Reprinted from C-Arts Magazine, January 2010.

“Homo vult decipi; decipiatHeironymous Bosch, The Conjurer, oil on panel, 53 x 65 cm, 1496-1520 (date unknown), Courtesy of Musée Municipal, Saint-Germain-en-Layeur.”

.Through years of traveling the world and writing articles in magazines, I’ve developed psychic powers. I can influence your actions by controlling the cadence of the text on the page as you read it. Unlike some charlatan astrologers, psychics and witch doctors, my skill is based in science, a lifetime of studying how the rhythm of language influences brainwaves, particularly certain passages buried deep within the English language, passages that were dictated to me by an old woman, a hermeneutic. The study of those passages demanded supreme scholarship to interpret, years of intense application, and it has still not been wholly worked out. In order to help me, the old woman gave birth to my grandmother, who bore my mother. When my mother gave birth to me, there I was, deciphering the dictations of the old woman.

Remedios Varo, Mujer saliendo del psicoanalista (Woman Leaving the Psychoanalyst), oil on canvas, 71 x 41 cm, 1961, Courtesy of Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico

I need a volunteer. You, dear reader. There’s a table between us. I have a hazelnut, a paperclip, and an ancient Chinese coin, which I place on the table in front of you. Perhaps I learned this skill from ancient Chinese mystics, or perhaps I need organic substances in order to communicate with the vibrations from the object, take your pick. In my pocket, I have a match for one of the three objects. I take it out without showing you, keep it tightly locked in my fist. You, dear reader, hold my wrist in one hand, be sure I’m not using sleight of hand or some other trick to switch objects.

Listen to the flow of my words, don’t resist my messages, why are you resisting? Perhaps someone in the room is interfering. Okay, now use your free hand to take two of the objects from the table. If you took the coin and paperclip, leaving the hazelnut, I open my own hand and say, “Ta da! If I’m not psychic, how could I have known you’d pick the hazelnut?”

But say you took a hazelnut and coin/paperclip, leaving the paperclip/coin. Then I focus on the two objects in your hand and nonchalantly push the object on the table off to the side. I say, “Take one of the two objects you’re holding and put it on the table in front of you.” If what you put down is the hazelnut, then I bring my fist next to it, on the table, open my fingers, and say, “Ta da! If I’m not psychic, how could I have known you’d pick the hazelnut?” If what you put down is the coin/paperclip, keeping the hazelnut, I put my hand next to yours, which is still holding the hazelnut, and say, “Ta da! If I’m not psychic…”

Surprisingly few people catch on. Most try to figure out how I managed to sneak that hazelnut into my hand. The exceptions are usually those who’ve seen a forced-choice trick before, who’ve read about mentalism from people like Derren Brown, Bob Fellows or Robert Levine (from whom I learned this one), or, sometimes, those who are very good salesmen—people who’ve worked as car dealers or gallerists and know how to make a customer feel like they’ve chosen exactly the right car/painting.

Last year, Derren Brown chose a woman at random, named Khadisha, then fed her horseracing predictions based on a pseudo-mathematical “System” he’d developed. During the first race, she was anonymously given a winner and just watched. She won. She put her own money on the second race, and won again. She won a third, fourth and eventually fifth time, gradually becoming an absolute believer in The System.

Khadisha thought The System worked because she had won every race. But she wasn’t the only person in the experiment. Brown later explained that he’d started off with 7,776 volunteers, none of whom knew about the others, and sent more than a thousand people each possible winner in the first race. All the losers were dropped, 5/6th of the volunteers, while the thousand who’d won round one moved to round two, where Brown again divided all the possible horses among them. By the fifth race, there was only one happy Khadisha left, convinced that Brown’s System was truly magic, willing to give the strongest testimonials about its power. And one exuberant winner with a camera in her face has a far stronger effect on perceptions than 7,775 silent losers sitting in front of their televisions at home—an unusually clear example of the confirmation bias that muddles human thinking in spheres ranging from lotteries to art careers to homeopathic medicine to psychics to witch doctors to books like The Secret to, even, the Iraqi Army.Anish Kapoor, Untitled, 2009 (detail), three digital prints, one print, 32 x 42 cm, two prints, 39 x 31 cm, © Anish Kapoor

levitationThe Iraqi Army has bought thousands of high-tech divining rods over the past few years, hand-held wands with bar-coded plastic cards and antennae manufactured by a company named ATSC. Each of these ADE 651 wands costs up to $60,000. They’re used at nearly every checkpoint in Iraq. ATSC claims the wand can find guns, ammunition, drugs, truffles, human bodies and even contraband ivory at distances up to a kilometer, underground, through walls, underwater or even from airplanes three miles high.

