Mar 25 2010

Where is the line between the science of illusion and scientific innovation?

Published by at 10:18 am under good ancestors workshops

I attended The Illusion of Psychic Powers last night as part of the San Diego Science Festival.  This was engaging lecture by magician/skeptic Jamy Ian Swiss

A longtime student of both the psychology of deception and the history and science of the paranormal, in this remarkable lecture/demonstration Jamy Ian Swiss, internationally renowned illusionist and critical thinker, defines the four kinds of paranormal events — telepathy, precognition, clairvoyance and psychokinesis — declares them to be non-existent, and then proceeds to demonstrate all of them and more, thereby proving that even the most intelligent and wary of audiences can be fooled by a determined charlatan. A stunning, informative and entertaining lesson in critical thinking for scientific and academic audiences.

He was a very engaging speaker, and his ability to use magic (what he called “legitimate lying”) to debunk psychics, tarot card readers, and 19th century spiritualists (whom he called some other less acceptable form of lying) was a great lesson for the audience.  When magicians pull a rabbit out of a hat, everyone knows that they are fooling the audience – its part of the game.  When Tarot card reader asks for money to read the future, this crosses over into another realm of lying altogether.

Jamy is affiliated with the James Randi Foundation which is where I refer folks when then tell me of some dramatic parapsychological or  “proof” of some mystical event.   They offer $1 million to anyone who can show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event.

This is all well and good, and the $1 million Randi prize is a great way to halt “woo” in its tracks.


I was a little turned off by his smugness about “real” science and “woo.”  At one point, he mentioned cynically mentioned psychology, saying he would be charitable and call it a “science.”  If we could reduce the human condition to a level of simplicity akin to billiard balls bouncing around on a frictionless table, I suppose we could make psychology a science as reliable as Newtonian physics.  But living systems, particularly self-aware systems, aren’t as deterministic as billiard balls.  Dismissing a discipline as “unscientific” because it can’t reduce the complexity of its domain to F=MA or some other such formula is an irresponsible way to present science.

I think it is great to expose irrational hysteria – the Salem Witch trials for example.  While we’re at it, we can talk about other irrational beliefs: that watching a football game and drinking the right beer will make young men irresistible to scantily-clothed hot chicks.  The advertising industry does a  great job of shaping our behavior by communicating with our “lizard brain” – whether our rational brain recognizes it or not.

I also fear that this smugness might block legitimate research into innovative areas in science.  Einstein criticized quantum mechanics as “spooky action at a distance” – yet this science is at the leading edge of our basic understanding of physics today.  How – and if – these tiny interactions relate to the larger scale of our day-to-day life is a mystery of the grandest significance.  And it might barbecue some “sacred cows” of science – including things that today may look like “woo” to the skeptics.  Science has still not fully addressed the issues of Goedel’s incompleteness theorem, Mandelbrot’s Fractal Dimensions, or the Advanced Wave solutions to Maxwell’s Equations.  New discoveries in Metamaterials, Nanotechnology, and Genomics also open up enormous new areas of scientific study that challenge both our ability to understand them from traditional academic silos of independent disciplines, as well as challenge some of our basic understanding of matter and energy.

I would hate to see science’s exploration of these frontiers constrained by fear of skeptics who attack all “woo” in the name of scientific orthodoxy.

Speaking of Magic and Science, here is a video I did of Dorion Sagan, son of Carl Sagan, performing magic at one of my Good Ancestor Workshops:


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