Smoke and mirrors

As a magician I promise never to reveal the secret of any illusion to a non-magician, unless that one swears to uphold the Magician’s Oath in turn. I promise never to perform any illusion for any non-magician without first practicing the effect until I can perform it well enough to maintain the illusion of magicThe Magician’s Oath.


Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called “The Pledge”. The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course… it probably isn’t. The second act is called “The Turn”. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call “The Prestige”. From the film The Prestige.

I knew, as everyone knows, that the easiest way to attract a crowd is to let it be known that at a given time and a given place some one is going to attempt something that in the event of failure will mean sudden death. That’s what attracts us to the man who paints the flagstaff on the tall building, or to the ‘human fly’ who scales the walls of the same building. Harry Houdini

We’re starting to realize that magicians have a lot of implicit know-ledge about how we perceive the world around us because they have to deceive us in terms of controlling attention, exploiting the assumptions we make when we do and don’t notice a change in our environment. There is an enormous amount of really detailed instruction on how to perform magic. People are always blown away by how detailed a description you’ll have.  Richard Wiseman

The world of prestidigitators, conjurors, mentalists, escape artists, and ventriloquists has long intrigued me. I love reading about the golden age of magic – from 1890 to 1930. In particular, as a sceptic, I am fascinated by the relationship between scepticism and magic. Magicians are engaged in deception and come into contact with the dark side of human nature and how easily we can be manipulated. This enables them to shine a light on the paranormal world I will be looking at three magicians to illustrate what I mean.

The first is Harry Houdini. Houdini is of course a household name. We have all heard of his famous stunts – escaping from straitjackets, making an elephant disappear, being lowered into water tanks and being buried alive. A lesser known part of his life was as a debunker of mediums and psychics. He began doing this in the 1920s after the death of his mother. It was his background in magic that enabled him to spot things that had escaped many scientists and academics. Later he would have to attend sessions in disguise. He was also able to show how photographers could produce fraudulent “spirit photographs”. I have read on some websites that Houdini was merely exposing the bad apples. But the whole enterprise of talking to spirits is a farce.

My second figure, James Randi, is less well-known, although he was described by Arthur C, Clarke as “a national treasure, and perhaps one of the remaining antidotes that may prevent the rotting of the American mind.” Randi is fully fledged magician who has escaped from a straitjacket while suspended upside-down over Niagara Falls However the facet I am interested in is his sceptical persona. Randi certainly takes no prisoners in his exposure of psychics, mediums, faith healers etc. His definition of New Age is spot on: The New Age? It’s just the old age stuck in a microwave oven for fifteen seconds. 

Randi became of a public figure in the 1970s for exposing Uri Geller as a fraud. When Randi replicated Geller’s cutlery bending exploits he was accused of secretly using psychic powers. This echoed an accusation made by Arthur Conan-Doyle about Houdini many years earlier Randi has instituted a prize of one million dollars for anyone who can demonstrate a paranormal effect under proper scientific controls; nobody has claimed the prize yet.

My final choice is illusionist Derren Brown. He recently came into the public eye by predicting the winners of the national lottery. He then gave an explanation of how he was able to do it that was pure tosh. but that’s what’s so compelling about Brown – the way he mixes magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship. He is perfectly open about his dishonesty. It’s part of the spectacle. You’re never quite sure what is real and what isn’t. When the person doing this is an entertainer that’s fine. It becomes fraudulent when somebody claims special powers.


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