The US Department of Defense tested the wands at their National Explosive Engineering Sciences Security Center at Sandia Labs, and found that “None have ever performed better than random chance.”

Nevertheless, Maj. Gen. Jehad al-Jabiri, head of the Ministry of the Interior’s General Directorate for Combating Explosives believes in them. “Whether it’s magic or scientific, what I care about is it detects bombs,” said General Jabiri. “I don’t care about Sandia or the Department of Justice or any of them. I know more about bombs than anyone in the world.” The sad thing is that $60,000 would pay for eight bomb-sniffing dogs, with scientifically provable results.

The key to The System, to all such systems, is to take credit for the hits and smoothly slide past the misses. Levine describes how a psychic excitedly told him she was impressed by all the music she saw in his aura. “Is it possible you play an instrument or perform or something like that?” she asked him, a relatively safe Barnum statement (i.e., a statement that seems personal, yet applies to many people). He told her he didn’t, that he’d always been disappointed by how little musical ability he has. Without missing a beat, she asked if he enjoyed listening to music. He did, he told her. (Who doesn’t?) “Yes, that’s what I’m seeing,” she proudly announced.

levitation2The Iraqi magic wands clearly miss some bombs, false negatives, but ATSC explains that for the wand to work, the human operator must be rested, must have a steady pulse and body temperature, must use it at right angles to the body, etc. False positives can occur because of gold fillings in a driver’s teeth, perfume or a car air freshener. By providing vague rationales for both false negatives and false positives, all it takes is a few true positives to create a massive reputation for success that goes viral.

The cynical among us understand, and profit off, the irrational processes that make something like the ADE 651 “work.” In 1953, the CIA created a top-secret program called MKULTRA to fight against Soviet mind-control tricks. They hired John Mulholland, at the time America’s most famous magician, to write two manuals on manipulation, slight-of-hand, and undercover communications tricks. All copies of the documents were destroyed in 1973. (Except that one of each survived and have just been declassified. As of this writing, I’m still waiting for my copy to arrive.)

Even without it, though, I can predict the following about you, dear reader:

1. You are a very kind and considerate person, but when somebody does something to break your trust, you feel deep-seated anger.

2. You have some personality weaknesses but are generally able to compensate for them.

3. You have considerable unused capacity that you have not yet turned to your advantage.

4. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing.

5. You have a box of old unsorted photographs in your house.Doug-Aitken,-Untitled,-2009,-Two-digital-prints,-96.5-x-68.6-cm-and-97.8-x-68.6-cm,-©-Doug-Aitken-small

And so on. Three of these statements come from Derren Brown’s course on how to read Tarot cards. After explaining a bit about the cards, he goes on to say “Turn over the cards one by one to perform your reading. No matter what cards turn up, recite the phrases above and try to personalize the phrases as much as you can. You will get far more ‘hits’ than ‘misses’. And think—how many times have you heard a psychic say that the images and names of Tarot cards should not be taken literally in a reading? Now you know why!”

The true marker of skill in a psychic is the ability to personalize the phrases, either by getting information out of the subject—an analysis of the TV psychic Van Praagh showed that over the course of an hour-long reading, he’d asked 260 questions while making only two actual statements—or using double negatives like “You’re not a mother of a young boy, are you?” Whether they answer “Why, yes, I am,” or “No, a young girl,” or “No, I’m not”—in each case you’re right, and the only thing they’ll remember is that you guessed right. And if you’re not, you move on, from a musically talented aBruce Nauman, Failing to Levitate in the Studio, 1966, Courtesy Sperone Westwater, New York © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2009ura to listening to music. Ignore the misses, focus on the hits.

Magic works because most of us, most of the time, are sloppy thinkers. This is not all bad—in the arts, this blurring effect is crucial. Who would ever be able to enter the two-dimensional space of a painting as though it were a three-dimensional world without it? Who would ever be able to fool their entire sexual system into arousal simply by looking at a four-inch, flat image of a naked woman on a screen, with no scent, shape, or touch?

