Reality Based Magic

What's in a title? A great deal of what I read about magic is disconnected from reality in some way, and not in the good way that magic is supposed to be separate from reality. It seems that most don't feel the need to ground what they believe firmly in the real world. Instead, they reason a priori. However, that kind of thinking is only valid if the starting premises are valid. And most often those premises are gut feelings and anecdotal observations which are cantilevered out well past the point of reliability.

My favourite example is the statement;

"People don't like card tricks."

Originally, I bought into this theory and made a conscious effort to start every performance with something which was not a card trick. The second piece was then often a card trick. Then I observed something which confused me tremendously: when the first trick was done and the cards came out of my pocket, someone would exclaim with excitement,

"Oooh, card tricks!"

It took a while for me to figure out why this was happening. It didn't happen often, but it happened far too often for those enthusiastic (and obviously very intelligent) people to be considered true outliers.

Now I have a theory. The "people hate card tricks" hypothesis seems to be based on a misapplication of Bayesian reasoning. The problem with anything (including card tricks) is something known as Sturgeon's Law which states that:

Ninety percent of everything is crap.

Unfortunately, it appears that in the world today, nearly ninety percent of magic is card tricks, which is an invitation to Bayesian disaster. The dislike should have been attributed to the general ambient crappiness, and not to the actual card tricks.

What people really want to say is, "We dislike bad magic." However in terms of frequency, most of that boring magic will be card tricks, and so the cards wind up with most of the blame.

What can be done?

I'm reminded of the words of Richard Feynman:

If it doesn't agree with experiment, it's wrong. That's all there is to it. It doesn't matter how beautiful your theory is or how smart you are. If it doesn't agree with experiment, then it's wrong.

So we should try to challenge our ideas more often and always be on the lookout for deeper understanding. We should always be striving to create reality based magic.

I confess, I was also inspired by an aid to the Bush administration who referred to the scientific and secular lobby as "the reality based community".