Keeping the Magic Out of Science

Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself. The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool. — Richard Feynman

James Randi, the retired professional magician and skeptic of the occult (who I wrote about a couple of weeks ago), has a new opinion article at Wired, in which he argues that scientists should consider enlisting the aid of magicians when investigating claims of extra-natural phenomena.  He says that scientists, although they are trained to evaluate data in a rigorous and logical way, are often not especially sensitive to the possibility that some sort of chicanery might be involved.  Magicians, though, are entertainers skilled in the arts of deception, who can often do a better job of unmasking fakery.

… our highly specific expertise comes from knowledge of the ways in which our audiences can be led to quite false conclusions by calculated means — psychological, physical and especially sensory, visual being rather paramount since it has such a range of variety.

The idea of using a trickster to catch another trickster is, as Randi points out, hardly new.

It’s not a novel notion to call in a trickster for advice. In England, famous magician John Nevil Maskelyne [1839-1917] appeared in a courtroom to demonstrate how spiritualist fakers were working their swindles on vulnerable victims, with great success.

Randi is also the founder of the James Randi Educational Foundation, which investigate claims of paranormal, supernatural, and occult  ideas.

The suggestion that magicians be included in research teams may seem somewhat odd, but I think the basic idea is sound.  As Randi points out, the subjects of many scientific experiments, whether they are molecules or microbes, generally do not attempt to deliberately mislead the observer.  There is also some evidence that people knowledgeable in a particular area are more likely to fall for a well-conceived scam in that area (Bernie Madoff, for example, did not recruit his clients from financial rubes).  If deception is a possibility, having a deception expert on hand seems like common sense.

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