Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Rabbit In the Hat

With the exception of people within the magic community, most individuals are unaware of the role magic has planned in the history of the human race. When ancient peoples were confronted with the magic worker they took for granted the explanations about how the event took place. Almost universally, the explanation depended on paranormal or supernatural forces.

Two of the favorite demonstrations by magicians in the Middle Ages included (1) throwing a rope into the air and have it completely suspended by "nothing" and (2) dismembering an animal and then "raising the animal from the dead" by putting all the limbs and parts back together. A Chinese magician in the 14th century went a step further and combined these two effects by having a boy climb a length of leather strap that was apparently hung from the sky until the boy vanished. When the magician called for the boy to return at once, he refused. Angry, the magician climbed the leather strap and vanished. Spectators soon saw the boy’s body parts fall to the ground. The magician came back down and reassembled the parts. When he was finished, he kicked the body and "the boy stood up, complete and erect." All of this was observed and reported publically by an eye-witness.

Magicians have probably existed since the dawn of time. A story called "Bel and the Dragon" was written sometime in the second century B.C. The Persian king, Cyrus the Great, had a buddy named Daniel — who is the same Daniel from the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament. It seems Cyrus (whose god was Bel) was trying to convince Daniel (whose god was the Jewish god) that Bel actually came to the Persian temple at night and ate food left by the faithful. To prove his point he took Daniel to the temple holy chamber, showed him the room, left the food and proceeded to completely seal off the room so nobody could enter in the evening. Being of a more skeptical nature, Daniel, unbeknownst to the king had sprinkled a fine powder on the floor around the food. The next morning when Cyrus and Daniel entered the room, Cyrus said, "Aha! See? All the food is gone. Case closed." Then Daniel softly piped up (after all he was addressing the king) saying, "But, your majesty, look at those footprints on the floor. Let’s follow them from the food and see where they lead." Sure enough, they lead to a cleverly concealed door. When Cyrus had his men force the door open they looked in upon a group of priests feeding their faces with the god’s food. Cyrus was so angry, he killed the priests and tore down the entire temple.

We could go on and on about people through the ages fooling their fellow citizens through trickery. Now, you can imagine that if you could kill and resuscitate a person or make people think a god had eaten an offering, you would have enormous status and power. We have an immense amount of documentation about religious leaders such as priests and shamans using simple trickery — magic tricks — to get people to believe in their supernatural powers. Given the proper circumstances most of us are gullible. Prior to the Scientific Age, it was common knowledge that magicians could only perform their amazing feats through the help of devils and supernatural forces. Because of this belief those who performed these "miracle" were either venerated or feared. The latter group sometimes ended up dead.

Magicians have always used a two-part system for their magic: the Effect and the Method. Audiences only see the Effect and if the magician is really good, they will never know the Method. The test for all magicians, ancient and modern, is to separate the Effect from the Method so convincingly that nobody can figure out the Method. Although there are many ways to do this, one of the most common methods is called misdirection, both mentally and physically.

Experienced magicians also know that the belief system of the audience may determine whether the Method must be simple or complex. For example, modern magicians find it much easier to do the same trick as a pseudo-psychic than as a professional magician. They work much harder to fool their colleagues.

Neuro-scientists have found networks in the brain that are specifically adapted to provide humans with magical explanations for events they cannot explain. For example, a recent experiment was done with intelligent, college-educated people who thought their use of a voodoo doll had caused a study partner to have a headache. They did not know that the study partner faked the headache, so they assumed that something about the voodoo was actually affecting another person.

Magicians have always been a closed, secret society who passed on their secrets from generation to generation. The magician's oath has always insisted that anyone outside the magic fraternity was not to be let in on the secrets. For example, a club in Los Angeles called the Magic Circle is a confidential and exclusive club for magicians to gather. Outsiders may only enter through the sponsorship of a magician member. The society has a Latin motto: Indocilis Privata Loqui. I suppose it could be loosely translated, "keep your mouth shut."

In the 16th century the first magic book was written. Since then, there have been thousands of books written revealing some of the deep secrets employed by magic workers. Even today, anyone can walk into a magic shop and buy any book on magic. You can buy dozens of magic books on the Internet.

