Jan 03 2019

Magic Can Increase Belief in Pseudoscience

Magicians play a significant role in the skeptical movement. They have, as Liam Neeson famously said, a particular set of skills. They are very adept at deception, using techniques that have been honed through trial and error over centuries. It is a great example of cultural knowledge. Having the ability to deceive others, purely for entertainment and with informed consent, also makes them adept at detecting the use of the same techniques for nefarious purposes. This, essentially, has been James Randi’s entire career.

But at the same time some stage magicians make skeptics uncomfortable by not being entirely upfront with their audience. Now, I am not suggesting that all magicians tell their audience how the tricks are done, and I completely understand the need to create a mystique as part of the performance. However, I have seen skilled magicians (like Randi or Banachek) perform amazing tricks with complete candor about the nature of those tricks, without diminishing the entertainment value.

Magicians typically create a narrative by which they “explain” their tricks to the audience. A magician, for example, could say, “I am using sleight of hand.” Or they could say (or strongly imply), “I have true psychic ability.” The Amazing Kreskin falls into this latter category. There are also those like Uri Geller who (sort of) pretend they are not doing magic at all, but have special powers.

In the gray zone are those like Derren Brown. Their narrative is not that they are psychic but that they are using psychological manipulation on their audience – reading microexpressions, influencing their decision-making, or reading body-language. This narrative is as much BS as the psychic one, used as part of the magic experience and for misdirection. You can read and influence people to some degree, but these techniques are not reliable enough to support a performance. Typically mentalists use standard sleight of hand and then pretend to use psychological techniques.

The question is – is there any harm in deceiving an audience about the true nature of such magic tricks? Interestingly, there is actually research on this question, including a recent study focusing specifically on the psychological narrative. The study authors summarize prior research, which showed:

Empirical studies, indeed, show that the experience of a magic performance can impact our cognitive and affective functioning. For example, Subbotsky showed children at and below 9 years of age a magic trick in which a magic spell caused a stamp to be burned and scratched. Prior to seeing the trick, most of the older children denied the existence of real magic, but after witnessing the trick, the majority endorsed this magical belief. The older children regained their sceptical view once they were told how the trick was done, but the younger children continued to believe in magic, even though they knew it was a trick. These results suggest that anomalous experiences can change children’s beliefs.

What about adults? Adults do not change their paranormal beliefs after seeing magic tricks, even those with a paranormal narrative. I will say, however, that from personal experience those with paranormal beliefs will often support them with reference to magic tricks sold with the paranormal narrative. I did not see, nor did the authors mention, any research on this question. It only shows that seeing a magic trick did not make adults believe in the paranormal if they didn’t already.

There is a big “however” here, though. If the magic trick were given a pseudoscientific explanation, then even adults were much more likely to accept it. All many adults need, apparently, is a plausible-sounding sciencey explanation, and they’re good. They will accept that the “magic” happened. For example, if you demonstrate psychic ability, then mumble something about quantum entanglement, some adults will find that compelling.

What this means is that many adults are not willing to say they believe in magic, but are willing to accept that fantastical things can happen if there is at least an attempt at a physical explanation (even if that explanation is total nonsense).

But what about the pseudo-psychological narrative? This is the focus of the current study. This is what they did:

The first aim tested whether a magic demonstration using “psychological skills” changes people’s belief in the performer’s pseudo-psychological skills and the principles more generally. The second aim tested whether the performer alters people’s interpretation of the phenomena as a function of whether the performer was introduced as a magician or a psychologist. We targeted the first aim by having participants watch a demonstration in which the performer claimed to use psychological skills to read a volunteer’s thoughts. The volunteer was asked to secretly conceal a coin in his right or left hand. The performer claimed to use psychological skills to identify the coin’s location. Whilst it is possible to read aspects of a person’s mind by observing behaviour, these techniques are generally unreliable. Our performer, indeed, used a conjuring device to accurately deduce the coin’s physical location.

What they found is that combining the trick with a pseudopsychological explanation did increase belief that the ability is possible, and in the underlying psychological principles. However, it did not matter if the performer was presented as a psychologist or a magician.

What all this means is that when Derren Brown claims that he psychologically manipulated his subject into making the choice he wanted, the audience generally believes him, and therefore believes that such manipulation is possible (when it isn’t – at least not reliably). The authors concluded:

This paper tested the impact of a pseudo-psychological demonstration on people’s beliefs in implausible psychological principles. Our findings are clear and somewhat unnerving. Witnessing pseudo-psychological demonstrations significantly increased people’s beliefs that it was possible to 1) read a person’s mind by observing micro expressions, psychological profiles or muscle-reading, and 2) effectively prime a person’s decisions through subtle suggestions. Before the demonstration, the average observer was relatively uncertain as to whether these skills can be effectively used to determine which hand a person is holding a coin in. After seeing the demonstration, there was a significant increase in their beliefs, and the average observer now agreed more strongly that it was possible. Witnessing the demonstration also increased their beliefs in whether these principles can be used more generally to read a person’s thoughts in different situations.

For skeptics this is also “unnerving.” The deeper implication is that pseudoscience works. If you give a science-sounding patina to your BS claims, it dramatically increases acceptance of those claims.

This reinforces the emerging skeptical belief that promoting science must include the promotion of critical thinking skills. But it also supports that promoting critical thinking must involve the promotion of scientific literacy. The two go hand-in-hand.

Scientific literacy is a protection (I guess in proportion to that literacy) against pseudoscientific explanations. If someone justified their ESP claims by referencing quantum entanglement, it helps to know about decoherence, for example. If they say homeopathy works because of transient structures in the water molecules, it helps to know that such transient structures last less than microseconds, and could not possibly encode the necessary information, or survive digestion and distribution throughout the body.  If lunar effects are justified by saying it works through tidal forces on the brain, it helps to know that such tidal forces over such a short distance are negligible, and could not possibly influence behavior.

It also helps to know when you are out of your depth, and to withhold judgement until you can consult a scientist or get more information. When I see something I cannot explain, I am not content to accept whatever explanation is handed to me. I am comfortable saying – I don’t know what I don’t know, so I will reserve judgement until I can look into it.

What about magicians? I do think that responsible magicians should think carefully about their entertainment narrative. I respect those like Banachek who (without revealing their tricks) are clear about the fact that they are tricks. Those operating in the gray zone should rethink their strategy and come clean. They are promoting pseudoscience, especially when it comes to psychology.

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