(Not necessary to read part 1 if you don't feel like it.) Last year I posted a rather lengthy response to a slightly crazy conspiracy theorist who operates on the interwebs under the pen name Xendrius. He was, and continues, releasing a series on "Demon Magicians". The basic premise is that magicians the world over, or at least the best ones, made their tricks work through the assistance of demons and related supernatural forces. He cuts and pastes a magic from a variety of sources including other youtube users and television stations.
The material taken from television is often subject to copyright claims and forcibly taken down. Unfortunately for a conspiracy theorist, this is all just further proof of the dark forces we keep hiding up our sleeves. These are issues that can't be tacked head on because they have an inbuilt judo like defence mechanism. The problem with a conspiracy is a strange inversion of logic, whereby absence of evidence and even an abundance of contrary evidence actually becomes evidence in support of the theory. It is also a failure to realize that a strong conviction that something is true is not actually evidence that the thing really is true.
Suffering a momentary lapse in willpower, I pointed out that these things were simply the work of ordinary humans who had devoted massive amounts of time and energy into fooling him. Basically, he was not seeing evidence of supernatural events, just people who had made him think he had witnessed something supernatural. No demons required. I knew that in the long run, I wasn't about to change his mind just by stating the contrary position, but I did feel slightly better that at least there was a dissenting voice in the crowd.
But what would happen if I were asked to prove my claim? To start, this is a monumental challenge since he has been collecting dozens of clips of magicians performing. Does that mean that I am required to provide an explanation for each and every single trick? Is it sufficient to just explain some of them? How many? Fifty-one percent? One third? Perhaps I only need to explain one as a proof of concept; a demonstration that whatever process he's using to establish the presence of demons is flawed. It's an interesting philosophical discussion.
However, there's is both an ethical and a practical problem lying just under the surface. The ethical problem is that magicians are (supposedly) sworn to protect the secrets of the art. I can't go around the internet blabbing about how magic - other people's magic is done. My colleges would tar and feather me. So this poses an interesting intellectual challenge: how do you demonstrate how a magic trick was not done without actually explaining how it was done?
There is also a practical challenge: there are several tricks included in every video in his series and I don't actually know how each and every single one works. I can make educated guesses based on background knowledge, but I can't provide detailed explanations in every case.
Luckily for me, the practical problem was erased. When the response came (and it did come) there was one trick he was fixating on. This was the clincher, the smoking gun, the undeniable proof that demons are among us. It was a clip from Asian TV of a young man in a restaurant making a banknote float in mid-air. Rather than that clip, where you won't understand anything, the clip below contains an American performer doing the same trick on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in the 1980s.
I knew exactly how this was done!
This isn't because I'm especially clever, but that I happen to have a magazine from the late 80s published by this same performer which provides an eight page illustrated explanation. This is immediately followed by an ad for you to send away for the necessary materials for $10 plus $2 shipping and handling. Magicians share their latest discoveries like scientists publish in research journals (albeit with a much less well refined process of peer review). You would be astonished how much is sitting out there if you know where to look for it. This, or a later adaptation, is most likely the inspiration for the clip in question. And the technique involved is nearly identical.
So my solution was to point him in the direction of the explanation, without actually providing it outright. If he was willing to track down the source and read it, then he would have earned the right to know how the trick worked. Clearly he wanted to know... or perhaps he didn't. Fantasy is often feels more comfortable than reality. It would also likely mean he would have to pay for a copy somewhere since magic material of this vintage doesn't turn up as illegal downloads very often.
I hear the voices murmuring:
Just ignore them.
Why even bother?
What's the harm?
There is a rather offensive tradition which is becoming more and more popular. It's one of the perverse unintentional side effects that stems from too much political correctness. It seems as though it is considered polite to allow people to continue to believe things that are not true. This is a serious problem and it's getting worse. Whether it's porn stars that think vaccinating children is a bad idea or Supreme Court justices whose scientific literacy is so bad they can't parse the difference between contraception and abortion, parents who think that prayer is a suitable alternative to medical treatment, or simply someone who wastes a little bit of their disposable income investing in tin foil hats, believing things which are not true is harmful. Organizations that work to educate and inform like the Centre for Inquiry, the Skeptics Society or the James Randi Educational Foundation are ridiculously important for straightening this sort of thing out.
Of course this particular individual is harmless in the grand scheme of things. But being harmless doesn't make you any less wrong.
The full conversation is quite a bit longer and very painful to read. I really need to develop some self control. Things just turn weird when they started preaching Christian catchphrases at me.
I think I need to go watch some videos of cats and maybe take a shower.