Yet, many people today still believe that any procedure they cannot explain must have a supernatural explanation. Religious healers use trickery to get people to think they are working miracles through the power of their god. Even highly intelligent people can be deceived about this. Many years ago, the prankster, Uri Geller, performed his paranormal feats to an audience of scientists at the Stanford Research Institute. He completely convinced all but one of the scientists that he had paranormal powers. The lone wolf was a psychologist and magician who was able to help unmask Mr. Geller’s tricks.

Today, professional magicians seldom claim supernatural powers and openly admit their trickery. Even though they fool people, the audience knows it’s a trick. But, what would happen if the magician convincingly told the audience he or she was performing these feats through the power of a supernatural entity? Several magicians have done this in the last century in order to educate people to the power of suggestion. After presenting themselves as having paranormal abilities and showing people miraculous feats, they then blow their cover and explain they are merely magicians. One such performer told me personally that after he made his presentation and confession, one audience member complained that they didn’t believe him. They suggested the magician was really paranormal and either didn’t want to admit or it or just wasn’t aware of his paranormal abilities. Amazing!

Another example of highly intelligent people being fooled by magicians are scholars who study ancient history and try to explain the role of miracle workers in various cultures. For example, one of the greatest New Testament scholars living today is Professor of New Testament in the Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. Professor John Meier has written the definitive book on the historical Jesus. A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus is a massive four-volume work that is seen by his peers as an "extraordinary achievement." In this remarkable work, he must deal with the miracles of Jesus and, as any good scholar would do, he attempts to define a miracle. His definition has three parts, the second of which states that a miracle is "an event that finds no reasonable explanation in human abilities or in other known forces that operate in our world of time and space."

The problem with this definition of a miracle is the fact that only professional magicians are capable of deciding if a miracle "had no reasonable explanation." Unfortunately, nobody every bothers to ask them. It does no good to check with other competent scholars who are not magicians. For example, sociologists study groups of people and their behavior. When they see a shaman, for example, perform a "miracle" they tend to take the experience at face value. This position is understandable because magicians are trained to perform the "impossible."

Problems arise when scholars do not take into account the complexities of the human brain. As was mentioned above, most people are by nature gullible given the right conditions. Humans also have the tendency to ascribe paranormal or supernatural explanations for events they find inconceivable. Our fallible memories also give the advantage to magicians. People who watch stunning magic tricks usually remember exactly what the magician wants them to.

Magicians have a skill they call "patter." As they talk to you during the trick they plant information into your mind that gets you to see and remember things that never happened.

Magicians love to hear people describe what they think they saw as they watched a magician perform. Once this eye-witness declaration is made to others, the phenomena of the urban legend kicks in. Researchers who study urban legends have shown that information received from a source that is perceived as reliable is usually accepted unconditionally. So if a friend tells you that a magician made a card rise from the table into thin air and the friend confirmed no strings were attached to the card, you would be inclined to accept this explanation — even though this is highly likely not what actually took place.

Magical thinking is all around us. Athletes who don’t change their socks before a game believe this behavior helps them play better. Gamblers are notorious for devising little rituals to help them beat the odds. Science has even shown that petitionary prayer only produces results no better than chance. Yet, religious people swear that their prayers for others really work.

Psychologists continually study how our brains deceive us into distorting and manipulating reality. People who are born with a natural knack for magic (similar to having a knack for music, sports, or writing) have been responsible for producing miraculous events for thousands of years. These folks have been intuitive enough about human nature to take advantage of brain deficits a long time before science can explain them.

Knowing that magicians have always had the ability to fool even the most intelligent people must keep us humble in declaring that we have all the facts about incredulous events regardless of what we call them: magic, impossible, or miracle. Any experience of this kind is never fully understandable without the knowledge of the professional magician. That knowledge is securely locked within the fraternity of magicians. The only way anyone can penetrate this inner circle is to take the time and make the effort to become a certified magician. All other attempts to understand anomalous experiences is based on incomplete understanding.

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