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The Michael Shermer Show

A series of conversations between Dr. Michael Shermer and leading scientists, philosophers, historians, scholars, writers and thinkers about the most important issues of our time.

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EPISODE # 195

Jamy Ian Swiss — The Conjuror’s Conundrum

Conjurers Conundrum (book cover)

The most fundamental lesson that all magicians learn is that seeing is not believing. For many budding conjurors, this realization often comes to embrace rational inquiry, critical thinking, and a scientific worldview. It may seem odd that some magicians — who, after all, are professional deceivers — become activists who care passionately about trying to protect people from being deceived. But they do, and the result is what Jamy Ian Swiss calls The Conjuror’s Conundrum.

In this lively, personal book, Jamy Ian Swiss, an activist for scientific skepticism for more than 35 years, takes readers on a magical mystery tour of the longstanding connection between magic and skepticism. Magicians and civilians alike will enjoy Swiss’s revelatory accounts of the science of magic — and the magic in science. And along the way you will learn what it means to commit to living one’s life as an “honest liar.”

Jamy Ian Swiss is an internationally acclaimed sleight-of-hand artist, Swiss has appeared internationally for presenters ranging from Fortune 500 companies to the Smithsonian Institution. His U.S. television appearances include CBS 48 Hours; PBS Nova; and repeat appearances on The Today Show and on The Late, Late Show; and he has been seen on screens nationwide in feature-length documentaries including “An Honest Liar” and “Merchants of Doubt.” The author of six books, Swiss has lectured to magicians in 13 countries; to academics and scientists about skepticism and critical thinking; to law enforcement professionals on con games; and consulted on casino game security. A lengthy profile in the New Yorker declared that, “Swiss is widely thought to have one of the most masterly sleight-of-hand techniques in the world today.”

Swiss is also a renowned “skeptic” and pro-science advocate and activist and is a founder of the National Capital Area Skeptics; a founder of the New York City Skeptics; has spoken and performed across the U.S. on behalf of the Center For Inquiry; has been a contributor to Skeptic magazine; has served as a Fellow of the James Randi Educational Foundation [randi.org]; and currently serves as Vice-President of the San Diego Skeptics Society.

Purchase his new book that includes a signed personal inscription.

Shermer and Swiss discuss:

  • Swiss’s first encounter with fraud at the IBM pavilion at the World’s Fair,
  • a brief history of the relationship of magic and science,
  • Reginald Scott’s The Discoverie of Witchcraft,
  • 19th century interest in the paranormal by world-class scientists,
  • why Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of natural selection, also believed in the supernatural,
  • magic and mentalism,
  • magic and skepticism,
  • universal readings, cold readings, and hot readings,
  • Do psychics actually believe their cold readings are “real”?
  • James van Praagh, John Edwards, Rosemary Altea and other psychics who talk to the dead,
  • What does it mean to “believe” something? (Debunk this or that “psychic” but people still “believe” in the supernatural/after life),
  • Houdini and his exposé of phony psychics (a redundancy),
  • how a prominent skeptic fell for “the amazing” Kreskin,
  • the Alpha Project (how two young magicians fooled scientists),
  • What’s the Harm?
  • Jamy’s work on the ABC Nightline psychic test.
Quoted in the conversation

“No one in the history of the world has ever self-identified as a pseudoscientist. There is no person who wakes up in the morning and thinks to himself, ‘I’ll just head into my pseudolaboratory and perform some pseudoexperiments to try to confirm my pseudotheories with pseudofacts.’”

—Michael Gordin’s, The Pseudoscience Wars)

Not quoted in the conversation but related to the discussion of Houdini

From Dr. Shermer’s Scientific American column, February 2011, originally titled “The Houdini Principle: Before you say something is out of this world first make sure that it is not in this world”

In April 1922, Conan Doyle visited Houdini in his home, whereupon the magician set out to demonstrate that slate writing — a favorite method among mediums for receiving messages from the dead, who allegedly moved a piece of chalk across a slate — could be done by perfectly prosaic means. Houdini had Conan Doyle hang a slate from anywhere in the room so that it was free to swing in space. He presented the author with four cork balls, asking him to pick one and cut it open to prove that they had not been altered. He then had Conan Doyle pick another ball and dip it into a well of white ink. While it was soaking, Houdini asked his visitor to leave the house and go down the street in any direction, take out a piece of paper and pencil and write down a question or a sentence, put it back in his pocket and return to the house. Conan Doyle complied, scribbling “Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin,” a mysterious riddle from the Bible’s book of Daniel, meaning “It has been counted and counted, weighed and divided.” How appropriate, for what happened next defied explanation, at least in Conan Doyle’s mind. Houdini had him scoop up the ink-soaked cork ball in a spoon and place it against the slate, where it momentarily stuck before slowly rolling across the face, spelling out “M” then “e” then “n” then “e” and so forth until the entire phrase was completed, at which point the ball dropped to the ground. According to Houdini’s biographers William Kalush and Larry Sloman in their 2006 biography Houdini (Atria Books), the Master Mystifier then dealt Conan Doyle the lesson that he — and by implication anyone impressed by such mysteries — needed to hear:

“Sir Arthur, I have devoted a lot of time and thought to this illusion…I won’t tell you how it was done, but I can assure you it was pure trickery. I did it by perfectly normal means. I devised it to show you what can be done along these lines. Now, I beg of you, Sir Arthur, do not jump to the conclusion that certain things you see are necessarily ‘supernatural,’ or the work of ‘spirits,’ just because you cannot explain them. … I have given you this test to impress upon you the necessity of cautions, and I sincerely hope that you will profit by it.”

Discussed in the show was James Van Praagh and how he appears to talk to the dead, and why skeptics consider this a moral crime. From Dr. Shermer’s 2000 book How We Believe, from the chapter “Talking Twaddle with the Dead”:

Caught Cheating

Even for seasoned observers it is remarkable how Van Praagh appears to get hits, even though a closer look reveals how he does it. When we were filming the 20/20 piece for ABC, I was told that overall he had not done well the night before, but that he did get a couple of startling hits — including the name of a woman’s family dog. But when we reviewed the videotape, here is what actually happened. Van Praagh was failing in his reading of a gentleman named Peter, who was poker-faced and obviously skeptical (without feedback Van Praagh’s hit rate drops significantly). After dozens of misses Van Praagh queried, “Who is Charlie?” Peter sat there dumfounded, unable to recall if he knew anyone of significance named Charlie, when suddenly the woman sitting in back of him — a complete stranger — blurted out “Charlie was our family dog.” Van Praagh seized the moment and proclaimed that he could see Charlie and and this woman’s Dad taking walks in heaven together. Apparently Van Praagh’s psychic abilities are not fine-tuned enough to tell the difference between a human and a dog.

The highlight of the 20/20 piece, however, was a case of hot reading. On a break, with a camera rolling, while relaxing and sipping a glass of water, Van Praagh suddenly called out to a young woman named Mary Jo: “Did your mother pass on?” Mary Jo nodded negatively, and then volunteered “Grandmother.” Fifty-four minutes later Van Praagh turned to her and said: “I want to tell you, there is a lady sitting behind you. She feels like a grandmother to me.” The next day, when I was shown this clip, one of the line producers said, “you know, I think he got that on the break. Too bad we don’t have it on film.” After checking they discovered they did, so Van Praagh was caught red-handed. When confronted by 20/20 correspondent Bill Ritter with the video clip, however, he demurred: “I don’t cheat. I don’t have to prove…I don’t cheat. I don’t cheat. I mean, come on….” Interesting. No one said anything about cheating. The gentleman doth protest too much.

As an example of the power of the Belief Engine, even after we caught Van Praagh cheating, Barbara Walters concluded in the wrap-up discussion: “I was skeptical. I still am. But I met James Van Praagh. He didn’t expect to meet me. He knew that my father’s name was Lew — Lewis he said — and he knew that my father had a glass eye. People don’t know that.” Ritter, doing his homework on this piece to the bitter end, explained: “You told me the story yesterday and I told you I would look and see what I could find out. Within a few minutes I found out that your father’s name was Lew and that he was very well known in show business. And this morning I was looking in a book and found a passage that says he was blind in one eye — an accidental incident as a child — and he had a glass eye. If I found that out, then he could have.” While Walters flustered in frustration, Hugh Downs declared without qualification: “I don’t believe him.”

Where have we heard all this before? A hundred years ago, when mediums, seances, and spiritualism were all the rage in England and America, Thomas Henry Huxley concluded, as only he could in his biting wit, that as nonsensical as it was, spiritual manifestations might at least reduce suicides: “Better live a crossing-sweeper than die and be made to talk twaddle by a ‘medium’ hired at a guinea a seance.”

The Tragedy of Death

The simplest explanation for how James Van Praagh can get away with such an outrageous claim on such questionable techniques is that he is dealing with a subject the likes of which it would be hard to top for tragedy and finality — death. Sooner or later we all will face this inevitability, starting, in the normal course of events, with the loss of our parents, then siblings and friends, and eventually ourselves. It is a grim outcome under the best of circumstances, made all the worse when death comes early or accidentally to those whose “time was not up.” As those who traffic in the business of loss, death, and grief know all too well, we are often at our most vulnerable at such times. Giving deep thought to this reality can cause the most controlled and rational among us to succumb to our emotions.

