ago in the Penn and Teller live show, some of these guys look at Uri Geller as just a professional peer who’s getting work. 

Right. You mentioned Uri Geller. I can’t help but think of his recent stint on TV with that show phenomena. He seems to have stepped back a bit and almost admits now that all his stuff’s been theatrical entertainment all along, especially with his show in Israel. He was kind of open about that. Do you think that the magic community or even the skeptical community, Jamie, should it now give Uri Geller a pass for all of his deception over the years since he’s kind of coming clean now? I mean, as you quoted Penn Jillette, he is in some ways, he’s been a better magician than many working pros, at least in terms of getting attention and mystifying people. 

I wouldn’t give him a free pass for a cup of coffee, much less approval for how he spent his miserable life. I think that to the extent that he may have been vague about his claims for this show phenomena, and I doubt that many of our listeners saw the show because I’m not sure that many of anyone saw the show. 

Yeah, it wasn’t the most popular show, but it was a TV show, kind of like American Idol. But for discovering the next mentalist mind reader psychic and are judges and false idol. 

Yeah. American phosphide All right. I would love that. Yeah. 

So Ari Gallah was a judge in Criss Angel, another magician, a Vegas magician, a judge. And they had performers, contestants to decide kind of who would be the heir to the wriggler mantle. 

Well, you either the enter to the government or actually was I was more of the point of the original series in Israel. And so in Israel, there was a little more of this inclination towards we’re going to find a new sidekick. The great psychic will pick the next great psychic. And there was a lot of the implication of psychic claims there. And there was also tremendous controversy in the Israeli show. Not the least of which was the fact that a piece of video went out in court or, you know, he only has a. Tricks in his in his repertoire as a spoon, bedding and so forth than another has traditionally been moving a compass by either waving his hands over it or perhaps waving a magnet over it, which would be more believable. And there was a fabulous piece of video that went out where the wrong camera was looking at the wrong place at the wrong time. As far as Geller was concerned, and he reaches up to his head and he takes something very obvious that he adds to access to his thumb and he waves it over the complex and now the compass move where it didn’t move before. 

And my guess is that that was a magnet. 

And this went out all over the Internet like crazy gozman, very aggressive with YouTube and other Web sites claiming copyright infringement and trying to remove any video that exposes him, but also lose the flavor of the show in Israel. And then when they recast it here in the States, they stop and all that and made it more that they were just selecting a great mystery performer, a vague terminology. And they had Gahler and they had Criss Angel and Criss Angel, who had the TV series and is working on a show right now in Vegas with Cirque de Soleil. 

He was kind of cast as the hard nosed skeptic control back because because he doesn’t make any claims about what he does. 

And so the two of them were there to make commentary. They really wanted the judges per say, but they were there to make commentary and not really do much else. And I think Geller was probably deliberately restrained from making anything in the way of claims. And there was very little performance. He did a sort of self working kind of bang, a little percentage get kind of thing. He didn’t really do any psychic tricks per say. And he still is happy to try and put in a claim when he can. At one point there was a talk about dowsing for oil, which is, you know, something that Geller has claimed to do in the past. And it’s a crusade of credit. He immediately called Galarraga. It’s a no no. That doesn’t really work. Nobody can really do that. So I don’t think that Geller has so much backed off on any of his claims as the fact that he will basically do anything to stand in front of a camera. I mean, the most dangerous place on earth is to stand between a TV camera and your ego. And so therefore, he’s willing to be associated with magicians. He’s willing to be around magicians. And I do think that intentionally or not, that you can’t look at phenomena without saying a little bit of lo how the mighty have fallen, that he was associating with himself with these magicians and doing some kind of lame magic tricks himself. But on the other hand, you can’t completely look at it that way because Geller was really completely unknown in this country for years, perhaps even decades, and suddenly was put back on national television again for a while. 

And he’s very happy about that. And he’s still selling the show elsewhere in Europe. From what I understand. 

Right. So we’ve talked about Uri Geller in those kinds of claims. He for years made positive claims that he had supernatural abilities, whether or not he’s backing off on those claims. Now, that’s up for debate. But there are other magicians, Jaymie, other mystery performers or mentalists that you and I know who don’t make claims to supernatural abilities, but they make other false claims. They say, okay, none of this is paranormal. It’s not my psychic ability, but it’s because of my deep and masterful understanding of the human mind. In other words, they do a magic trick, but blame it on psychology rather than blaming it on psychic powers. 

