Houdini vs. Sherlock Holmes

Houdini vs. Sherlock Holmes February 1, 2018

Sometimes 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 ferociously 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 said:

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 believe in spiritualism while at the same time believing that it’s all just fakery. So what does he do? He rejects the claim that it’s fakery! Given a plausible natural explanation from a reputable source, he concluded that Houdini must have been accessing real supernatural forces.

This is all the more puzzling when Conan Doyle himself took the magician’s role on at least one occasion. At a 1922 meeting of the Society of American Magicians, he previewed a test reel for an upcoming movie based on his novel The Lost World. The film showed stop-action dinosaurs feeding and fighting (video). It ain’t Jurassic Park, but it was astonishing at the time. Doyle knew that it was just artistry and technology, of course, but he kept his audience guessing. (h/t Bob Jase)

Do magicians not tell their secrets because it would violate the Magicians’ Code? 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 boring 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

(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 6/18/14.)

Image via Zastavki


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