Houdini vs. Sherlock Holmes

Houdini Sherlock Holmes Conan DoyleSometimes the door to new insight is not only unlocked but opened, and yet one refuses to go through.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the savagely rational Sherlock Holmes, was not so rational in his personal life. He was famously deceived by the 1917 Cottingley Fairies hoax, photos of palm-sized fairies dancing with two girls in the town of Cottingley, England (I’ve written more on Conan Doyle and that hoax here).

Perhaps sorrow overrode common sense. Conan Doyle had been pushed into depression by the deaths of a number of family members during and shortly after World War I, and he saw the new spiritualism movement as a way to contact them.

His friend Harry Houdini also spent much time with spiritualism, but his focus was on debunking it. Like magician The Amazing Randi today, Houdini knew how tricks were done and exposed the charlatans.

Harry Houdini once tried to defuse Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s passion for spiritualism. Houdini performs what must have been a baffling trick for Conan Doyle and then says:

Sir Arthur, I have devoted a lot of time and thought to this illusion…. I won’t tell you how it was done, but I can assure you it was pure trickery. I did it by perfectly normal means. I devised it to show you what can be done along these lines. Now, I beg of you, Sir Arthur, do not jump to the conclusion that certain things you see are necessarily “supernatural,” or the work of “spirits,” just because you cannot explain them.

Obviously, Conan Doyle now can’t both believe in spiritualism and that it’s all just fakery at the same time. So what does he do? He rejects the claim that it’s fakery! Given a plausible natural explanation from a reputable source, he concludes that Houdini must be accessing real supernatural forces.

Do magicians not tell their secrets because it would violate the rules of the Magicians’ Union? Perhaps it’s more because the viewers’ excitement—the magic—would be lost when they peek behind the curtain. If Houdini had shown Conan Doyle how the trick was done, Conan Doyle would’ve responded as any of us do once we see the quite natural and even uninspiring way a trick works.

And many of us insist on sticking with the exciting supernatural rather than the mundane natural.

I conclude [that this fallacious reasoning]
must be a product of a brain unsatisfied with doubt;
as nature abhors a vacuum,
so, too, does the brain abhor no explanation.
It therefore fills in one, no matter how unlikely.
— Michael Shermer

Photo credit: Zastavki

The Dunning-Kruger Effect: Are the Stupid Too Stupid to Realize They’re Stupid?
In Which I Experience a Miracle. Or Not.
Fallible Memories and the Development of Legend
The Curious Tale of the Angel of Mons
About Bob Seidensticker
  • SuperMark

    Great thoughts Bob, thanks for this one. Due to my religious education/upbringing I am very ignorant when it comes to biology. It is very difficult for religious institutions to address biology because it can not be adequately discussed without our understanding of evolution, and hey jebus created everything so what else do you really need to know.

    While it’s just a guess on my part, even thought I’m sure others have studied it. The quote at the end of this post makes me think about the possibility that religiosity is somehow instinctual. That humans always want answers and if we can’t find them we will just make something up to fit the hole in our understanding.

    Can anyone point me to ideas that might describe an evolutionary need for this part of humanity? Is it something unique to humans or do other animals exhibit the same behavior? Is it possibly just a consequence of consciousnesses and not biological at all?

    On a side note: the only science class taught at Liberty University while I attended between 2000 and 2003 was chemistry, probably the least religiously controversial of all scientific fields. This was due to the school forcing all teachers to sign a contract which states that they believe in the literal interpretation of their holy book. As any rational thinker can imagine this made it practically impossible to provide virtually any scientific classes. Even though there were close to 10k students attending while I was at the school, there were only two science teachers at the whole university. Consequently, all of the nursing students had to take Biology at a near by community college as it was a requirement of the major by the schools accreditation board. Of course the irony of this was lost on everyone I met there.

    • Pofarmer

      There are all kinds of things that lead to religiousity. Agency detection is one evolved response by where we see and react to things that aren’t there, it’s also part of our fight or flight response. Sam Harris and Michael Shermers”why people believe weird things” is good. An excellent book describing the qualities of movements, both secular and religious, is Eric Hoffers “true believer”. I would almost hit it first. I don’t see how you can call Liberty a University without a functioning science and biology department. That is just a joke.

      • SuperMark

        Yes Liberty was a joke, they took almost $5k a semester from their 10k+ students, paid their teachers a penance and called it a “christian service/duty”.

