November 29, 2000

Now You See It

Illumination of Disillusionment  

A 12-year-old boy saw an ESP experiment performed on TV. He persuaded his parents to buy the kit that was being hawked as a way to improve extrasensory perception (ESP). He tried unsuccessfully for weeks to develop his skills before realizing he had been duped. What role does critical thinking play in understanding magic?

That duped 12-year-old boy was Penn Jillette, who went on to become part of the famous Penn & Teller show, a comedic magic team that, partially because of Jillette's pivotal early experience, asks the audience to never surrender its critical thinking or healthy skepticism.

Unlike some other magicians, Penn & Teller do not want members of their audience to sit back, suspend their disbelief, and enjoy the fantasy. Instead, they believe that people should always—and naturally do—try to figure out how magic tricks work. The pair is upfront about telling audiences that they are about to trick them, and then they trick them, thus proving how easy it is to be fooled.

This belief in retaining a healthy skepticism, or doubt, is a long tradition among magicians. Some magicians believe it is their responsibility to educate people about the origins of magic. As early as 1584, Reginald Scot warned in his book, Discovery of Witchcraft, that "conjurers" should "abuse not the name of God nor make the people attribute onto them his power, but always acknowledge wherein the art consisteth."

In other words, the honest magician makes no claims of possessing supernatural powers. He acknowledges that "magic" is simply a bag of tricks.

The Amazing Randi  

Penn & Teller were deeply influenced by the Amazing Randi, whom they watched perform when they were younger. The Amazing Randi (also known as James Randi), was giving a lecture during which he would perform apparent miracles and then admit that they were tricks. His approach inspired Penn & Teller to incorporate honesty into their own show, which they've been performing for 25 years.

Randi, in turn, was heavily influenced by the great Harry Houdini, who spent much of his time debunking the false mediums of his day. Like Houdini, Randi feels compelled to expose people who falsely claim to possess supernatural powers (such as the ability to foretell the future) for their own financial gain. Like Houdini, he has offered a great deal of money to the person who could scientifically prove possession of supernatural powers.

In the early 1920s, Houdini joined a panel of scientists belonging to Scientific American magazine. The board offered a $5,000 prize to anyone who could convince them that he or she possessed paranormal powers. The James Randi Educational Foundation, dedicated to education that enhances critical thinking, currently offers $1 million for the same feat. No one won the $5,000 in Houdini's day and, to date, Randi's $1 million remains unclaimed as well.

"My mind is the key that sets me free."
—Harry Houdini

Links to Houdini  

Many of us have heard of Houdini's amazing escape acts. What also set him apart was his willingness to publicize how his tricks were done once copycat magicians figured them out. He wrote detailed books revealing many of his secrets. Some of his tricks were so ingenious, though, that they remain unsolved, even many years after Houdini's death.

Despite his love of magic, Houdini disdained the apparent deception of the spiritualists of his time. These were people who claimed that they could communicate with the dead and charged people money to receive messages from their loved ones.

Houdini's outrage stemmed from personal experience. After the death of his mother in 1913, Houdini tried to contact her with the help of mediums. However, he grew furious after receiving suspicious messages from his mother, such as his mother communicating in English when she never spoke that language. The medium explained this away by saying that all people spoke English in heaven.

Worried that fraudulent mediums would take advantage of people made vulnerable by grief, Houdini began exposing frauds by catching them in their scams. Sometimes, in order to participate in seances, he would disguise his famous countenance with a fake beard and mustache, only to rip them off when he had enough evidence to denounce a person as a fake. In the end, Houdini's yearning to communicate with his mother didn't interfere with his critical thinking.

Many people claimed to possess supernatural powers during Houdini's time. Historians attribute the rise in spiritualism to World War I (1914-1918), which left thousands of families bereft and desperate to communicate with dead loved ones.


Learn More


More Links

  • The Jr Skeptic casts its eye on urban legends.

  • Read a 1916 newspaper account of Harry Houdini's famous Suspended Straitjacket Escape—which took place while he was hanging upside down 50 feet above the city pavement.


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