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A magician’s perspective on ‘real’ magic

Long-time skeptics are well aware of the important role that magicians play within the skeptical community. A professional magician’s skills (used solely for purposes of entertainment) enable him or her to develop a keen awareness of the pitfalls and foibles of those darker, more malicious forms of deception, paranormal and pseudoscientific fraud. Granted, both the trained skeptic and the scientifically astute magician are able to view the world through a clearer lens of understanding than that of the average person. But the magicians, by virtue of their training, see a certain dark side to human nature: the illegitimate claim of self-proclaimed psychics to have been blessed with paranormal talents. This is truly an extraordinary claim, demanding extraordinary proof. These alleged talents (“gifts” as they are sometimes reverentially referred to) are akin to “black magic”: no scientific explanation is offered, and indeed no logical explanation is even considered possible.

There is a curious fact that I’ve never seen stated in quite the way I’m about to say it: “Skeptical magicians hate real magic.” This may sound a bit like an oxymoron. However, skeptical magicians have a deep respect for the scientific method, born largely of their keen appreciation for the difference between reality and outright fantasy. After, all, fantasy-making is their business! As a result, they don’t appreciate quack-pretenders claiming to have a divine gift to perform “real” magic (a claim legitimate conjurers never make), and so they hate to see people conned in this way.

As a lifetime practitioner of performance magic myself (hereinafter called “conjuring”), the art of fooling people has taught me that we cannot always believe our senses. I have always marvelled at the incredible capacity of the human mind to be to be positively stimulated by phenomena that appear to defy common sense. Conjuring is the art of stimulating the senses through visual phenomena that challenge our preconditioned ideas about how the world works. I use the term “conjuring” because the word cannot be confused with popular ideas of what “magic” is supposed to be about, from witches to fantasy novels to religious miracles – and more.

Magicians, by virtue of their many years of training in the art of deception, realize that what we see and hear is not always what it appears to be. But it goes much deeper than this. The paranormal con artist tricks people into believing unproved notions by the clandestine employment of emotional appeal and convoluted logic. They prey upon our fears, our innate gullible nature, and our preconditioned beliefs. Conjuring involves a multi-faceted strategy of disciplines. Falling loosely under the heading of “misdirection”, these techniques of persuasion (to make you believe the impossible), include entertaining falsehoods (statements that mislead); visual strategies to distract your attention (look here! not there!—or if you will, sleight-of-hand); and conjuring props that contain ingeniously-engineered optical principles to fool the eye (and consequently, the mind).

Like the magician, the paranormal charlatan’s deceptions involve similar forms of misdirection. But unlike the innocuous magician interested only in entertaining you, the psychic misdirects his or her audience in order to convince them that they are witnessing inexplicable miracles of the paranormal or supernatural kind. They then attempt to persuade you by cleverly fogging your logical faculties with methods such as cold reading; uncertainty of results; appeals to sympathy; and flattery.

The charlatan also relies on projecting a charismatic image of authority. This involves seeking out uncritical coverage by the media; publishing self-promotional websites; and authoring books and newspaper columns. The bigger the reputation they can develop, the easier it is for them to persuade the masses that they are truly psychic.

Magicians understand the “how and why” of this meticulously engineered promotional process. They know how the right kinds of marketing can convert a budding psychic into a media-savvy, million-dollar superstar. They also understand how this can lead to the creation of “wonder workers” with egos bigger than Mount. Rushmore. Among the religious tricksters such as certain powerfully-influential televangelists, the messiah complex can run deep.

The psychology of misdirection also shows the magician how we can be easily sidetracked by false explanations. If we can be fooled by David Blaine’s relatively simple card or coin tricks (for the methods of conjuring, however subtle and ingenious, are nearly always simple), how easily might we be taken in by the apparently authoritative claims of a famous psychic, given that millions of people already believe and worship at their feet?

You may be thinking that I view myself and all other magicians as above the fray. As a legitimate entertainer who performs simulated magical effects with no agenda to deceive people in a spurious or pernicious manner, I can say: it isn’t so. As an unabashed atheistic skeptic, though, I do take a jaundiced view of those in the profession of magic who promote Christianity by illustrating parables and general religious messages with tricks of the trade.

Most of my fellow atheistic conjurers feel this somewhat bastardizes the noble art of magic. It puzzles us to see certain conjurers of a religious persuasion – the ones who proudly call themselves “gospel magicians”—into churches and perform “secular miracles” as a way of dispensing a religious message, purportedly in the name of God. We find this a jarring juxtaposition, and as you can clearly see here, some of us have difficulty coming up with adequate words to elucidate our consternation. A little sugar helps the medicine go down, as they say, but is it not a just a little insulting for adults to see their religion proselytized with a magic act?

What this has taught me is that you cannot paint all skeptical magicians with the same brush. There are those within the skeptical community who believe that all phenomena that appear to contradict scientific discovery to date – including religion – should be subjected to the axe of logical inquiry. Religious skeptics and agnostics sympathetic to the sanctity of religious belief, take an opposing view. What this tells us is that both opinions must somehow be accommodated within the skeptical movement; and magicians are just as much a part of both schools of thought as anyone else.

We all know about the magicians who have become conscientious crusaders for the cause of rationality. This has raised the profile of magicians among skeptics, with the latter assuming that the magicians are bastions of skeptical thought and scientific inquiry. Let me set the record straight: magicians who write for skeptical magazines and give lectures and demonstrations that promote scientific rationality constitute a small minority within the magic community. My guess is that probably less than 1% of the magicians working today involve themselves in what should be thought of as an extra-curricular activity, the promotion of skepticism and free inquiry. The visible profile these few magicians have attained within the skeptical community, spearheaded by one of the most celebrated of the lot, James Randi, can give the erroneous impression that magicians, in the main, are free thinkers of the highest calibre. It isn’t necessarily so. Magicians come from all walks of life, and so their interest in skeptical causes is no more prevalent than that of the general public at large.