        Thanks for the recommendations I’ll put those on the top of my reading list. I’ve been stuck on reading church and religious history for the past few years, but i think it’s about time to focus on more modern thinking.

        • Ron

          “The study of theology, as it stands in the Christian churches, is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on no principles; it proceeds by no authority; it has no data; it can demonstrate nothing; and it admits of no conclusion.” ~Thomas Paine

        • wtfwjtd

          Yep, as we like to say around here–theology is made–up stuff about made–up stuff.

    • Pofarmer

      What lead you to finally question and escape?

      • SuperMark

        That’s a really complicated question, one I’ve been trying to pin down for the past decade. However, I have managed to trace my first true cognitive dissidence to one event. Both of my parents were very religious but none of their parents believed like they did, and my dad’s father specifically hated Christianity. They went back and forth for a really long time about religion, my father constantly pressed the issue because he “knew” his father was not “saved” and was destined for hell. My grandfather died when I was 16 and it completely devastated my father and while he is a really strong man and wasn’t the most open when it came to his personal struggles he was unable to hide this from his family.

        About a year after his death, I was discussing hell doctrine with my father and while I don’t remember exactly what I was asking him about it had something to do with hell actually being a real physical place or just spiritual separation from god. I do remember his exact response: “I know hell is a real place because your Opa is there right now”. In that very instant I knew that hell wasn’t real, that no god would send people who are loved to eternal torture. I’ve never had an epiphany so strong before or since, and to this day there is nothing else that I have this strong a certainty about.

        It took another five years for me to completely escape religion and another five years after that before I had the courage to be completely honest with my family about my apostasy. But this was defiantly the first card to fall in my religion’s shaky house of cards. If jebus was so clearly wrong about hell what else could be wrong about my beliefs? It was all downhill after that.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          Fascinating. Thanks for sharing.

          The anecdote I remember (which I used in a post recently) was the panel of Christians discussing a father’s loss of his son. Problem 1 was that his 20-ish son had died. But problem 2 was that the father’s theology placed the son in hell. Bizarre.

        • SuperMark

          Yeah I don’t know how my father handled it, I brought it up once when he asked me the same question as Pofarmer did but he couldn’t give me an answer…

        • Jim Jones

          Christian theology has Adolf Hitler in heaven at the right hand of Jesus, watching Anne Frank burning in hell through eternity for denying her savior.

          Some morality.

        • SuperMark

          Is it just me or is there an attempt by the religious right/fundies to attempt to change history by denying that Hitler was a Catholic? I’ve brought this up before when fundies bring up Hitler as an example of atheism run amuck and very few people know/accept this and if they do it’s always the “no true scotsman” defense.

        • MNb

          That’s not just you. I have pissed quite some christians off by showing the evidence. And not only the fundies.
          For a huge part nazism is a perverted version of christianity. The myth of the Aryans is stolen from hinduism though.

        • Pofarmer

          Lutherans and Catholics both hated Jews. Martin Luther was vitriolic about it. You don’t do what Hitler did in a vaccuum of belief. The support of the Catholics in Germany is what fnally gave Hitler power.

        • 90Lew90

          “My feeling as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded only by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God’s truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. How terrific was his fight against the Jewish poison. Today, after two thousand years, with deepest emotion I recognize more profoundly than ever before the fact that it was for this that He had to shed his blood upon the Cross. As a Christian, I have no duty to allow myself to be cheated, but I have the duty to be a fighter for truth and justice.”

          Hitler, in a speech in Munich in 1922.

        • Greg G.

          Yes, but Hitler was never a True Christian.

        • Ron

          yas fergot the ™ ;)

        • MNb

          Well, according to the atonement doctrine they both sit next to each other, provided that in their last minute they confessed, repented, convinced Jesus and put their fates into his hands.

        • Ron

          Unless you’re Mormon. Then both are saved via a posthumous baptism.

        • 90Lew90

          Does that mean I have to jump through another set of hoops to get myself de-baptised by the Mormons… after I’m dead?! That’s quite a hurdle. I thought getting the catholic church to scrub me from its list was bad enough.

        • Pofarmer

          Hey, thanks for the reply, it really is appreciated.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      In the same way that Margaret Mead gave examples of cultures that had no concept of war, I’d like to find examples that have no concept of religion. I imagine that’s true in some primitive tribes that haven’t been tainted by missionaries yet (or perhaps we have reports of them 100 years ago).