The crossing of ideas, images and objects with the emotions and passions that evoke those ideas or are evoked by them is essential to good art. But in life, the inability to separate those ideas from their associated emotions is a sign of mental laziness. But that is where most of us are, rolling in confirmation bias along with a dozen other cognitive biases and logical fallacies, deliberately failing to differentiate our mental activity, and calling the sloppy mess (unaware of the irony) “enlightened.” It is, after all, the way of artists, yoga instructors and tarot-card readers.

In the process, we have created a present in which we are more religious, superstitious, prone to believing in things like astrology, magic, synchronicity, and the wobblier sciences like psychology than in many decades (see Richard Feynman’s Cargo Cult Science speech where he singles out psychology as a field where flawed work builds on other flawed work until it devolves into unfounded ritual, using scientific methods to generate results that merely seem scientific). Newly armed with sophisticated deconstructive techniques, and rebelling against our technocratic, complex societies, we have brought the consequences of sloppy pre (or post) rational thinking into nearly every sphere. As Michael Shermer, founder of Sceptic Magazine, says, “Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.”

Nietzsche was wrong. God is not dead. He has never been more alive than today. But He, or rather the mechanism of our belief in Him, is being used by the cynical—corporations, con-artists, the CIA, and a million others—every day to manipulate us in a thousand different ways. There is a place for magical thinking, for God; but it is in art, not in life.

In art, everything happens for our benefit. In life, it does not. That distinction is the line between sanity and insanity. In life, none of us are special. The moon doesn’t rise in order to give us a watery personality. It’s not raining because I am sad. Bruce Nauman, The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (Window or Wall Sign), 1967, Neon with glass tubing suspension frame, 4’ 11” x 4’ 7” x 2” Private collection, courtesy artist

Magic was originally published in C-Arts Magazine, volume 12, January 2010.

7 comments to Magic

  • michelle

    re-reading you is much better these days!

  • I love it that the Google Ads next to this article are all for different sorts of psychics and tarot card readers, including
    CaliforniaPsychics dot com: “Ask a gifted psychic one free question — Love, Money, More” (would work better without the commas),
    mystical-connections dot com: “The truth. ..lovers, life & advice by tarot card reading,”
    tara-medium dot com: “Free for psychic readings: Your free reading now By a famous Professionnal Psychic” [sic],
    Psychics dot LivePerson dot com: “Get a Live Psychic Reading Instantly 24/7. Free to Start,” and
    7witches dot com: “We don’t read your future; we change it!

  • Since these articles all appear first in print, I’m hemmed in by a 2000-word limit. But I can use the comments as endnotes…

    I want to give the rest of Derren Brown’s Barnum Statements, from his course on how to read Tarot cards:
    1. You have a need for other people to like and admire you
    2. You are overly critical of yourself.
    3. You have some personality weaknesses but are generally able to compensate for them.
    4. You have considerable unused capacity that you have not yet turned to your advantage.
    5. Disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you are worrisome and insecure on the inside.
    6. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing.
    7. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety
    8. You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof.
    9. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others.
    10. At times you are extroverted, affable, and sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, and reserved.
    11. Some of your aspirations can be rather unrealistic.
    12. You become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations.
    13. Security is one of your major goals in life.

    These aren’t copyrighted to Brown, by the way, because they’re taken directly from a 1948 experiment by psychologist Bertram R. Forer. Forer gave a personality test to his students. Afterward, he told his students they were each receiving a unique personality analysis that was based on the test’s results and to rate their analysis on a scale of 0 (very poor) to 5 (excellent) on how well it applied to themselves. In reality, each received the same analysis, which consisted of the above 13 statements.

    On average, the rating was 4.26. After the ratings were turned in, Forer revealed that each student had received identical copies assembled by Forer from various horoscopes. These statements later became known as Barnum statements after P.T. Barnum, who used them in his “There’s a Sucker Born Every Minute” performances.

