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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  • carbonUnit

    That Conan Doyle could write a super-smart, highly logical character and not pick up on those characteristics continues to astound me. It’s easy to imagine a smart person writing a dumb character. Going the other way seems kinda hard. I guess that’s the wonder of compartmentalization?

    • sandy

      Samuel Clemens (Twain) is another one. I believe he died broke and bankrupt after being conned into financial get rich schemes leading to his infamous gold mine quote. Compartmentalization and confirmation bias leading to these irrational decisions. Smart people are just as prone as anyone for believing what they want to believe and what might not be necessarily so. This, of course, is one of the reasons we have smart religious people. Might as well throw in a dash of cognitive dissonance while we are at.

      • Michael Neville

        Clemens was well off financially when he died. He lost a lot of money with the Paige Compositor, a rival to the Linotype printsetter, and his book publishing company failed. He declared bankruptcy after that. However he was able to overcome his financial troubles and paid off his pre-bankruptcy creditors in full, even though he had no legal obligation to do so. He was a best-selling author pretty much his entire adult life.

        • sandy

          Thanks, that makes sense. I just remember the part of him declaring bankruptcy and losing most of his money. He was definitely one of my faves especially when it came to criticizing religion.

        • Tangentially related: Ulysses S. Grant was conned into some sort of financial deal and was swindled by a partner (or something like that). Anyway, he was left holding the bag. He wrote his war memoirs as he was dying of throat cancer. The book was very popular, and it paid off the creditors and left money for his family.

          I guess there was a lot of money shenanigans during that period. (Or maybe during any period.)

        • TheMountainHumanist

          and a whollllle lot of alcoholism.

        • Grant had poor judgment. His tenure was wracked by scandal because he hired people who used their posts to run scams of all kinds.

        • Glad2BGodless

          I’m glad nothing like that could happen today!

        • Yeah, lol. Warren G. Harding also had that problem. At least in Grant’s case this appears to have been simply being too trusting, and not corrupt himself.

        • Michael Neville

          Clemens was Grant’s publisher. Grant’s memoirs sold extremely well, his widow received some $450,000 in royalties, and that’s when a buck was a fin.

          Grant’s memoirs are worth reading. He was a good writer (and Clemens was a good editor). Grant’s writing is intelligent, shrewd and effective and he could tell a story quite well. I particularly like a story he told about Braxton Bragg, a Confederate general who served with Grant in the ante-bellum U.S. Army. Bragg was a company commander and also the regimental quartermaster. As company commander Bragg requested certain supplies. As quartermaster Bragg denied the request. As company commander Bragg appealed the denial. As quartermaster Bragg considered the appeal but let the denial stand. As company commander Bragg appealed to the regimental commander. That officer responded: “Captain Bragg, you have argued with every officer in the Army and now you’re arguing with yourself.” Incidentally when Bragg commanded the Confederate Army of Tennessee all of his subordinate generals signed a petition to Jefferson Davis to have Bragg replaced.

        • Wow! That’s bureaucracy refined to an art.

        • Chuck Johnson

          This was before the diagnosis of multiple personality disorder had been invented.

        • sandy

          Good story! Sounds like Bragg had some serious issues.

        • Michael Neville

          The thing about Bragg I find amazing is that one of the largest Army bases, Ft. Bragg in North Carolina, is named after him. James Longstreet, a much more successful and more respected Confederate general, was from North Carolina. It would have made more sense to name a fort after him than Bragg.

        • sandy

          I guess Bragg also being a native of North Carolina and being born just 160 miles away from the fort, must have counted more in his favour? Maybe the fact he died suddenly from “paralysis of the brain” just after being captured and parolled makes him more of a war hero? Pretty tough to beat the name Bragg when naming something important. Interesting stuff for sure.

    • It’s not just Sherlock Holmes. He also had Professor Challenger as a rational skeptic (if somewhat annoying), and yet introduced a lot of spiritualism into a Challenger story (though Challenger didn’t play a big role in the story).

      I was a Christian when I read it, and it disturbed because of course spiritualism was false…

  • Jim Jones

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

    There’s a story about a young boy who liked magic. His grandfather taught him some simple tricks. When the boy wanted to learn more, his grandfather offered to show him where he could find them.

    They rode the bus downtown and his grandfather led him to the public library. He showed his grandson the shelf of books available to borrow. His grandson said, “But grandfather, anyone could come and borrow these books and learn the secrets of magic!”

    His grandfather replied, “They could, lad, they could. But they never do”.

    • sandy

      Or the hard work it takes to be a magician. I always remember “the amazing Keskin” ending his TV shows with “thank you and remember, anyone can do these tricks….with twenty years of practice” followed by a big smile.

      • Glad2BGodless

        I once saw Kreskin perform in person!

        • sandy

          I bet he was amazing!