      Thanks for the amazing story about the Biology class not being at Liberty.

      • SuperMark

        Yeah I haven’t really read about any civilizations with no history of religion, this is a huge talking point for deism and I’ve yet to come up with a good response.

        Yeah Liberty was pretty a pretty crazy place, I’ve got several stories about how they traumatized some my friends there. I still owe 10k in student loans for my time there and each payment feels like a bee sting…

        I wonder if it’s changed at this point, it’s been 10 years now maybe they’ve found some truly deluded biologists. I recently read a magazine that my father subscribes to by actual Ph.D. scientists trying to defend young earth creationism. I couldn’t believe it when I saw it, but I’ve been out of the bubble for a while now.

        Found it: http://www.icr.org/
        I wonder where these guys got their Ph.D.’s I mean WTF don’t you have to be supervised to get a Ph.D? What self respecting scientist would supervise a young earth creationist?

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          Keep in mind that PhDs are irrelevant unless they’re in the field being discussed. For example, a guy with a meteorology PhD has no more inherent credibility discussing biology than you or me.

        • SuperMark

          Great point, I didn’t think of that. Perhaps it was naive to think that a christian magazine wouldn’t be so deceptive. All of the articles were authored by so and so Ph.D., I’m willing to bet it was so and so with a theology Ph.D. talking about geology and evolution.

        • Pofarmer

          Also take at where they got their PhD’s. Several of them got their masters or PhD’s FROM the ICR. They have one Astrophysicist on staff that started out with the idea to get a PhD in astrophysics to defend his apologetics. Actual Astrophysicist PhD’s point out how horrible his “work” is.

        • Greg G.

          There are many diploma mills that dispense unaccredited degrees. They are for people who need to sound authoritative without real knowledge. Kent Hovind, still serving time on tax evasion, got one from Patriot University.

        • http://pleonast.com/users/closetatheist Mr. Two

          Yup. “Dr.” Don Patton, who for a few years was one of the ministers at my parents’ church, claimed to have a PhD in geology from Queensland Christian University in Australia. When it was pointed out that this place was unaccredited, he said he was withdrawing his PhD candidacy. (But wait, he was already claiming the PhD!) Yet he never dropped the PhD from the list of his credentials that he publicized.

          This guy has spent years and a lot of churches’ money climbing Mt. Ararat looking for the ark. People have died on his expeditions. A couple of years ago when someone else claimed to have found the ark, he “debunked” their claims, because he was sure his location was correct.

          Patton also takes people to the Paluxy river in Texas to search for human footprints alongside dinosaur footprints, when most creationists now admit those prints are hoaxes. He doesn’t give up, and I think he believes his bull!

        • 90Lew90

          They do it all the time. Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis often wheels out Stuart Burgess and Jessica Purdom. Burgess is basically an engineer — a very good one too, who has designed components for spacecraft — but one who likes to spout off about the “irreducible complexity” of things like the human knee or the smile of a child as though that were evidence for his god. Purdom has some qualification in biology. See her in conversation with Michael Shermer here (Pretty incredible what this kind of belief can do to an otherwise intelligent person’s mind.): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a_CLIGJW6Ic

        • smrnda

          I can’t get how an engineer’s opinions are supposed to be worth anything when it comes to evolution, but I guess it’s just *find someone with a STEM background since they’re more credible than just a preacher.*

          I also can’t get how an engineer, asked an opinion of the topic, can decide they’re qualified to talk about it. I’m a mathematician, not even a scientist (computer ‘science’ isn’t a science like chemistry, it’s more a naming convention) and I know that I don’t know squat when it comes to life sciences, and that I should leave the discussion to experts.

        • 90Lew90

          I think it’s a mark of the AiG crowd that they’re basically dishonest. I went to a talk by Burgess in Belfast in 2008 where he traded heavily on his credentials as a “scientist” teaching at Bristol University. I bought two of his books and contacted Bristol University to see what they thought about this man trading on his position there to push bunkum. I was fobbed off and then was put on the phone to the head of the university’s press office who started banging on about intellectual freedom and suggested that I didn’t know what that meant and nor did I know how universities worked in promoting it. I thanked him and then sent the transcript to the brilliant AC Grayling who at the time was head of philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London, who duly savaged Burgess but reserved particular venom for Bristol and its press officer. Pretty good exercise from when I was a bit of a shit-stirrer journalist. The irony was that the only paper worth getting it published in, the Belfast Telegraph, wouldn’t touch it because it was “too strong” (and the editor at the time was a useless Presbyterian dick). I got a face-to-face interview with Ham too. Alas, it came to nought because by the time it got knocked back by the Telegraph it was already old news.

