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What Scientists Can Learn from Magicians

By Norman Chan

Magicians James Randi and Teller write about the unlikely connection between magic and science.

James Randi has a message for scientists: think more like magicians. In this recent opinion column for Wired, the magician formerly known as The Amazing Randi argues that scientists, because of their reliance on observational data, often can be led to false conclusions by deceptive means--just like the audience at a magic show. A magician, whose profession depends on manipulating perception and concealing objects from a observer's senses, may be more likely to spot deliberate deception at work when studying an anomalous claim. That's not to say that magicians would make the best scientists, but they often make the best skeptics--Houdini, Penn & Teller, and Randi all made careers out of disproving and exposing hoaxes.

I’ve observed that scientists tend to think and perceive logically by using their training and observational skills — of course — and are thus often psychologically insulated from the possibility that there might be chicanery at work. This is where magicians can come in. No matter how well educated, or how basically intelligent, trained, or observant a scientist may be, s/he may be a poor judge of a methodology employed in deliberate deception.
Photo Credit: Carlos Serrao for Wired

Teller, of Penn and Teller fame (he's the quiet one), has also chimed in on the connection between Magic and Science in this piece he wrote for the Smithsonian magazine. The master magician is often courted by neuroscientists and cognitive scientists to speak at conferences and talk about how magicians utilize perception to fool audiences. Yes, misdirection is part of the equation, and Teller reveals seven basic principles that combine to effectively create an illusion--the example he uses to illustrate these principles is a delight to read. But scientists don't care about these principles--they want to study magic through the lens of eye-tracking software and MRI equipment, which Teller says misses the point:

Magic is an art, as capable of beauty as music, painting or poetry. But the core of every trick is a cold, cognitive experiment in perception: Does the trick fool the audience? A magician’s data sample spans centuries, and his experiments have been replicated often enough to constitute near-certainty. Neuroscientists—well intentioned as they are—are gathering soil samples from the foot of a mountain that magicians have mapped and mined for centuries.

So for parents with children showing an interest in science--why not introduce them to magic as well? A Magician's skills, including how they learn to observe the world, may be a real asset in the sphere of science.