Historical Note on Skeptic Magicians

Apropos of nothing in particular, it’s worth reminding ourselves why stage magicians were originally considered experts on the topics classically adopted by the modern skeptic movement. They really were experts in their topics once upon a time. Their expertise consisted of determining how people could hide their behavior from observers.

Harry Houdini really was an expert on spiritualism because he understood how people could manipulate their environments while appearing to have their motion restricted. Have a “medium” who is producing strange sounds and apparitions while holding hands with people in the dark? Bring Houdini in to determine the ways your subjects could be cheating, set up your situation so they can’t cheat, then test them again.

James Randi really was (and presumably still is) an expert on how people can communicate invisibly. Have someone who claims to be getting message from God or a “psychic” partner? Bring Randi in to determine the ways your subjects could be cheating, set up your situation so they can’t cheat, then test them again.

Magicians are not some sort of all-purpose skeptical experts. There’s no such thing. Skepticism requires subject-matter knowledge to be effective.

Magicians are very narrow experts in the ways that humanity can disguise their behavior from naive observers. Outside of that, they have no more expertise in skeptical matters than anyone else.

This is worth remembering. Trust them to some degree when you need their expertise. Treat them like any non-expert when you don’t.

Historical Note on Skeptic Magicians
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7 thoughts on “Historical Note on Skeptic Magicians

  1. Ed

    I’ve only been interested in the contributions of the skeptic magicians when they talk about how people can be easily tricked into perceiving a mundane event as marvelous. They noticed that many alleged healers and psychics were doing more or less what they were doing but claiming it was real.

    I like Randi`s joke to the effect that it once you’ve convinced people that you have real powers, you don’t have to go to the trouble of putting on a top quality show. Anything supernatural would be noteworthy and inspiring no matter how boring it looked. For instance if someone could literally make one coin float from a table into their hand it would be a privilege to witness even if they had to chant for an hour to make it happen. People going to something billed as a common illusionist show want lots of exciting spectacle.

    It’s true that problems arise when the magicians try to be the “voice” of the movement. They aren’t the ones to provide in depth exposes of creationism for example, though of course any reasonably educated person is entitled to point out it’s flaws which should be obvious to modern schoolchildren. Magicians including Randi and Penn & Teller are the “leaders” I first noticed being unnecessarily rude and sometimes very culturally insensitive and sexist.

    One time in Randi`s column in the Skeptic, he devoted a lot of space to describing a business trip to the far East where he had been confused by local customs involving negotiations and agreements. There was apparently comfusion where he thought people were making binding agreements with him when they were following social protocol discouraging strongly contradicting one’s guest. An actual deal as I understand the story required stronger, more enthusiastic or repetitive language

    .They had the gall to have different customs than he was used to in their own countries! It could have been a humorous article if it had just been drawing comedy from the culture clash. But it was like he was “debunking” local customs as if they were by definition irrational and his were rational. Nothing was funny in his mind about his lack of research when dealing with other cultures or his assumption that he would automatically know how to act.

  2. 3

    I used to frequent Randi’s site a lot. I stopped because, as happens in life, an issue that I had personal experience with opened my eyes. I am a musician and years ago had back issues – still have lots of muskuloskeletal issues. Music is hard on the body. So Randi had a harsh article posted about what was considered quack therapy, and Feldenkrais was among them. Now, I don’t know all the ins and outs of Feldenkrais, Alexander Technique, etc. I don’t care what “they” say in general about the “magic” of their specific treatments; I mean, the organizational blurbs. I wrote back to him about a very specific set of sessions I had with a therapist trained in Feldenkrais methods, which were all about body awareness. I was very specific and he would have none of it. Quackery! Pseudoscience! I was just astonished at the rigidity. I didn’t really care about what some silly online Feldenkrais blurb may have said about their therapy. My experience was one of body awareness and how to attain that, so that you don’t, say, walk around with your butt cheeks clenched without realizing it. BTW, lots of muskulosleletal problems come from very simple things, like not being aware of hypertonicity (for a long period of time). Randi’s attitude: No! No! No! Any idiot should now how to just relax and unclench their butt cheeks. Everyone should just know how to do that….. Soooo, what’s wrong with, when you are not doing something that “everyone should know how to do”, someone teaching you how to do that? Is “body awareness” peculiar to the Feldenkreis method? Not necessarily. But no PT ever taught me what I needed to know. A Feldenkrais therapist did. I just love me some hyperskeptics, yup. The arrogance just abounds. Good information comes from lots of places.

