What magicians can teach scientists about skepticism — NewsWorks

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Since I'm a journalist by profession, I think of skepticism as a job requirement – essential for those of us who work in media outlets that cater to educated consumers. NewsWorks readers would be outraged if I suddenly started writing credulously about psychics, palm readers or homeopaths.

But for some people, skepticism is a movement, and last week I had a chance to learn a lot more about it at an annual gathering called The Amazing Meeting. It's a fundraiser for the James Randi Educational Foundation, James Randi being a magician and investigator of paranormal or supernatural claims.

This year TAM drew 1100 people – mostly non-gamblers – to Las Vegas in July.

I was asked to give a talk, and since the theme was "Fighting the Fakers", I chose to discuss some of the cranks and quacks I'd exposed though my columns and stories. I gave examples of the kinds of claims we journalists investigate, what we get right and why we sometimes go wrong. But I was, as always, gathering material for new stories.

Writing about the meeting, I believe, abides by journalistic ethics because there was no honorarium for speakers and while the foundation offered to pay some of my travel expenses, we are talking about Vegas in July, a setting that had the unintended consequence of leaving me with one more religious-type belief than I'd come in with – hell.

What intrigued me about the skeptics' movement was the central role of magicians, especially James Randi, 85.

His name became a household word in the scientific community after 1988, when he helped investigate the claims of Jacques Benveniste, a French immunologist who managed to get a strikingly improbable result published in the prestigious journal Nature.

The experiments described in Benveniste's Nature paper purported to show that water could remember the presence of an antibody that was no longer there – it had been diluted to zero concentration. That's a claim quite similar to the discredited mechanism behind the discredited practice of homeopathy.

The editors at Nature could find nothing wrong with the methodology. Benvensite seemed to be following the scientific method.

Randi and the other investigators devised a clever follow-up test. Benveniste said he could distinguish water that had once held the antibody from water that had not. So the investigators asked him to try it again with samples labeled only by a secret code, thereby making Benveniste blind to whether he was testing a "real" sample or a control. According to Wikipedia, Randi taped the key to the samples' identity on the ceiling.

Lo and behold, Benveniste couldn't tell the difference when he didn't know ahead of time. A follow up paper was published in Nature, with Randi as an author.

Written By: Faye Flam
continue to source article at newsworks.org

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  1. The magic profession has an honourable record in exposing scientific and occult fraud. Houdini himself spent years doing this, at the expense of the then fashionable spiritualist movement. I remember the spoon bender, Geller, accepting a challenge by New Scientist to demonstrate his skills before a group of high powered scientists. He agreed enthusiastically, until he discovered that there was to be a professional magician on the panel.

    They have a code of omerta, which means that they never talk about each other’s methods – unless someone claims occult powers. They might even expose more fraud than the scientists themselves!!

  2. It was wonder at mystery that got me interested in both science and conjuring. Magic tricks work because they use cunning techniques – both physical and psychological – to deceive. It is hardly surprising that this makes magicians extremely well-armed against the miracles and wonders claimed on behalf of religion, superstition and pseudo-science.

  3. I’ve noticed a sort of rule (could be confirmaiton bias so please feel free to investigate yourself) that people who tend to believe in things mystical/magical/spiritual etc are likely to announce they “can’t stand magicians”. When I’ve questoined why, pointing out it’s just a bit of fun entertainment, nice to be baffled by a trick now and then etc. the answers tend to be along the lines of “it’s all fake”

    the fact is though, the ones who are simply entertaining conjorers, are vastly more skilled than the failed magicians who tour the psychic fairs. if you’re lazy, unskilled and self-deluded you just need to find a stupider audienc to trot out your third-rate tricks. if magicians didn’t have a code of conduct, psychics would be far more impressive. Colin Fry and his stuttering ghosts giving up their names one letter at a time wouldn’t get a look in against the mystical super-powers of Derren Brown

  4. SaganTheCat@4
    “people who tend to believe in things mystical/magical/spiritual etc are likely to announce they “can’t stand magicians”. When I’ve questioned why, pointing out it’s just a bit of fun entertainment, nice to be baffled by a trick now and then etc. the answers tend to be along the lines of “it’s all fake” “

    Well, to contradict any bias, neither can I but not because it’s ‘fake’. It is the, seldom even interestingly surreal and pointless, nature of the trick without the explanation. I find my attention drifts elsewhere…

    I don’t think I am naturally incurious but ‘magic’ fails to charm nearly every time.

  5. “Set a thief to catch a thief”.

    I admire the likes of James Randi et al, who are willing to throw light on the conjurer’s tricks in order to expose the frauds. Another of my favorites is Derren Brown from the UK. Thanks to him, I’ve become very aware of the impact of “priming” as it’s used in persuasion of all kinds.

  6. “Since I’m a journalist by profession, I think of skepticism as a job requirement…”

    Sigh… this man is funny! Journalists have never been skeptics. Especially in these days journalist = corrupted and arrogant prick with an over-inflated ego.

    • In reply to #7 by Nunbeliever:

      “Since I’m a journalist by profession, I think of skepticism as a job requirement…”

      Sigh… this man is funny! Journalists have never been skeptics. Especially in these days journalist = corrupted and arrogant prick with an over-inflated ego.

      Reading between the lines I gather you don’t like Journalists.

      Have a heart. Take your lantern and look for an honest Journalist. There are plenty of excellent examples, and not just honest but penetrative (Hitchens, Cooke), brave (Don Cullen, Kate Adie), campaigning (John Diamond, Simon Singh) and sceptical (maybe this guy).

      • Yes, of course there are a few honest respectable journalists out there. Unfortunately journalism is really dead nowadays. At least that is my experience… In reply to #8 by Geoff 21:

        In reply to #7 by Nunbeliever:

        “Since I’m a journalist by profession, I think of skepticism as a job requirement…”

        Sigh… this man is funny! Journalists have never been skeptics. Especially in these days journalist = corrupted and arrogant prick with an over-inflated ego.

        Reading between the l…

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