    • Max Doubt

      “They rode the bus downtown and his grandfather led him to the public library. He showed his grandson the shelf of books available to borrow. His grandson said, “But grandfather, anyone could come and borrow these books and learn the secrets of magic!””

      I’ve been a performing magician for over 40 years. Many times after a show young people will approach me and ask how they might get started learning magic. I act all mysterious, ask for a piece of paper and a pencil, and tell them I’m going to write down the secrets to all the magic tricks that ever were. On the paper I’ll write “793.8”. When I hand it to the kid they always look puzzled. I tell them to take that to the library and ask the librarian to show them where it is. It is, of course, the Dewey decimal number for the magic books.

      “His grandfather replied, “They could, lad, they could. But they never do”.”

      Yep. Almost never.

      • Cozmo the Magician

        I do something similar. I tell the young folks that I am going to show them the ‘Most Important Thing Every Magician Needs’ and I take out my library card (:

    • Bob Jase

      I’ve read some of them and it hasn’t diminished my appreciation a bit – knowing what is going on while not being able to see it makes me appreciate the talent more.

  • epicurus

    Houdini must have felt like Brian trying to convince the crowd he’s not the messiah, only to be told that only the messiah would say he’s not the messiah:

  • TheMountainHumanist

    “Illusion, Michael. A trick is something a whore does for money.” GOB Bluth

  • Some have suggested that Holmes’ genius was contrived, as there are multiple real possibilities for the clues in the novels but he always picks the right one. I’m not sure about Challenger, but he seems already to come off like Doyle in The Lost World by holding an eccentric view that few believed until he gets proof. Doyle apparently was a Spiritualist already, he just got more into the movement after his losses.

  • Chuck Johnson

    Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote mimetic fiction.
    His miraculous deductions were all reverse-engineered.
    He was an illusionist, too.

  • RichardSRussell

    I notice that you quote Michael Shermer as repeating the age-old platitude that “nature abhors a vacuum”, even tho real science tells us that nature itself comprises 99.999999% vacuum. It’s only our constipated, parochial viewpoint from here in the rarefied hothouse that we are pleased to call the Center Of All Creation that leads us to think otherwise.

    • eric

      The quote is accurate, it’s a simple and old-fashioned method of pointing out that pressures equiiibrate. Take two partitioned spcaes, fill one with a cloud of gas and make the other vacuum, remove the partition, and the entire space will quickly become less dense cloud. This happens in space too, it’s just that space is so damn big compared to clouds of gas that most of it remains space.

      • RichardSRussell

        This is our restricted view from the bottom of a gravity well, where things do operate as you say. The error is in assuming that it’s generally true everywhere, which it’s not.

        • eric

          It has nothing to do with gravity; it’s mostly a matter of probability. There are many outcomes of random interactions that lead to the molecules roughly equally distributed throughout the room, and relatively few outcomes that would result in them all being on one side of it. Only one outcome actually happens, but given the very large number of interactions, the most probable outcome is, in practical terms, assured. Think of it like the casino winning at craps. The house has only about a 0.2% better probability of winning than the players, for any given roll. But given a very large number of rolls, the casino is practically guaranteed of making money. Well, the casinos’ guarantee is based on a few thousand rolls a night. Just a few thousand interactions makes that result a nearly ironclad guarantee. But the room’s pressure equalizing (or gas expanding into a vaccuum) is based on about 1E23 atoms interacting per liter of room air or so. Many many orders of magnitude more interactions. It’s as sure a thing as there can be. You could conduct the open-the-partition experiment every second from now on, and probabilistically the sun would burn out before you’d see all the air molecules stay on one side of the room.

        • Michael Neville

          Actually the house edge on craps is 0.8% not 0.2%. The lowest house edge is blackjack at 0.5%. I’m an accountant at a casino and the edge pays my salary.

          The catch is that if you don’t play the proper strategy, the house edge is even higher. A typical blackjack player probably plays at about a 2-3% disadvantage, not the 0.5% I gave which is for a player using basic strategy. A craps player who makes sucker bets is facing a house edge higher than 0.8%.

        • Chuck Johnson

          Nature abhors a vacuum even in outer space.
          If you could create a cubic yard of space with absolutely nothing in it, then as soon as you created it, it would be invaded by matter and energy. The vacuum would cease to exist.

          Nature also loves or prefers a vacuum.
          That’s because gravity is constantly attracting bits of matter together and as a result, leaving a partial vacuum (a rarefied region) behind where the matter used to be.

          Nature has enough tricks, habits and tendencies to satisfy many platitudes.

    • Michael Neville

      It is estimated that the matter density of intergalactic space is one atom in ten cubic meters.

      • RichardSRussell

        IOW, for all practical purposes, a vacuum.

  • JP415

    A similar example is the Fox Sisters, who were early pioneers in the Spiritualist movement of the 19th century. They became famous from conducting seances, where they used an array of tricks to con their patrons into thinking that they could communicate with the dead. Some of the tricks were pretty basic: for example, one of the sisters could produce “spirit rappings” by clicking a joint in her big toe. Later in life, two of the sisters publicly confessed that the whole thing was a hoax — and a lot of their followers refused to believe them! Sometimes people simply can’t admit to themselves that they’ve been fooled.