I experienced the full force of this reality on April 2, 1998. The events of that day prompted me to consider what I would say to someone who is grieving. The ABC television program 20/20 came to my home and office, then followed me to Occidental College to shoot some background footage in my critical thinking course. I thought I would ask the students to respond to a question I routinely receive from journalists: “What’s the harm in what James Van Praagh does?” The students had plenty to say, but one woman named Melissa told a personal story about how her Dad had died when she was ten and that she had never really gotten over it. She was sad that her father never got to see her play volleyball or basketball, or to see her graduate from High School. Her opinion of James Van Praagh was less than charitable, to say the least. She could not imagine how such a performance could make someone feel better about death. In a maturity beyond her years, she expressed her opinion that one does not really get over such a loss; one just learns to live with it: “When my dad first died I just wanted to get on with my life and not let it bother me too much, now I’m just trying not to forget him. Next year when I turn twenty I will have lived ten years with my Dad and ten years without him…so I guess that is when my life will begin…like a new chapter or something.” At this point she was fighting back her tears. It was a very touching moment.

When I returned home I was preparing to send Melissa an e-mail expressing how tragic it must have been to lose her Dad at such a young age, when I read this e-mail from my sister:

I was thinking of Dad today on this 12th anniversary and how proud he would have been of you and all you have accomplished with your life. For some reason, I have really been missing him lately, more than I have in a long time and it’s still so hard to be without him. I really hope there is a heaven, even though I know otherwise, but the thought of never seeing him again, ever, is almost too hard to bear. Love you, Tina.

Our father died twelve years ago that day, April 2, 1986, and it is probably a good thing I had not realized that in class as it would have been very difficult to remain composed.

This was such a peculiar conjuncture of events that it prompted me to give some thought about what I would say to someone experiencing grief. Having watched James Van Praagh now for over five years, I would imagine he might say something to this effect:

It’s okay Melissa, your Dad is here now in the room with us. He’s telling me he loves you. He says he watches over you. He loves watching you play basketball and volleyball. He saw you graduate. He is with you always. Don’t be sad. Don’t cry. You will get to see him again. Everything is fine.

My response to Melissa, and to everyone who has ever received a “reading” from Van Praagh, is as follows:

First of all, no one knows if any of this is true, but even if it is, why would your loved one talk with this guy you don’t even know? Why would he choose to make his appearance in some television studio or at some hotel conference room with hundreds of other people around? Why doesn’t he talk to you instead? You’re the one he loves, not this guy getting $40 a seat in a hall with 400 people, or $200 a private reading, or two million dollars for a book filled with this sort of drivel. Why do you have to pay someone to talk to your loved one?

In the St. Louis Post Dispatch (March 1, 1998) Van Praagh called me a “rat fink.” I take this as a compliment because to “rat” on someone is to tell the truth about them. In Mafia circles it means a crime has been exposed. On the 20/20 show Van Praagh offered this view of the difference between my work and his: “He makes his life beating people down, putting people down. I make my life healing and bringing people up. I’m not a circus act. I’m not a side show. It’s God’s work.” By now nearly everyone in America has heard what James Van Praagh says to aching hearts. Here is what I might say. It is not God’s work, but you judge who is putting people down or bringing them up. To Melissa, to my sisters Tina and Shawn, and to my own daughter Devin should I die before my time, I close with this statement:

I am sorry this happened to you. It isn’t fair. It isn’t fair at all. If I were you I would feel cheated and hurt; I might even be angry that I didn’t get more time with my Dad. You have every right to feel bad. If you want to cry, you should. It’s okay. It’s more than okay. It’s human. Very human. All loving, caring people grieve when those they love are gone. And all of us, every last one of us, will experience this feeling at some point in our lives. Sometimes we grieve very deeply and for a very long time. Sometimes we get over it and sometimes we do not. Mostly we get on with our lives because there is nothing else we can do. But loving, caring people continue to think about their loved ones no matter how far they have gotten on with their lives, because our lost loved ones continue to live. No one knows if they really continue to live in some other place — I suspect not — but we do know for sure, with as much certainty as any scientific theory or philosophical argument can muster, that our loved ones continue to live in our memories and in our lives. It isn’t wrong to feel sad. It is right. Self-evidently right. It means we love and can be loved. It means our loved ones continue to live because we continue to miss them. Tears of sadness are really tears of love. Why shouldn’t you cry for your Dad? He’s your Dad and you love him. Don’t let anyone try to take that away from you. The freedom to grieve and love is one of the fundamentals of being human. To try to take that freedom away on a chimera of feigned hope and promises that cannot be filled is inhuman. Celebrate your love for your Dad in every way you can. That is your right, your freedom, your humanness.

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