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Musings > Sunday, 10 October 2010 18:16:48 EST

To Reveal Or Not To Reveal?

Keywords: epistemology, video, paranormal

I just watched the following video from TAM 7 of a panel on the intersection of magic and skepticism:

One of the questions discussed was that of whether magic tricks should be revealed in order to show people how they can be fooled.  They didn't really resolve the issue, and the panel wasn't set up to really have a good argument about that.  But some interesting points were raised and it's been going through my mind.

James Randi is a known proponent of showing people the trick but not telling them how it's done.  He believes that this is the best way to convince people that they can be fooled.  He believes that telling people the trick will leave them overconfident in cases where con men use a different method.

This is a valid concern.  In the panel they used the term "half smart" in order to describe the phenomenon.    If we're trying to spread critical thinking, we don't want to leave people only half smart, overconfident and unprepared for different methods than the one they've been told about.  But I think there's more to this issue that needs to be considered.

James Randi himself has admitted that by not showing the trick he's opening himself up to the possibility that people are going to conclude that he's the real deal.  He could be an actual wizard with supernatural powers who's just pretending to be a skeptic.  Many people actually believe that to be the case.  Other magicians, such as Penn Gillette, have on other occasions commented about how people would come up to them after the show and say "I know that you said it's not real... but it really is, right?"

It seems to me that this is a very serious problem.  I'd say it's as serious a problem, if not more so, than that of people getting a false sense of security through being "half smart".  I think the only way to convince these people that they actually have been fooled is to actually show them how the trick is done.

And I think you can reduce the number of people that you leave "half smart" by simply showing them that there are different ways you can fool them.  Perform a trick one way, reveal how you did it, then do it a completely different way that they're not prepared for.  You can hammer in the point that there are any ways to do a trick, and if you tell people this explicitly I think you've better prepared them against the possibility of being "half smart".

I personally think it's always best to actually tell people what they need to know, rather than manipulating them into thinking like you want them to.  I don't think that James Randi's method is the best way to teach critical thinking.  In fact, I'm concerned about the possibility of it backfiring.

If you leave people believing that you actually have magical powers that you're not admitting to, I would argue that you're not accomplishing your goal of spreading critical thinking.  It's easy enough to show people the trick and to caution them that there's more than one way to perform it.  My guess is that this would make a far more effective outreach for critical thinking than keeping secrets.

I'm certainly not a magician, but I am involved in trying to spread critical thinking.  I always try to tell people everything they need to know in order to make an informed decision.  To my mind, keeping secrets "for the good of your audience" is a little patronizing, and it's not the best way to spread critical thinking.


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