  3. Ed

    Yea some of the skeptical critique on alternative healthcare goes too far. Now I am NOT talking about attacking worldviews which prohibit modern medical care or pointing out the unscientific nature of alternative and traditional(pre-modern) medicine’s models of how the body works.

    But a lot of the skeptics can’t even entertain the idea that some of these PRACTICES as opposed to their doctrines, might have value. I’m dreading opening the Skeptic or the Skeptical Enquirer one day to find someone arguing that yoga or tai chi should not be practiced by good, respectable science-fearing folk because they were developed by people with terrible ideas about a vitalistic life force or union with God and (horrors) their very names reflect this!!!

    They also have an inappropriately condescending view towards people who use alternative healthcare for any reason. For example I know a few thoroughly modern atheistic Chinese people who know less about Eastern religions than I do and care even less who engage in some traditional healing practices because they find them soothing.

    I also know lots of Americans who go to chiropractors for back and neck pain. Now I realize that there is a cultish belief system promoted by many chiropractors which teaches that chiropractic can cure virtually any disease and condemns most science-based medicine.

    But you know what? I have heard all kinds of people talk about their chiropractic treatment and none of them promote or even seem to know anything about that stuff. The only reason I’ve ever known anyone to go to a chiropractor is some kind of spinal discomfort–90% or so for lower back pain. The only evaluations of chiropractors I’ve ever heard from their patients is whether or not they experienced pain relief. They may wish people flocked to them to improve their hearing or cure kidney disease, but my guess is they’re disappointed.

    I’m glad the technique you are using is helpful, and you seem like the kind of person who would stop using it if it wasn’t.

  4. 5

    I came to “Formal Skepticism” after becoming (or finally realizing) I was an atheist. This may sound smug, but I used to just assumed everyone knew magic/bigfoot/psychics were fake, and while I’ve always found it interesting how they do their “magic/hoax/readings”, it never occurred to me that reasonable people actually bought into it as supernatural and just did it for fun. After (hopefully) fixing my ignorance, I now see the value in exposing those who are taking advantage of people. The thing I don’t get is why these folks (the JREF/TAM fan types) get to lay claim to being the “skeptic leaders”. If anything, they’ve clearly shown that personal bias can get in the way of good skepticism, particularly on social issues. While I haven’t quantified it into a number of dollars or lives lost, it almost goes without saying that we’ve got social issues that are far more harmful to humanity than the sum total of bigfoot hoaxers and psychics and the like.

  5. 6

    A few years ago I participated in the JREF website forum. Penn Jillette was preaching economic libertarianism and I took objection to several things he said. We had several exchanges before I was told by a mod that discussing libertarianism was strongly discouraged (nothing was said to Jillette). I also noticed that questioning religion was also strongly discouraged and it was the atheists who were told to knock off being skeptical about gods. Casual sexism and classism was prevalent at that formum which, coupled with the topic censorship, convinced me that my time was better spent elsewhere on the web.

    Jillette and I did agree on one thing. Each of us thinks the other is an asshole.

  6. 7

    I read through a lot of comments today – particularly at Pharyngula where the letter from a 15 yr. old girl was used by Cavanaugh (sp?) to prove that PZ posted a letter he wrote to himself.

    It hit me that the atheist/skeptic movement NEEDS. PURPOSE. more than anything else. Bigfoot and Nessie don’t cut it. Atheism plus is a fabulous defense against hyperskeptical obsessives, because if you have purpose, YOU DON”T HAVE TIME to act like a weenie (best case) or pathologically negative destructive stalker (worse case.)

    As a parent, I have manufactured purpose every second of the day. And then some (even if that purpose at the moment is just making sure no more garage windows get broken.) The time these hyperskeptics set to ‘debunking’ a letter could be used for anything that isn’t inward and they would be productive. Inward obsessions change nothing for the better. Outward obsessions – fighting religious bigotry, ending child trafficking, building wells and bathrooms in India – volunteering weekly at Feed My Starving Children – ANYTHING – makes life better for many people, especially yourself. (Realizing now that the only way this ties in to the OP is the fact that Randi and Penn are actually two good examples of a useful point of view turned inward…..)

    Why is that so damned hard to learn if a theist sheeple like me can figure it out???!

    ugh. Rant over. Long live Atheism + and intersectional activisim – the people who might need it most, though, might never get there 🙁

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