        • MNb
      • Partial_M

        I would imagine that all tribes have something that could be considered religion, which only makes sense, really. They do not know any better.

        A tribes-person in the Amazon may be utterly uneducated by our standards, but such an individual still has the intelligence of any other human. So, naturally, they would look at the universe around them and ask, “What is all this? Why is it here? Where did it come from?”

        They have no way of learning the true, scientific, answers to such questions, so folklore steps in to fill in the blanks. Human curiosity is insatiable (although, we are far too easily satisfied by BS answers that sound good) so I seriously doubt there have ever been any cultures who never tried to answer the big questions.

        In the absence of centuries of discovery to build on and giant’s shoulders to stand on, they’d be very unlikely to come up with “answers” that wouldn’t be classed as religion.

      • Jim Jones
      • Nemo

        While I’m sure there might be some Stone Age tribe which does not follow any monotheistic or polytheistic gods, I suspect they would be pantheistic or shamanist.

      • MNb

        “I’d like to find examples …”
        Here you go:


        Alive and kicking.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          I’d forgotten about them. Cool.

      • https://www.facebook.com/michael.carteron Michael

        Unfortunately Margaret Mead’s work has been mostly debunked-it seems every culture has at least the *concept* of war, even if they no longer practice it themselves. The same goes for religion.

    • Greg G.

      Can anyone point me to ideas that might describe an evolutionary need for this part of humanity? Is it something unique to humans or do other animals exhibit the same behavior? Is it possibly just a consequence of consciousnesses and not biological at all?

      These are good questions. The brain is a kludge, a bunch of structures for different functions that have been modified to work together as good as can be achieved in an ever-changing environment. While the brain is capable of logical deduction, it is not an instinctual ability. For many of the problems faced by earlier generations, speed was a factor where a good, fast solution was more prudent than a perfect, slow solution. Actiong on a fallacy would be better much of the time than assessing the situation fully. We have modified monkey brains.

      There is no selective advantage for knowing the cause of thunder but there is an advantage for the ability to figure it, out not for the thunder, but the ability can be used for survival applications. The curiousity that leads to better ways of acquiring food will still wonder about things like thunder.

      Religion memes are evolved to exploit all the mental quirks and foibles that humans are susceptible to. All animals have a survival instinct but humans are aware that humans die and the survival instinct makes them wonder about it. Bingo! Religion gives them an answer they can’t prove wrong.

      Even the music and chants of various religions just happen to induce the brain waves that make you more susceptible to suggestion.
      There was a YouTube video about four years ago of a professor lecturing a class on this topic. Damned if I can find it now.

      • SuperMark

        Great points, thanks! I had to chew on this answer for a bit…

        Regarding your last point, I recently read an article about a connection between meditation and mental health. In study done recently, elderly patients with mild dementia/depression were asked to meditate every day and this greatly improved mental function:


        The connection between meditation and prayer, to me at least, seems to be pretty strong. It’s no wonder that people came to spiritual conclusions when mental activities like this and the one you mentioned can have a real impact on your physical brain.

        “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him” – Voltaire

        • Pofarmer

          Oh, I don’t think there’s really much controversy that meditation and prayer is/can be helpful to the individual. It’s when you get beyond that you get into la la land.

        • Greg G.

          Yes, there are beneficial things in religion but those are beneficial without the religion, too. Religions try to steal morality and claim that it is impossible to be moral without their religion. Some things are better without the religion. Soul music is Gospel music with the religion removed and it better than its source.

        • SuperMark

          Theft, thank you that was the point I was trying to get at but could not properly articulate. It seems like the modern idea of prayer (it has changed a lot over the years, think the lords prayer) was completely ripped off from eastern ideas on meditation.

      • Compuholic

        While the brain is capable of logical deduction, it is not an instinctual ability.

        There is a great book by Bernd Gigerenzer about this topic titled “Gut feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconcious” which I enjoyed very much. Contrary to what the title might suggest it is not woo-woo.

        It describes exactly what you mentioned, that our brain basically operates on a set of heuristics. A great example of the book is how humans catch balls. It is a skill that every human posseses but if you ask someone how they do it they won’t be able to come up with a good explanation.