That’s very much a contemporary trend in magic and especially in mentalism, in the magic of mind reading performance. And there are a number of interesting reasons for that. 

Some of it has to do what with the authority of science. Science has credibility among audiences. So you appeal to the authority of science. You say, oh, my understanding of the science of psychology lets me know whether or not you’re lying or know what you are. 

A way you’re lowering the claim. And I think it has to do with, in some sense, the public like Geist, which is that the the outright psychic claim, the I can Venezuelan’s with the power of my mind is not going to go down as well these days with as large an audience. There’ll always be a certain amount of the audience, but I believe it. But it’s not as palatable today as that by framing the claim in the context, as you say, of science. These are scientific skills. These are things that people can understand. But my abilities with them are just a little more beyond the norm. That’s very appealing to people. It’s safe. On the one hand. And yet it still speaks to the desire that people have to be able to have psychic powers to be able to to read another person’s mind. 

Do you think it’s wrong for someone to lie to an audience and say that this feat. Is because of my psychological skills rather than this feeder’s, because of my psychic skills. Nonetheless, it’s a lie. Yes. 

Nonetheless, it does become a lie. It does become an extraordinary claim. And it is troubling to me. In many cases, you know, there are problems here because there are various challenges in the nature of magic and mental performance, because the fact of the matter is, is that mentalism becomes much more interesting and entertaining when you can put some sort of process on it that people can relate to. Dare I say it, even magic usually has some kind of process, even if the process is a magical gesture of waving your hands and snapping your fingers and concentrating or saying the magic words. That may not sound like much in the abstract, but it actually makes a big difference in how effective magic can be Ronald Lindsay as opposed to just putting the trick out there without any implied process whatsoever. 

And the same thing happens in mentalism. If you just, you know, say you’re thinking of this card, he was thinking of this word. 

It’s not very interesting and it starts to feel a lot more like a trick. Whereas if you frame it in a presentation of psychological skills or the ability to detect someone’s lying or any of these kinds of things which connect with pop culture and connect with human interest and values, then it becomes more compelling. And I’m not one to say that we shouldn’t make magic and mentalism entertaining and interesting. So the fact of the matter is, is in my own work, my own stage show of my reading and mentalism, I use many of those stories or what magicians would call presentation. I use many of those stories to frame things that I’m performing on stage. I talk about things like body language, for example. I talk about things like detecting tells at the card table. But the difference is that my medals and show has a sort of wider subtext, which is very much about the fact that no one can do anything right and that I’m an honest liar. And I talk about that very explicitly to the audience. I try and talk to them about it in ways that are entertaining, engaging and provocative as part of the performance. But I think without that, yes, people are misled. And, you know, one of the guys who’s at the forefront of all this, of course, is Derren Brown, who is a television star in England. And you can find his work all over the Web. 

Also, a vocal skeptic, a rationalist, very much a rationalist. 

And I did a lengthy interview with Darian for Genie magazine, the Magic Trade Journal that I write for a longer version of that interview is actually on my Web site. And he and I discussed some of these issues a couple of years back. And he’s very interested and very concerned about these issues. He’s written a book for the public in England in which he talks about these issues. 

But wouldn’t you say that his performance style has somewhat shifted over the years, whereas early on he he really presented himself as a master of the psychological arts. Right. Or the psychological sciences. And now he’s an entertainer. He says, hey, folks, this is entertainment. Be amazed. Isn’t this fun? As opposed to saying I’m a master hypnotist or I’m a master of neurolinguistic programing or something? 

There’s no question that his personal point of view about this and how he reflects his work has evolved because these are issues that are of great interest and concern to Darren. On the other hand, nevertheless, he’s really mounted a career by using these themes, themes like body language and influence and congestion and even an LP, which is not something he actually endorses. 

But he implies the use of very often in LP, which is kind of a pseudoscience of of being able to use words to change peoples states, stuff like that. 

Yeah. It’s a self-perpetuating pseudoscience that and an industry basically that has no scientific evidence to support its claims, but is self-referential and is quite a popular phenomenon. And it’s something that ironically is often believed in by Metalist to kind of support a lot of it. 

And I understand more recently I’ve become aware of the fact that there’s a big sort of single men using this to pick up women. 

Right. The whole pickup artist subculture picks up audiences. 

Yes, exactly. You guys think they’re using these techniques. 