    I find it interesting that Forer was a psychologist. I had my first-ever visit with a psychologist yesterday (at someone else’s request), and was struck by how similar the psychologist’s approach was to that of the tarot-card reader. Obviously, the need to reveal cold-reading powers isn’t there, but the advice and motivational language she used was generalized in exactly the same way. There’s an artificial quality that you can hear in a psychologist when their listening to the client is a form of searching for hooks onto which to hang statements learned in Psych 101. You can hear the learned statement of insight or advice as it comes out, though the more experienced the psychologist the better she’s able to weave it into a regular conversation. I think I have a sort of allergy to the pre-learned insight, the person speaking feels almost possessed to me. Possessed by their job, their education and as disconnected from the present situation as if she’d undergone a hippocampectomy. You could stand there all day repeatedly introducing yourself.

  • I’m the San Francisco psychiatrist who commented on the NYT Freakonomics blog, and to whom you replied, “Empirically validated? Hardly. Psychology cloaks itself in science, but it is still only a half step away from tarot-card reading.”

    This is manifestly untrue. There are many thousands of empirical studies in psychology (and a smaller but still signifiant number in the sub-field of personality psychology, which was my point on the NYT blog). Richard Feynman will be frustrated if he seeks the precision of physics in the social sciences. Nonetheless, psychology, economics, anthropology, criminology, etc., have some degree of empirical grounding. For example, they have hypotheses that can be disconfirmed by evidence. Tarot cards (and Chinese aphorisms about happiness) do not.

    I’d hate to imagine that you’d generalize from a single visit with one psychologist. Most practitioners of any field — psychology, law, writing, take your pick — are lackluster. The potential of such fields lies not in the average but in the exceptional. Many, many people are helped by psychotherapy, as shown both by empirical studies and consumer surveys. Many, I’m sure, are not.

    Psychology is a big field, encompassing clinical practice, animal and human research, psychological assessment, academic teaching and writing, and so forth. The very Barnum effect you write about has been studied in detail by psychologists. Even though I’m not a psychologist myself, I hope you reconsider your stance toward the field.

  • Hi, Steven — thanks for writing. Clearly, generalizing from one experience would be manifestly unscientific, though as a writer/blogger rather than an academic or scientist I don’t have that burden. Nevertheless, your point about “most practitioners in any field” is well taken.

    I don’t have the depth of knowledge in this field to win an argument with you, but I have read some of the more influential books that shaped psychotherapy, and they are, frankly, a bit nuts. The Case of Schreber is fascinating, but how Freud read the poor appellate judge’s memoir (having never even talked to the man himself) and concluded that Schreber wanted to be turned into a woman so that he could be God’s only object of sexual desire, and that God here represented Schreber’s father, etc., is mindboggling to anyone who prizes logic. Or the whole matchbox bit in The Case of Dora, where noticing a matchbox on Freud’s table, or failing to notice it (I forget which), proved Dora was a bed-wetter (because of the proverb that “He who plays with fire will wet the bed”), and bed-wetting, in turn, proved Dora masturbated. Freud had a dozen (mostly sexual) conclusions, and he actively worked to channel his reading, er, psychotherapy, to arrive at them. Down to placing matchboxes on his table ahead of the session (GW‑V:233/­SE:VII:71).

    The other leading light of the field, Jung, is again, great for a fiction writer. But he was also the man who coined the term “synchronicity,” and reading Memories, Dreams, Reflections it becomes clear that his “science” was driven by his own emotional conclusions to nearly the same extent as Freud. I know that I’m referring to lay writings rather than their medical stuff, but the lay writing is informative because it cuts through some of the jargon-armour through which they defend their beliefs. Both of these early leaders of the field are perfect illustrations of Shermer’s quote that “Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.”

    And these two guys are the foundations of psychology as a “science.” If you compare the foundational works of a social science like economics, you also have arguments that are no longer applicable — there are nearly no atomistic markets in the Adam Smith sense, and no economy actually follows Ricardian comparative-advantage trade patterns — but you’d never look at Adam Smith or Ricardo and say that their logic is loopy.

    As to psychotherapy having helped lots of people, I have no doubt. But social support of all sorts has huge benefits, both psychological and psychoneuroimmunological. [E.g., Friedman, Hofer, and Mason, “Relationship between psychological defenses and mean urinary 17-hydroxycorticosteroid exretion rates. I. A predictive study of parents of fatally ill children.” Psychosomatic Medicine 26 (1964)]. And if someone can’t get their social support from friends or the bartender, then by all means they should go to a psychologist.