        Psychologists have studies this: One way would of course be to calculate the trajectory of the ball, based on your observations and to predict where it would land. If that was the way our brains operate, you would expect that people would be good a predicting the impact point of a ball and it turns out that humans really suck at this task. Instead the brain uses a heuristic: Focus on the ball and run in a way so that the angle under which you see the ball is always constant.

        The book mentiones quite a few very interesting experiments which show that the heuristics that our brains uses can often be so good that they actually beat analytical solutions in situations where little information is available.

        • Greg G.

          My dad taught me that trick when I was in high school. When I was in the military, I found that I was good at catching footballs. When I saw a ball was going to be a yard or two beyond where I could get, I would put my head down to run faster, focusing on where it would land, then a step or two before I got there, I would look for the ball and make an adjustment. It also allowed me to stay in bounds on a side line route. Then I began to slow down on balls so I could accelerate and catch the ball running full speed when the defenders were slowing to match their speed with the ball.

          Another cool heuristic is when you see a car that will be crossing your path, if the rear of the car is moving across the the windshield, you will miss it, provided your speeds don’t change. If any part of the car stays in one position in your windshield , that is where you will crash into him. I’ve never actually had the nerve to test that last part.

    • 90Lew90

      Try The God Instinct (published in the US as The Belief Instinct) by Jesse Bering, an evolutionary psychologist. See also Why Gods Persist by Robert A. Hinde. I very much enjoyed The God Part of the Brain by Matthew Alper, which is as much a work of autobiography as a scholarly survey of the questions you’re interested in. As far as I’m aware, we have no reason to believe that the “higher” animals don’t have what we might call “spiritual” experiences, since they seem to originate in very primitive parts of the brain. What sets us apart is language. For a book not specifically about religion or belief but which would give a brilliant insight, see Phantoms in the Brain by the neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran. He’s excellent.

      • SuperMark

        Thanks! I just got through “The Evolution of God” by Robert Wright and while fascinating it didn’t address this issue at all. I’ve been stuck on history for the past few years but I need to move to another topic, so thanks for the recommendations!

        • 90Lew90

          You’re welcome! Enjoy.

        • Pofarmer

          Hey thanks. I may check out a few of those as well.

    • Jim Jones

      > Can anyone point me to ideas that might describe an evolutionary need for this part of humanity?

      Imagine if religion actually worked. If prayers were effective magic spells, if singing hymns actually placated a sky wizard.

      It wouldn’t be much different from what it is now. Men in funny clothes manipulating objects as if they affected the world, speeches which contained useful information.

      The only difference would be that most all of us would be there once a week instead of claiming we are.

      It’s a giant game of let’s pretend.

      • Pofarmer

        “Men in funny hats manipulating objects as if they affected the world.”

        That made me smile. I often wonder if Catholic priests really believe their own schtick.

        • davidb

          A Catholic priest whom I know certainly seems to.

        • Pofarmer

          We discussed this on another thread a while back, but it’s almost like cosplay, except they don’t know it’s not real.

    • MNb

      “Due to my religious education/upbringing I am very ignorant when it comes to biology.”
      You can remedy this within a few days. I know from personal experience. All you need is

      - Why Evolution is True, Jerry Coyne;
      - What the Fossils say and why it matters, Donald Prothero (imo the better one, but they are complementary);
      - TalkOrigins.

      “Is it possibly just a consequence of consciousnesses and not biological at all?”
      This is a false dilemma – consciousness is totally biological.

      • SuperMark

        Thanks! I’ll check that out for sure. I have read Dawkins “The Greatest Show On Earth” and seen every single Attenborough special, but I’ve never really delved into it too deeply so I usually don’t attempt to address the issue unless it’s just questions.

        • 90Lew90

          Dawkins’ earlier work, The Blind Watchmaker, is meatier and more serious but also more rewarding. I’ve just noticed a yawning gap in my recommendations to you regarding religion as an evolved trait. That’s basically the entire thesis of Daniel Dennett’s ‘Breaking the Spell’. He’s brilliant. I’d also highly recommend his ‘Darwin’s Dangerous Idea’. In that he basically gives an entire overview of Darwin’s thought, how it’s been built upon, its implications and he also debunks the more serious criticisms of it. I can’t really recommend Dennett enough. I’ve been taking a deep interest in this kind of thing for ten years now and started with Dennett. I’ve never really looked back. The good thing about all these books is that they’re fully referenced and have complete bibliographies so they’re great as stepping stones to pursue your own interests.

