James Randi

On the Ethics of Conjuring

It's a strange feeling to stop and consider that you lie for a living.

Magic is make believe, but there's something that separates it from other forms of pretend, like watching a movie or a play. In a movie, you can get swept away in emotion and feel that you're watching the real-time reactions of real people (who just happen to be reading from a script all the way through.) But in magic, emotion isn't enough; I need to bring my audience on intellectually. They need to know what they're seeing and know that it can't happen. The lie is more real.

Seeing a behind the scenes look watching your favourite Stark Trek alien getting into makeup doesn't detract from your enjoyment of Star Trek. But watching a magic show set up and seeing where all of the bits and pieces secretly went would seriously undermine your experience.

If I were trying to be absolutely intellectually honest, and admit that lying is wrong, it's not easy to defend my particular brand of lying.

One person who thought about this a lot is the famed magician and skeptic (and Canadian) James Randi. He was recently interviewed on the podcast of Penn Jillette (who has also thought deeply about this). They chat about this and other things for the better part of an hour. Gave me an intellectually satisfying warm fuzzy feeling: 

James "The Amazing" Randi

The Canadian magician and escape artist James Randi has become best known for his work as a paranormal investigator. It's a crusade of sorts to fight for people's right not to be cheated out of their money by people claiming abilities they don't have.

Magicians are practitioners of deception, but there's an ethics to deception and we often walk a very fine line trying to squeeze every last piece of wonder and amazement out of the world while recognizing that in order for society to flourish, people need to believe as many true things and as few false things as possible. 

This short interview was filmed by Seth Andrews, who produces The Thinking Atheist podcast, at the 2017 American Atheists convention in Charlottesville. (Hundreds of atheists gathered together to watch an eclipse... what could be wrong with that?)

Cartoon James Randi

James Randi — or as he is more often publicly known The Amazing Randi — is now largely retired, but continues to talk openly and publicly about the relationship between magic, skepticism and critical thinking. In one of his more interesting interviews with the YouTube channel Holy Koolaid, he is appearing in Cartoon form. 

Randi stands apart from the majority of skeptics. He eschews the label "debunker" (odd that it appears in the video's title card) and favours "investigator". In keeping with the scientific method, if you start with the conclusion you think you should get — that the claim you are investigating is "bunk" — then you're much less likely to learn anything new. You have to set your exploration up in such a way that if there is a real phenomenon to be found, you could find it.

In that spirit, the organization he founded, the James Randi Educational Foundation, set up a well known million dollar prize to anyone who can demonstrate paranormal phenomena under controlled mutually agreed upon conditions.  

When I grow up, I hope I can show up to my interviews as a cartoon. 

My favourite Bullshit Artists

Two of my favourite performers in the world are Penn & Teller. As I've written before, it's Teller's fault I'm in this line of work. Ever since I read an essay of his on The Cups & Balls in one of their books, magic has head a strange power over my mind. It's camped out in my brain and refuses to leave. Recently, The James Randi Educational Foundation uploaded an extended interview with Penn & Teller at The Amazing Meeting in 2012. While it's normally difficult to get me to sit through an entire YouTube video from beginning to end, I've been through this twice. While on stage, Teller doesn't talk and Penn talks like slightly upscale carney trash, in fact they are among the most profound thinkers in magic today. And in this interview, it shows!

I always struggle with the implications of building a career on deception. It's nice to know that someone else is thinking about these problems and it's useful for me to be able to draw on the thinking of those that have been thinking about it since before I was born.

So if you have an hour to spare, enjoy Penn & Teller, 38 years of Magic and Bullshit:

*May contain some inappropriate language and mature themes.