  • sandy

    Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a golfer. A few years back, I was invited to play the New Zealand Golf Club just outside London in Surrey, by one of it’s members. A feature of this elite club (under 100 members I believe) was that your name was stencilled on your locker and when you died, a thin line went through it and the new owner of that locker was stencilled below it. As I was changing into my golf shoes and looking at all the names, right in front of me was a locker with the name Sir Arthur Conan Doyle right at the top. Doyle being a golfer, he certainly would have been spiritual, which the game of golf, seems to bring out in most of us. It goes with out saying that he would have witnessed, the Golf God at work, many times.

    • Glad2BGodless

      My oldest brother is an avid golfer, and I never go with him without hearing the name of God invoked often and passionately.

      • sandy

        And no doubt not in a positive manner. Nothing will push you towards atheism more than golf, just like the bishop in Caddyshack realized. I too learned that at a very young age.

        • al kimeea

          me too, as a caddy

  • Phil Rimmer

    It’s curious perhaps that Michael Faraday, a deeply pious man, a Sandemanian, following his wife, led a very high profile charge, Randi-style, against the burgeoning occurrence of mid-Victorian spiritualism. He devised little tools to expose how levitations and other “telekineses” were achieved and wrote about it in newspaper articles.

    FWIW Faraday was a very humble and kind man and his faith seems entirely rooted in it comprising a moral source. He fell out with the church elders, (though not his faith), over his attempts to make the church more obviously kind.

    A further interesting fact is that, in an unpublished letter of considerable foresight, he considered that all of physical reality may be entirely composed of fields, that atoms were no more hard than opposing like poles emanating from powered coils. All our apprehensions did not signal actual substance. What concerned him, perhaps, was the quality of evidence for an insubstantial reality should not be contaminated.

    • Chuck Johnson

      “A further interesting fact is that, in an unpublished letter of
      considerable foresight, he considered that all of physical reality may
      be entirely composed of fields, that atoms were no more hard than
      opposing like poles emanating from powered coils.”

      You could reverse that and say that all of physical reality may be entirely composed of physical substances, and that the opposition of like poles emanating from powered coils is the result of the interference between matter emanating from those coils.

      It could be described either way.
      But the concepts presently used by science seem to work better.
      Matter, energy and fields are all useful concepts to help explain the very complicated universe that we live in.

      • Phil Rimmer

        True. At the time though, fields were the novelty and offered spooky action at a distance as science for the first time. I think Faraday was keeping his new patch clear of woo, because though a theist he was the consummate scientist.

        The other issue is about expectations of visibility. Then “substance” of any significance would be expected to be visible, wheres significant fields were, erm, clearly invisible. The niceties of Quantum Electro Dynamics were a century away, broadening the “view” of invisible stuff.

  • Cozmo the Magician

    Years back I decided to develop a ‘Mentalism’ act. E.S.P. and such. I stated very bluntly both before and after the show that it was all an act for entertainment. Yet STILL it NEVER FAILED that somebody would come up to me afterwords and ask for ‘a reading’ or if I could ‘contact their loved one(s)’ etc. Every damn time. As much as I enjoyed performing the act, (such an act can be done with very few props, making it a very easy act to travel with), I finally just got tired of the fact that I was in some sense feeding into peoples actual belief in pure BS. Folks have no problem knowing that I ‘really’ do not cut a piece of rope in half and ‘magically’ put it back together. But damn it is hard to get them to drop the silly idea of mind reading etc.

    • HairyEyedWordBombThrower

      On that basis, did you ever watch that show ‘The Mentalist’?

      If so, what did you think of it, please?

      • al kimeea

        It’s entertaining and a nice twist on the ‘psychics solve crimes’ schtick.

        • HairyEyedWordBombThrower

          I like it precisely because everybody keeps thinking he’s a psychic and he keeps telling them he isn’t.

        • al kimeea

          “I’m just very good at observing people”

  • Glad2BGodless

    You never know what you’re going to learn about on this blog — physics or biography or history or how to optimize your luck at the blackjack table. Great blog, great comments.

  • Lerk!

    Seth Andrews tells a story of traveling with someone, while he was still a believer, and doing a magic trick for the guy. The guys asks him “aren’t you afraid of being so close to demonic powers?” Seth is a bit shocked and says “no, it’s just an illusion” then shows the guy how he did the trick. The guy’s response was “that’s not what you did the first time.”

    • Glad2BGodless


      • Susan


        That’s pretty much what we’re dealing with when we’re dealing with humans (and we’re vulnerable to it, ourselves.)

        Methodology is key.

    • HairyEyedWordBombThrower

      Matt Dillahunty apparently had a similar experience, as a magician.