But one of the things about Derren is that and again, this is this idea that mentalism is more interesting when you imply a profit, that the audience can understand where the audience is sort of jumping in and saying, oh, I think I understand how that works. Isn’t that nifty? Usually, whatever process Daryn is implying in his work that you’re detecting, that’s usually a pretty good sign. It’s not what he’s used. But magicians buy into it almost as often. As the public does so so the thing about it is that even though Darren uses this, what we call disclaimers in his work, in other words, even the top of his TV show, there’s a statement that he uses magic, among other techniques and methods, even though that’s true because his stuff gets chopped up and it’s all over the Internet in pieces. You’re not going to hear that with every individual piece. And so there’s no question it’s a troubling issue because there’s no question that people will come away from seeing these pieces and they will think differently about how the universe works. 

They’ll think untrue things about how the universe. 

That’s exactly right. On through things about how the universe works. You know, Simon Singh, the British author, science writer who wrote The Big Bang. Right. The work. And he wrote a very interesting piece. And finally, he likes magic. So he’s definitely a fan. He’s gone out and done these performances with Richard Wiseman. 

Right. With the parapsychologist and also a magician. And Simon loves this kind of stuff. But Simon wrote an interesting article some years ago in the British paper The Telegraph, where he advanced with Darren Brown’s show and he talked to a group of people afterwards. 

He surveyed a informally a small group and asked them what they thought they had seen and how Darren had done his work. And a majority of the small group of people he spoke with said that they thought that the show was accomplished by psychology. And this is where we get into a little bit of a muddy area, because although psychology is an element of magic by all means, and I certainly can point to the areas in my show that are purely psychological. Nevertheless, there’s no show. If I’m not using deception, I’m using much more deception than I am psychology, no trickery and out trickery. 

You know, when people come up to me and talk to me after the show, I often use a lie. Something that Teller once said to me in in just the conversation about this. And we were brainstorming about these problem years ago and telling us that a great thing that I’ve used ever since. If people come up to me and if they ask me to try it, they’re confused or they’re trying to clarify. I say to them quite directly, I have ways of getting information that you can’t even imagine. And, you know, that’s how Lego’s works. Is that right? 

And and that also solves the ethical dilemma for you, because you’re not making a supernatural paranormal claim. 

Exactly right. Which I absolutely do not want to do. And again, you know, seeing walks away from talking to people who say there are people here who is scribing extraordinary abilities to Daryn, that not only can dairying not do, but nobody can do. Nobody can actually, you know, detect lies merely by by watching body language. My goodness. Even with all the technology that we’ve got, you know, even even lie detectors are in line, the fact that it don’t work, you know what, 20 percent or more of the time. 

So, you know, people just can’t do it. And if people come away from those shows claiming that they can, you don’t know. Another guy I can think of who done it, who is very careful to say in his shows, you know, I have those psychic powers. I’m not psychic. But then goes on to say, but I was psychologist and I can do this and I can do that. 

You’re talking about Marc Salem right now, like Salem. 

Yes. And I’ve even heard him on a morning TV show, then turn around and say, but, you know, when I was a very young child, I began to exhibit these abilities. Come on. And as soon as you say that, what do you say? Right. You just making another supernatural play. Right. 

He was on 60 Minutes and Mike Wallace was interviewing him. And everybody thought this would be a real skewering interview, a really tough interview. And Mike Wallace was a puppy dog in Marc Salem. Hands walked away thinking, wow, here is a genius of psychology who really can do amazing things because of his scientific knowledge or if, you know, the war is the great investigative journalist who is not known for dealing with entertainers. 

It’s perfectly fine to go on Larry King and, you know, do a magic trick and Larry King to be amazed. 

Everything appears to be amazed by the very well. Yeah, he’s a big paranormals. 

Yeah, but that’s that’s that’s fine. But for a man who spent his entire career identifying himself as the definitive investigative journalist to turn around and then say on camera, my goodness, if anyone can explain to me how this works, if there’s anyone who thinks they have some idea this works, please write to me. Well, the irony was that was 60 Minutes to and it was the last episode ever made. 

So so if he didn’t get a few letters about what kind of magic tricks Mike was using, you know, they never got a chance to air when Mike got the greatest piece of promotional video in the history of the world. 

