Magicians are Scientists with Street Smarts

In his conservationist plea to fundamentalist Christian religious leaders, The Creation, E.O. Wilson reminds me of a recent essay by Teller (of prestidigitator duo extraordinaire Penn & Teller).  On page 104, Wilson says

The successful scientist thinks like a poet, and then only in rare moments of inspiration, if ever, and works like a bookkeeper the rest of the time…Scientists by and large are too modest to be prophets, too easily bored to be philosophers, and too trusting to be politicans. Lacking in street smarts, they are also easily fooled by confidence artists and sleight-of-hand tricksters. Never ask a scientist to test the claims of paranormal phenomena. Ask a professional magician.


Teller (of Penn & Teller–Source: Smithsonian magazine

In the March 2012 issue of Smithsonian magazine, Teller says in “Teller Reveals His Secrets” that “neuroscientists,” the scientists with probably the most disciplinary sex appeal going nowadays, “are novices at deception.”  Well, that is good, because we don’t want our scientists deceiving us. But what he means is that in studies of perception, wherein neuroscientists use deception as a method, they are beginners at understanding how human perception works &, thus, how to manipulate it.  As Teller points out, “Magicians have done controlled testing in human perception for thousands of years.”

Teller shares a few basic principles, which I recommend you read in more depth. It says a lot about the poetics & bookkeeping of magic too & reinforces how little distance there still is between magic & science.

  1. exploit pattern recognition
  2. make the secret a lot more trouble than the trick seems worth
  3. it’s hard to think critically if you’re laughing
  4. keep the trickery outside the frame
  5. to fool the mind, combine at least two tricks
  6. nothing fools you better than the lie you tell yourself
  7. if you are given a choice, you believe you have acted freely
Christopher Lynn

About Christopher Lynn

Christopher Dana Lynn is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama, where he founded the Evolutionary Studies program.  Chris teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in biological anthropology, human sexuality, evolution, biocultural medical anthropology, and neuroanthropology.  He received his Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology in 2009 from the University at Albany, SUNY, where his doctoral focus was on the influence of speaking in tongues on stress response among Pentecostals.  Chris runs a human behavioral ecology research group where the objectives include studying fun gimmicky things like trance, religious behavior, tattooing, and sex as a way of introducing students to the rigors of evolutionary science.  In all his “free” time, he breaks up fights among his triplet sons, enjoys marriage to the other Loretta Lynn, strokes his mustache, and has learned to be passionate about Alabama football (Roll Tide!).  Follow Chris on Twitter: @Chris_Ly
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