07 November, 2005

Stephen Fry says "Don't Thank Your Lucky Stars"

This is from Paperweight, and was originally published in some sort of British newspaper. (The Telegraph, I believe.)

I have mentioned once before in this space the great Canadian magician, James (‘The Amazing’) Randi. Randi’s renown as a conjuror is exceeded only by his reputation as an investigator of alleged ‘paranormal’ phenomena. He has just completed a series for Granada television in Manchester in which he concentrates each week on a different field of supernatural endeavour – psychic surgery, dowsing, ESP, astrology, the spirit world, psychometry, graphology, and so on. Randi has always claimed that he would be delighted to find himself confronted by evidence of any phenomenon that could not be explained by reason, existing science or the laws of probability. He has never yet, in a long lifetime dedicated to exposing fraud, misapprehension or credulousness, seen a scintilla of evidence that suggests that there is any truth behind any of the claims made for the existence of ghosts, telekinetic powers, clairvoyance though palmistry, the tarot or tea-leaves, mediumship, horoscopy or any of the other fantastic systems the hungry human imagination can devise. The human mind, after all, is remarkable enough in its ability write symphonies, build suspension bridges, invent a thousand types of cork-screw, predict to the minute the appearance of comets in the sky and devise new daytime TV game-show formats, without us having to pretend it has unproveable, unknowable, and untestable powers to receive spirit messages from Red Indians or read character from birth-dates as well.

As a conjurer, Randi is perfectly placed to see how the practitioners of these dubious mysteries achieve their effects. He shares, after all, the same techniques. I do not mean by this that all who claim powers of prophecy or insight are deliberate shysters and frauds, although many are (Randi has shown, for instance, how it is that a spoon may be bent by what appears to be only the gentlest stroking), I mean that conjurors and paranormalists alike rely on human nature to do their work for them. I have often seen someone describe a magic trick in these terms: ‘He gave me a sealed envelope, got me to shuffle a deck, choose a card, remember it and shuffle it back into the deck. I opened the envelope and it contained my chosen card which was then discovered not to be in the pack.’ Almost no card trick works like this, but that is how the audience remembers them. What is left out is that the conjuror actually put the sealed envelope under a book, for example; he shuffled the deck too, before and after the selection of the card, he then gave the envelope to the subject to open after the card had been selected and looked at. These crucial details are forgotten and only the effect is remembered. Conjurors absolutely bank on this selectivity in human memory, this preference of ours for recollecting the miracle itself, not its set-up.

[to be continued]

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