Vice: Truth and Lies

Vice has a wonderful longform article about the ethics of deception in magic. It’s part of an issue they’ve put together about truth and lies.


Magic is undeniably flourishing in a sea of new media outlets like YouTube and Instagram. Now Netflix is firmly on board producing a variety of series and specials with magicians you may never have heard of. (And of course the doom and gloom naysayers are hot on their heels screaming about how they are ruining the great art of magic… yawn.)

But since the earliest days of magic on film there has been a problem: Camera Tricks.

A disclaimer precedes the first episode of Magic for Humans, clarifying that there are no camera tricks.
Why is this insistence on magical authenticity such a big deal? You might think that editing and camera placement are merely additional tools to create a final effect—not better or worse than smoke, mirrors, and wires, just different. The reality is a bit more complicated: While editing magic is in some respects its own art form, the often-unspoken code around what magicians are and are not allowed to do on camera—and who gets to make the rules in the first place—can be quite strict.

We experience this kind of ethical confusion in other areas: sports. We understand that it’s important that baseball has rules even though we’re never able to convincingly explain why this particular set of rules is better than any other. We understand the goal of boxing is to knock your opponent out, yet understand that bringing a baseball bat into the ring is not allowed. We simultaneously understand that both the goal and the constraints are part of the game.

While a magic show might be in a theatre, it is less a theatrical pursuit than an intellectual endeavour. The magician wants to convince that the impossible is happening. While CGI and camera tricks are tools that filmmakers use to tell a fictional story, magic is more about the impossibility for its own sake. So camera cuts and CGI move us away from the impossible and towards something we understand. So even though magic is all cheating, some forms of cheating clearly weaken the result.

Lots of prop-based magic tricks have an obvious flaw. When a (reasonably alert) person sees it they immediately think to themselves “If only I could handle that box, I would not be fooled.” Without understanding how the prop works, they are able to localize the mystery — it’s somewhere in that prop. And a contained mystery does hint at a grander magical world; does not inspire a sense of wonder.

Great magic gets past that by moving the audience from a place of “I don’t know how that was done” to “I’m positive that can’t be done.” (That wonderful pithy phrasing comes from Chicago magician Simon Aronson.) So maybe instead of a box, which could conceal a trapdoor, the magician borrows your coffee mug. Now instead of having a box to contain the mystery, the magician could have used anything and the mystery deepens.

Magic on a screen offers up a similar problem. “If only I could have been there and been standing a little bit to the left…” or “If only I could have seen the director call cut and watched them sneak that tiger into that box.”

Since magic was first brought onto network television decades ago, we have only had one solution that kind of sort of worked: Filming tricks head on in a single take, often in front of a live studio audience with no do-overs. Now the norms of filmmaking have changed, the screens have gotten smaller and an audience simply will not tolerate an unedited recording. We need the camera cuts to guide our attention and help us assimilate the narrative.

So a new breed of magic is coming where you will watch it and say, “Even a camera trick couldn’t make that work.” But tricks like that are few and far between… for now.

So the issue that the authors of the article are dancing around but can’t seem to figure out is that magic is a (for lack of a less gender specific term) gentlemanly pursuit. The magician is a liar but an honest liar. We are deceiving, but always playing by “the rules” even though

Learning to think more rationally

Wouldn't it be nice?

Thinking rationally means not being led astray by misleading information, false assumptions and bad arguments. As Daniel Willingham writes for the Scientific American Blog:

[R]ational thinking encompasses our ability to draw justifiable conclusions from data, rules and logic.

It's not always easy:

In general, our brain did not evolve to think in this logical fashion, and some types of reasoning are simply a bad fit for what our brain can do.

And there are things that get in the way — cognitive biases

We tend to fear a loss more than we relish an equivalent or greater gain. For example, most people would turn down a favorable gamble in which they could earn $22 if a coin lands on heads but lose $20 if it settles on tails. Although most recognize that taking such a bet makes sense, people often choose not to because the potential pain of losing often outweighs the pleasure of winning. These types of reasoning problems are widespread and interfere with our ability to cultivate rational skills.

What I found surprising is that when we train ourselves to think more rationally (through that pesky process called education) that training typically does not cross into other domains of life: 

But decades of research have also consistently found that students improve only in the type of reasoning skills emphasized in the course, not in other tasks.

That is, if students work on logic puzzles, they get better at logic puzzles but not at other things, such as forming coherent arguments or winning debates.

This pattern makes sense. Rational thinking requires different skill sets in different situations. The logic we use when interpreting a science experiment is not the same logic we need when buying a car or following a new recipe.

That goes a long way towards explaining how someone can be extremely well educated, but still fall victim to believing silly things outside their own sphere of expertise. I'm reminded of a recent US presidential candidate and acclaimed neurosurgeon who didn't know enough about biology to understand the theory of evolution. 

The full article is available at the Scientific American blog

On the Supernatural

Following on the last article I shared from Michael Shermer, a slightly older article from a skeptic with a slightly more philosophical bent, Michael Sherlock. Michael (the second one) writes primarily on issues having to do with skepticism, secularism and free speech. 

I mentioned at the end of this student talk, I asked them the question, If this were really accomplished by magic instead of trickery, how could you tell? And turned out you never could. Where "real" magic is concerned the best you can ever get to is "I don't know". 

At the root of the problem is the fact that magic and supernatural are not well defined terms. They tend to be placeholders for the as-yet-unexplained. In Magic and the Supernatural, Michael Sherlock explains:

Magic, as is the case with the supernatural, is a hasty way to explain that which has yet to be explained.
Magic and the supernatural are both psychological means by which our frightened and impatient species escapes two of its greatest fears: uncertainty and mortality.

It gets quite dense quite quickly after that, but Sherlock is a very articulate exponent of these ideas.