  • http://pleonast.com/users/closetatheist Mr. Two

    In this sense, the magicians’ code is dogma. The society of magicians has an inviolable rule, and Houdini would not break that rule even though he should have in this case. Why not just accept Conan Doyle into the society? Do not magicians share illusions among themselves?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      I tried to address this concern at the end but perhaps not successfully.

      According to the story, Houdini didn’t share the secret, but I agree that that cries out as an option. But if you’ve ever seen a really cool trick, puzzled over how it was done, and then had it explained to you, you probably were disappointed. In such a situation, Conan Doyle has not just a natural answer, but a boring and unsatisfying one. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he still wouldn’t have budged.

      • exrelayman

        If you wanta believe you will believe. Being shown how Houdini performed the seemingly supernatural is easily refuted: sure he did it with skill and cunning, but that does not mean others do not do it by supernatural means. See how easy this is?

        That’s why there are such persons as deprogrammers. Of course, if millions believe in the cult, it is a religion and accorded respect.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          Sure, it’s easy. What’s remarkable is that so weak a response is accepted by thoughtful adults in the 21st century.

      • MNb

        “you probably were disappointed”
        Were you? I never was.

      • wtfwjtd

        There may have been a simpler, more obvious explanation for not revealing how a trick is done–the fact that such knowledge is the bread and butter for the magician. If everyone knows how a process is done or performed, then a performer/craftsman loses part of their “edge” over the competition.

        That Onasis fellow that Jacqueline Kennedy married, had a famous saying, something about how a successful businessman knows things that others haven’t figure out yet. Something along the line of a trade secret, I guess you could say.

  • Greg G.

    Any sufficiently advanced sleight of hand is indistinguishable from magic.
      –Arthur C. Doyle

  • InDogITrust

    I love sleight of hand magic. Especially the trick with the rope in one long piece,then in a bunch of short pieces, etc. I can watch that go on for hours, mesmerized. For me the “magic” is being in awe of the talent that can do something like that. I’d love to know how it’s done and if anyone ever tries to tell me, i’ll probably close my eyes, stick my fingers in my ears and sing la-la-la-la-la-la-la!
    I’ve been lucky enough to go to the Magic Castle in Hollywood several times, and have seen some things that are so mind-blowing that magic is a simpler explanation.

  • MNb

    “And many of us insist on sticking with the exciting supernatural rather than the mundane natural.”
    I never got this. Even as a child I never felt that the natural explanation was mundane – on the contrary, I thought it exciting. From the very beginning I recognized the subtile skills (including psychology) and hard work required to pull such tricks off.
    There are some magicians who do explain tricks. I think them fascinating.

  • smrnda

    On magicians showing how tricks were done, I think Penn and Teller have done this on occasion ; it seemed like they were doing it in an educational way, showing how a pretty obvious sleight of hand is done so the audience will be more perceptive of various tricks done in the real world. When you think about it, stuff like advertizing, religious services, it’s all a kind of magic and manipulation, but when you realize how the trick is done, you can see through it.

    I’ve always found the insistence on not wanting people to know how the tricks are done to be strange for magicians. Special effects people in cinema create illusions, but seem fine with their methods being known.

    With the supernatural, it seems like most things that could have supernatural explanations could more easily have natural ones, one of them being confirmation bias. Take a person who believes a house is haunted and tell that person to spend the night and they’ll see evidence for a ghost.

    • RichardSRussell

      From a long-time stage illusionist:
      Doing a trick once is entertainment.
      Doing it twice is just showing off.
      Doing it 3 times is (horrors!) educational.

  • https://anodeofranvier.wordpress.com/ Steven Rowlinson

    ‘Magic’, or illusion and all other branches of similar performances show the breadth of human ingenuity and skill. The fact that there is no supernatural force behind them makes them all the more impressive and I have much respect for the entertainers involved.

    It also highlights how easily the brain can be tricked, and how willing some people are to be fooled.

  • avalon

    “Obviously, Conan Doyle now can’t both believe in spiritualism and that it’s all just fakery at the same time.”

    Not so my friend.

    “We “believe” lots of things that we know, at some level, are not true at all.”

    • Mick

      Judging by the last part of that article, it’s all about semantics — define your terms in advance and there will be no misunderstandings.