    Though even that is far from clear. One of the main reasons women suffer so much more unipolar depression than men is (now theorized by some cognitive psychologists to be) that they ruminate rather than getting drunk, climbing a mountain, getting some exercise, etc. Each time you relive a bad experience in psychotherapy or simple memory, you strengthen it. Our modern psychotherapeutic society prizes rumination and frowns upon repression — no wonder so many are depressed. A bowling league, unlike a psychologist, would offer social support without this rumination effect.

    And in terms of solving behavioural problems, I wonder how many psychologists are willing to lose the patient by telling them hard truths. It’s far easier to validate someone’s emotions than forcing them to confront the fact that their emotions and intellect point in different directions, and perhaps they should try following their intellect for a change. I suspect that in most such cases the only thing that would change is therapists.

    Just to be clear, I’m talking about psychologists here. There are clearly psychoses that require chemical intervention and a psychiatrist with a medical background and an understanding of neurochemistry is a crucial doctor for many people. But I’ve seen a loved one avoid a psychiatrist like the plague in favour of continued regular and useless visits to a psychologist, simply because the psychologist was emotionally easier.

    Finally, however, I’m clearly citing psychologists here several times, many of whom have added a tremendous wealth of knowledge to our understanding of ourselves as human beings. I don’t have a dislike of the field as a whole. But I do think that it is far less scientific than it makes itself out to be and has a lot more tarot-card-like quackery among its practitioners, and significantly fewer self-correcting mechanisms, than other social sciences. A gifted psychologist is far closer in nature to a gifted artist than she is to a gifted scientist.

    As an endnote, since I started by bashing Freud and Jung, I’d like to add that the single most intelligent book I’ve ever read (if I had to pick one) was written by a psychiatrist, Robert Musil.

  • hotrod reader

    What a rant for Pure Science… I wish I would — as a scientist, mad or sad — get professionally interested enough to read how the mental swordfight between Bugly and The Psychotherapy-field-defending-MD come out. The Who-is-Right! It is, however, equally meaningful as the winner of the next African soccer Cup. To put the tarot, the magic bomb-detecters and Japanese company employed negotiation specialist psychologists in the same boat and then built a Berlin wall between them and Science. And claim that some Thinking went into this. Grass is greener on the art side but the roots are stronger on the science side. Bad branding-hawks should be put to prison, brainwashed, or sent to Baghdad maybe. Or maybe we should divide the world between the Pure and the Corrupted — and bury the latter in a pile of Nike-gear, Tommy Hilfiger, tarot cards and companions to Freud & the Feminists. The Pure could live in their Neo-Eden naked and without the gear — beer would be allowed but no-German-organic-bullpiss governed by some absurd Beer Law. The Pure could live at this high point of civilization from where they could watch the lesser thinkers corrupt-and-commercialize-and-quacker themselves to hell… The Golden Age is at sight!

  • You got a better alternative, hotrod? Silence? Fear dressed in intellectual superiority?

    Where exactly do we end up when those who can see how fucked up the world is getting are so smart they deconstruct their own tongues before they can stick them out? What do they then let out? Opportunism? Excuses for cowering in an attic somewhere?

    I don’t believe in a Neo Eden any more than you do. But I do believe in a vector that points away from where we are and towards that unattainable Neo Eden. Well, maybe not. But at least enough of one to act as a brake or counterpush to the direction we’re headed.

    There’s a quote I like, from Alexander Solzhenitsyn:

    And how we burned in the camps later, thinking: What would things have been like if every Security operative, when he went out at night to make an arrest, had been uncertain whether he would return alive and had to say goodbye to his family? Or if, during periods of mass arrests, as for example in Leningrad, when they arrested a quarter of the entire city, people had not simply sat there in their lairs, paling in terror at every bang of the downstairs door and at every step on the staircase, but had understood they had nothing left to lose and had boldly set up in the downstairs hall an ambush of half a dozen people with axes, hammers, pokers, or whatever else was at hand. The Organs would very quickly have suffered a shortage of officers and transport and, notwithstanding all of Stalin’s thirst; the cursed machine would have ground to a halt!

    Would you ever pick up an axe? Somehow I doubt it. You’re too smart for that.

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