Liveblogging TAM2013: Magicians vs. Psychics Throwdown

Magicians vs. Psychics

Panelists: Banachek, Mark Edward, Max Maven, James Randi and Jamy Ian Swiss

Moderator: D.J. Grothe

When I realized that the title of the talk was “Magicians vs. Psychics” instead of “Magicians vs Physics” (My brain is pretty tired) I was slightly disappointed, and then excited again. Interesting topic, interesting panel, should be an interesting talk.

This is, like, 10 seconds before that table just disappeared.

I was right, but I had to wait for a while. I actually wasn’t over at the press table for this, either. Like I said, my brain is kind of fried so I thought I would just sit in on this panel and enjoy it, but some crazy debate got going that I just have to share.

The first 45 minutes or so were pretty dry–  they spoke a lot about Uri Geller, but I’m not terribly familiar with his story so the minutia of what they were discussing  was going a bit over my head. They also brought up the idea of whether or not magicians had the duty to disclose the fact that they aren’t actually magical, which I thought was an interesting concept.

One of the things that was kind of off-putting was the fact that Grothe kept asking these kind of weird questions about the moral implications of psychics giving unfounded advice to people. He posed it in kind of various forms maybe three times, and no one really had a decent answer. Then, we figured out what he was working toward.

Almost 25 years ago, Mark Edward set out to infiltrate the world of those who make their living as psychics by becoming one himself. Apparently, there is some controversy within the skeptical community about what he did, what he does and why.

Full disclosure: I have not read Edward’s book about his experiences, I don’t know a whole lot about him personally and I really don’t have a dog in this fight.

From his point of view, he was doing investigative journalism, plain and simple.

Not everyone is okay with his motives.

Especially Jamy Ian Swiss.

Swiss, in no uncertain terms, called Edward right out. He accused Edward of being a bad skeptic. A “little s” skeptic, in fact. He didn’t think Edward was working the 900 psychic lines to promote skepticism, he did it to make a living, and Swiss made it clear that he does not consider Edward to be a part of his skeptic movement.

Edward certainly fought back and stood his ground, asserting that he did important work to debunk the world of psychics. He also reminded Swiss that Randi himself wrote the forward to his latest book, so obviously Randi is of the opinion that he is a proper skeptic.

The only thing that rubbed me the wrong way about what Edward did and continues to do is the fact that he still makes at least part of his living as a psychic– he gets hired to do “psychic readings” for various events and, in his own words, “lets the audience come to their own conclusion” about whether or not he has some supernatural abilities.

It got quite heated, to say the least. It was pretty fun for us to watch an actual debate between two panelists.

I’m sure I left stuff out– I’m writing this about an hour after the fact– so if anyone was there and can fill in some of the blanks, please do!

About Jessica Bluemke

Jessica Bluemke grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and graduated from Ball State University in 2008 with a BA in Literature. She currently works as a writer and resides on the North side of Chicago.

  • Mario Strada

    I can see doing a sting and try to discredit charlatans. But working as one of them continuously doesn’t cut it for me. I really don’t care how many disclaimers he prefaces his work with, we all know that believers will just hear “Blah, blah, blah” and then believe the whole thing is magic.

    I wanted to add that I am not looking to deprive the guy of a living (well, part of me does but it’s a complicated matter). Just don;t pass yourself as a skeptic if you swindle old ladies for a living.

  • Skyman

    I was disappointed to hear the “No True Skeptic” argument used. There was no reason to even have this panel. There was nothing brought up that hadn’t been covered multiple times in multiple talks except for the personal attack on Mark Edward. The moderator should have stepped in and redirected the discussion (unless this was the true reason for the panel?).
    I don’t have a dog in this fight either but it was the low point of the day and perhaps the whole conference. After so many world class talks this one stood out for all the wrong reasons.

  • Dorothy

    i was surprised that Randi didn’t get involved with the argument and that even when Grothe invited him to close the debate he skirted the issue with a tale from his old magician days. He did write the intro to the book, after all. I also noticed that Swiss left the stage rather quickly.

    this is my first TAM and i agree with Skyman about the impression this debate gave, and maybe with Mario about the questionable ethics. I want to check it out more myself.

    I had never heard of Edward before, and as they say, there is no such thing as bad publicity.

  • Andrew

    It looks like Ray Hyman’s at the table too.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    … and Swiss made it clear that he does not consider Edward to be a part of his skeptic movement.

    Swiss is on quite the ‘holier than thou’ roll. Last time around he was dissing P.Z. Myers. If Swiss is too good to sit with anyone else in the lunch room, it’s perfectly fine with me if he ends up sitting alone.

