On Parapsychology

Is there something to claims of telepathy, mindreading, precognition, ESP? Is it real? There is an entire industry — actually probably multiple industries — that apparently exist to answer that question. In fact, they really care more about asking the question than answering it. If we can keep asking the question enough times, maybe the answer will turn out one day to be yes.

But science isn’t like buying scratch lottery tickets where eventually one will win. To anyone who has actually looked at the science, the writing has been on the wall for decades, and it spells no.

As a magician, I can have endless amounts of fun doing tricks that make it look like mindreading is happening. Although despite the fact that I enjoy tricking people for the sake of entertainment, I’m also deeply committed to what is real. “Real” is a problematic word. In my case, something is “really” happening. Except the thing which is really happening is that I’m lying. So it’s not enough for something eerie to be happening, there has to be an underpinning cause that we can understand and might call true.

Or as Arthur Reber and James Alcock point out in a recent Skeptical Inquirer article:

It is not a matter of rummaging around in arcane domains of theoretical physics for plausible models. It is more basic than that: parapsychology’s claims cannot be true. The entire field is bankrupt—and has been from the beginning. Each and every claim made by psi researchers violates fundamental principles of science and, hence, can have no ontological status.

The whole thing is really worth reading. It goes in depth to the problems with methodology and the field’s constant attempts at do-overs. Inventing new hypotheses and discarding them, hoping no one notices their failure to come up with anything coherent, so that they can come back again to ask the question although asking it for the first time.

Although it all boils down to this one delightful line:

In short, parapsychology cannot be true unless the rest of science isn’t.

On the difference between Juggling and Magic

The legendary Penn & Teller were on Jimmy Fallon promoting the new season of their show Fool Us. They always have magic which is deeply thought-provoking. Here they talk about the difference between juggling, which relies on skill, and magic, which relies on lying. (Which is truly wonderful because a lot of Penn’s juggling is based on lying and much of Teller’s trick is based on skill.

The Proizvolov Identity

Here is a simple card trick you can perform informally, courtesy of the British YouTube channel Numberphile. James Grady shares a simple prediction that can be accomplished thanks to something called The Proizvolov Identity. (Don’t worry, I hadn’t heard of it either.)

Take a look:

As an ex-mathematician, I find these small tricks charming. They aren’t well suited to performing in a show, but as something fun to share with friends, the offer a wonderful small pleasant mystery.

The concept of symmetry in math, where you can make changes that have no impact, is closely related to the idea of choice in magic, where you often get to make choices that don’t affect the outcome of the trick. (And providing a moderately irritating counterexample to proponents of free will.)

Happy Pride

This weekend, I got to perform at the Pride festival in Toronto alongside my dear friend Ben Train. He neglected to mention it was a performance for children, but we should accept all people, even small vertically impaired humans who have been given too much sugar.

I often joke that I am an “indoor magician” but it was a perfect day to be outside for a show.

Photos courtesy of Patrick Nemeth.

A Cheap Victory

Judge Steffi Kay

Judge Steffi Kay

Last night was Cheap Tricks 2, the nightmarish magic contest envisioned by Mysterion, Canada’s most awesomely coiffed, sartorially resplendent mentalist and half of the mindreading duo The Sentimentalists. Each contestant receives a series of constraints and has to create their act in just a few hours before performing on stage at Revival.

I appeared alongside John Roldan, Jim Byrnes, Beyond Mental Borders, Jonah Babins, Harry Zimmerman, Jacqueline Swann and Shamus MacGregor. The contest was judged by Steffi Kay of the Sentimentalists, Ben Train, Rayn, and the previous champion Chris Westfall. (I was a judge on the first contest in 2017, but agreed to give up my spot to Chris.)

My set of constrains was that i had 3 hours to build an act using a budget of $5 with only material procured at a the nearby A&W. I also had to present in the theme of a XXX-rated Adult Film…. magic for grownups indeed. I’m so glad I forgot to invite my mother to watch. I’m more glad that magic elder statesman Mark Lewis was in the audience to witness me debasing the art of magic.


But a contest is a contest and I played to win (much to Mysterion’s regret.) You can watch the full performance below — cheaply filmed and edited by the Cheap Tricks elves. Although there’s not necessarily any reason you would want to. And certainly don’t do it with your children around:

The tl/dw is that I won…. proud of it, but not proud of what I had to do to get it. Thank you to the judges and to everyone who attended the contest.

James Alan & Mysterion the Mindreader

James Alan & Mysterion the Mindreader

L to R: Shamus Macgregor, Beyond Mental Borders, Harry Zimmerman, Jacqueline Swann, James Alan, Jonah Babins, Jim Byrns, John Roldan

L to R: Shamus Macgregor, Beyond Mental Borders, Harry Zimmerman, Jacqueline Swann, James Alan, Jonah Babins, Jim Byrns, John Roldan

I can’t wait to get back to doing normal magic!