Reprinted from C-Arts Magazine, January 2010.
“Homo vult decipi; decipiatur.”
.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.
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.
The 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.
The 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.
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 aura 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.
Magic was originally published in C-Arts Magazine, volume 12, January 2010.