Yes, it was beautiful. So to finish up, Jamie, you mentioned earlier about how maybe one reason these psychological explanations for these mentalist feats are. More palatable to audiences these days, rather than the psychic explanations for these feats of wonder, is that because skepticism is working. Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is that looking at how all of our organizations are growing and you just founded this new group in New York City and and Sidecar. Now, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry is growing in supporting the work of CFI and its growth. You look at figures like James Randi Penn and Teller Michael Shermer. The real question is, is it really making a difference or is the target just moving? 

People still believe in just as much nonsense as they always have, it seems. There still big psychic fairs in every city. People believe in the pseudoscience and kind of fake psychology stuff. An LP is skepticism actually paying off? That’s the question. 

Well, I would say that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. 

I think it’s an extraordinary claim to suggest that skepticism is working. I think that we live in a world of narrowcasting. I think that the world of cable television and information technology has now allowed for a kind of narrow casting where every audience gets its say and gets its interests fulfilled. And, you know, there’s good and bad to that. And on the one hand, the good is, is that a show like Empowers Bullshit, which never could have been on primetime television, now is in its fifth marvelous season of offering critical thinking. 

But your point is that the skeptics are just talking to the skeptics and the believers are just talking to the believers. 

I think to a large degree that is true. But that is not without great value. You know, I think that I mean, look at what’s happening in the world of atheists. And although there are many differences of opinion as to how to promote atheists and for example, I think that Richard Dawkins likening it to the gay rights movement has a very strong point, which is that one of the best things you can do is say, by the way, I’m an atheist. And without even arguing about it, just so that your neighbor knows that you’re there next to him living an effective moral life. Right. And that’s a very important thing. And I think skepticism is the same way. So come out as a skeptic, not just to your skeptics at the Moby Dick and at embrace critical thinking and the scientific worldview as a way to see the world. I think that is invaluable. And, you know, what we want it to be is we wanted to be more of a public discourse. You’ll know that skepticism is really getting somewhere. When the presidential candidates get up and make clear statement about what they think about the scientific method, about evolution, you know, we have a president now for eight years who has grave doubts about the unified field theory of biology, otherwise known as evolution. That’s a horrifying state as before. 

You’re not sounding too optimistic, but you’re still in it because what skepticisms fun for you. It adds value to your life. It’s it may not be changing the world right now as fast as we’d want, but it’s kind of a lifestyle commitment. 

Well, that’s partly it. I also think it’s a dirty job that someone has to do. 

And as you’ve heard me say in our talks, because years ago when I began speaking to skeptics publicly, which is a long, long time ago, I had concerns about this, preaching to the choir notion. But at least I’m preaching to the choir that doesn’t believe that I’m singing hymns. 

But eventually I came to believe that you can energize the base. For one thing, you can make people feel safer and more confident and more comfortable in their views. Again, you get to hang with like minded people and there are no worse ways to spend your life and spending time with the great minds of your generation and people who see the world in similar ways. And I always say that, you know, perhaps the next time you’re at a cocktail party, if someone was to speak up in front of you socially and make a vote. Explicit racist statement, it’s pretty much assumed today that you don’t let that stand. You really do speak up. Are you obligated to speak up? And you say, I don’t agree with that. And that’s that’s a terrible thing to say and I won’t tolerate it. Well, when somebody turns around and says, what’s your sign? Or, well, you’re you’re that way because you’re a Virgo. That’s a prejudiced statement. It’s a biased statement because it labels people. It simplifies and divides us into simple labels the way any bias does. And so I think it’s incumbent upon. I think it’s incumbent, Biskupic clears throat and speak up and say, excuse me, but that sounds like nonsense to me. And I think if you do that, you done the responsible thing and he made the world a better place. Mm hmm. 

Jamie, thanks for this discussion. Enjoyed it, as usual. 

Thanks so much for having me, T.J.. Always a pleasure to talk with you. 

You’ve seen the headlines, Bill seeks to protect students from liberal bias. The right time for an Islamic reformation. Kansas School Board redefined science. 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’re just learning about CFI, take a look at our Web site. W w w dot center for inquiry dot net. We hosted regional and international conferences, college courses and nationwide campus outreach. You’ll also find out about our new representation at the United Nations, an important national media appearances. We cannot pursue these projects without your help. 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 enlarge the reality based community. 

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Point of inquiries produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer Paul Kurtz Point of Inquiries Music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael. 

Contributors to today’s show included Debbie Goddard and Sarah Jordan. And 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.