However, it can also be over-stated. Magicians can be made to look like highly gullible rubes, as illustrated in the weirdly vindictive essay by George P. Hansen, entitled, “Magicians Who Endorsed Psychic Phenomena” (

As a practicing wonder-worker (mostly for children and family audiences) I learned about the powerful psychological effects magic can have on those not versed in the art. It showed me how easy it is to fool people into believing almost anything, including the paranormal demonstrations of fraudulent psychics and mediums. The psychology of deception between the two camps (i.e. conjurers and psychics) is a close one – so close in fact, that when self-proclaimed mediums or psychics discover they are in the company of James Randi or another skeptical magician, they often mysteriously lose their ability to read people’s thoughts, talk to the dead, or bend physical objects with the power of the mind alone. They don’t want to be found out and exposed by people intimately familiar with their methods!

Some psychics will go to any lengths to convince you of the efficacy of mind reading, psychokinesis, or communication with dead. They will even resort to the employment of recognizable conjuring (or “mentalism”) techniques.

There are, for example, dozens of visually convincing ways to magically bend a spoon (the trick popularly associated with Uri Geller), all invented by enterprising magicians. If a psychic wants to mutilate kitchen silverware, or car keys, or a large nail, then magic dealerships around the world will be happy to sell them the means to do so. (Geller, by the way, started out as a magician in Israeli nightclubs.)

Even when magic’s secrets are revealed in national magazines or on television—which has happened often throughout the last century and continues today – the same tricks can be applied in a “spiritual” or “psychic” context and the public will still be fooled. Simulated psychic phenomena using conjuring principles are all but immune to exposure in the hands of the skilled practitioner. People who desperately want to believe in the paranormal manifest credulity akin to self-hypnosis that overrides their capacity for logical analysis. There is a fine line between the legitimate mentalism performed as harmless entertainment, and the more virulent pseudo-psychic persuasion that robs people of their cash, their dignity, and even their common sense.

The so-called ethics of psychic entertainment are not clearly delineated. There have been many disagreements within the magic community about what constitutes legitimate mentalism and what crosses over the line into unethical practices. There is a group calling itself the Psychic Entertainers Association (, and while it is largely a legitimate organization concerned with entertainment, its members are not fully in agreement when it comes to defining ethics within their profession. While some magicians are true skeptics, still other magicians despise these critics in their ranks, referring to them disparagingly as “party spoilers”.

We all know skeptic crusader-and-magician James Randi is openly displeased by the shenanigans of Uri Geller (who claims offstage to have genuine paranormal powers). But some mentalists—and even some disgruntled magicians—think Geller is a marvellous performer and a self-promotional genius. They don’t think very highly of Randi for criticizing Geller. Does Randi have enemies within the field of magic? Hey, does Sylvia Browne make promises she can’t – or won’t – keep?

These are strange times we live in. Dozens of psychic charlatans and crackpot mediums have become famously wealthy by scamming the public, by writing wildly successful books, and by appearing on endless radio and television programs with total impunity. Society and the media doesn’t just tolerate this behaviour, they actually promote it! Honest psychic entertainers, on the other hand, choose to follow the good path, while disavowing any claim to being truly psychic. Unfortunately, some people within the magic and mentalism community observe the famous con artists as the true winners. The pressure on mentalists is then to defect from the good side and go over to what might be termed “the dark side”. A few have done exactly that.

The skeptics trying to counteract this nonsense are engaged in an uphill battle. They get very little support from the media. Since society panders to the likes of Sylvia Browne, John Edward, and James Van Praagh, these tricksters are free to sneer at the skeptics and cavalierly dismiss them, laughing all the way to the bank. Even with the combined efforts of the skeptics, the magicians, the skeptical journals, their websites, and the many supporting local skeptic organizations in cities everywhere, the effort to enlighten a scientifically-disenfranchised public (not to mention putting the charlatans out of business) sometimes seems utterly fruitless.

Let me end with a candid opinion that will probably annoy the skeptics. The battle has been solidly won—by the psychics! They have as their protective armoury the entire fabric of society. Proof of this contention is that in just about any city in North America, the self-professed necromancer, with no apparent formal training, can put up a sign on their front lawn or window advertising their psychic services. It is not against the law. They appear legally in every carnival and midway. Hundreds of newspapers feature astrology columns. Yearly predictions by the psychics in end-of-the-year newspapers are the norm. Annual Psychic Fairs abound in every city. Talk shows by the dozens feature psychics. It should be glaringly apparent to even the most ardent skeptic that the world fully supports paranormal charlatanism for the same reason it supports Halloween, Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy: They don’t take it seriously. And that is the problem.

However, let me do a sudden about-face here, by asserting optimistically and boldly that all is not lost. The steady and unshakable advance of science will eventually – and inevitably – turn the tide. But that is a subject for another article.

One response to “A magician’s perspective on ‘real’ magic”

  1. Paranormal bias knows that UFOs are alien vehicles, lake monsters are plesiosaurs, and that families of Bigfoot frolic in the uncharted wilds of Ohio and Michigan. Academic bias concludes, without serious investigation, that this is all nonsense. Belief is the enemy.

    Yesterday’s status quo of endlessly recounting stale exaggerations of mysterious events and wishful contemplation of the paranormal has not increased our knowledge. The perpetual war between the blind denial of debunkers and the blind certainty of believers continues to distort and censor the data. Good research starts with factual information, evidence, and skeptical objectivity. Indeed, weird happens. What we do about it is entirely up to us.

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