  • Renshia

    Unless of course, you are a skeptic, that IS out to swindle old ladies.
    Then it would be fair to identify as a skeptic. A sleazy one that is to useless to make a real living, but a skeptic none the less.

    Which then begs the question, if people are willing to invest and believe in crap, is it really wrong to separate the fool from his money?

  • baal

    PZ is more than happy to exclude people based on litmus tests too.

  • nardo101

    If it’s true that Edward is still doing readings in a private context then I have to agree with Jamy Ian Swiss. In a way, it’s morally worse for a skeptic than for a deluded believer to give a reading because the skeptic knows that they are taking money for a service that’s not actually being rendered. That’s simply fraud.

    There’s another moral problem that involves predictions and suggestion. Derren Brown brings this issue up in some of his shows. It’s possible for a fake psychic to instill unwarranted fear (or unwarranted confidence) in people regarding life decisions, so there’s an inherent immorality in selling information about the future. Unlike the fraud issue, telling them to “come to their own conclusions” isn’t a valid defense because the harm may only manifest subconsciously as stress or impaired decision making.

    Of course we want skepticism to be as big a tent as possible and to welcome Edward, but skepticism does has moral implications that we shouldn’t ignore.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    That’s not the way I see it. PZ is willing to criticise even his allies, which is not the same as excluding them. Personally, I think you should be able to criticise your allies, otherwise it is hard to rise above the level of tribalism. And unlike C. Peterson, I would not exlude someone like Martin Gardner from the skeptical movement.

  • Gus Snarp

    It does seem that Swiss has appointed himself the arbiter of who is and isn’t a Skeptic™. Apparently religion gets in, but not handling yourself exactly right in exposing the psychic trade is right out.

    That said, I think Edward is pretty waffling on this. There’s room for criticism. I don’t know if that criticism should extend to a litmus test for wearing the brand.

  • Gus Snarp

    The magician/mentalist I’d more like to hear discussed with regard to this is Derren Brown. He has a much bigger impact in the world than Edward’s doing a few parties, and I think the way he straddles the border on this issue is worth discussing.

  • ool0n

    Where does he straddle the border? He is usually pretty clear that his results are achieved using “magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship” … Nothing paranormal.

    Only one I can think of is the execrable lottery one where he implied “wisdom of crowds” works for predicting the numbers! That was pure showmanship but peddled the lack of scepticism he should ideally be standing up against.

  • Gus Snarp

    Largely in the realm of suggestion. Brown’s performances suggest an almost magical effect from suggestion and hypnotism, something that is already an area of debate even among the psychological community, and it sets up his audience to be ready marks for people selling courses in neuro-linguistic programming.

    I’m not saying what he does is unskeptical, or that there’s necessarily anything wrong with it, but I think there’s a certain extent to which his act and the need to keep the secret of how it’s done, maintains a false impression of what suggestion is and can actually do. And therein lies the rub: most magicians don’t seem to want to talk about it because it may be impossible to do so without exposing what he does. The skeptical grey area is sort of fundamental to what makes him interesting. The audience has to walk away wondering what’s possible and what’s not, which makes a good and interesting show, but it’s different from most magic and illusion, where the audience is expected to assume that none of it is actually possible.

    The same goes for his sort of human lie detector bit.

    None of this is to say that he’s wrong in any way necessarily, it’s just a discussion I think would be fascinating. And I guess I’m just torn between respecting keeping secrets, and knowing enough about magic that I have a more technical interest, along with my skeptical interest, that makes me want to know a bit more.

  • Gus Snarp

    For anyone who’s curious about Mark Edward and what exactly he does, but not ready to sit down and read his book, there are a couple of great podcast interviews with him:

    I’ll say that I definitely find his stance a bit troubling.

  • baal

    Grats on the I say you say?

  • nardo101

    It’s definitely true that Brown has had his own run-ins with the line, but, I think his evolution has generally been in the right direction. Even in illusions like the lottery prediction, he includes a not-so-subtle hint at the end that it was all a trick. The most problematic stuff he did was the early, mind-control themed material.

    Mentalism really has limited repertoire of techniques to make a series of apparently free choices lead to a pre-determined outcome (forces) or make a variable outcome appear pre-determined (multiple outs). I think that as long as the audience generally knows that, it’s ethical to perform. As far as I’m aware, he does scrupulously avoid activities like fortune-telling or selling hypnosis as a “self-help” technique.

  • Allecher

    As Edward was defending himself he also brought up the extensive work he does for IIG West. Even if you do not approve of his psychic performances he does contribute to the big “S” skeptic movement in other ways and that complicates the matter.