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Revelations, Penn & Teller Style

Last week, as I was getting my Penn Says fix, I realized that my worldview can pretty much be summed up by a magic trick. Penn ranted about a trick he and Teller had done back in the day, and how it had been completely ripped off recently by a couple of wacky Korean magicians. I went to youtube and watched both versions. Here is the P & T trick (the Korean version is essentially irrelevant to my point, so I’ll leave that one alone).[youtube:www.youtube.com/watch?v=2H81A3bU68k] It’s a pretty standard P & T trick, in which they perform a trick and then expose how it is done. As I was watching it, it hit me that their philosophy of magic perfectly illustrates why I find science to be so fulfilling. The first performance of the trick was cool, and had me trying to figure out how it was done, but the truth turned out to be so much cooler than anything I came up with while watching it. I thought maybe they had several other people under the stage (which they could have done if they were lazy), but it was all Teller, shimmying around a little hamster tube like a human snake.
To me, knowledge is far more fulfilling than speculation, and it seems to be the case that the scientific explanation for just about everything is much more incredible and inspiring than anything religion can offer.

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14 Comments

  1. Interestingly, it's precisely because that's not how illusions of that type are normally performed, that P&T were able to have the reveal as part of the act.

    Because they invented a new method, they were happy to reveal it. It doesn't particularly give away anything about how any other tricks of that sort are done, and as you know, a methods are a magicians bread and butter so it would be foolish to expose them.

    I am also of the 'knowledge is more fulfilling than speculation' crew, but interestingly, when it comes to magic, a lot of people don't even bother speculating on methods. They just enjoy the trick for entertainment and don't give much thought to how it was done. I wonder if there's much crossover with the sort of people drawn to religion? That would make for a fascinating study.

    Then there are people who don't enjoy magic precisely because they don't know how it was done.

    Then there are people like me who don't enjoy magic because they DO know how it was done (most of the time if I don't know the actual method, I can make a decent enough guess based on my small-ish knowledge of magic).

    Magic is a weird, weird world.

  2. I must admit that when it comes to "conjuring" as Mr. Randi likes to call it, I prefer to be fooled. I also don't mind P&T's alternative to that since they do not ruin things for other performances.

  3. Penn once explained the secret to all magic tricks: You put more work into the trick than the audience thinks it's worth. For example, spending 40 hours to make sure you can do a double lift properly.

    I have to agree with you about magic. It's more fulfilling to me to know how the trick is done. I've tried the 'mysteries are fulfilling' thing, and there is some truth to that, but knowledge itself is very fulfilling, especially as you begin to realize how the brain can be tricked via illusion.

  4. For myself as a complete hack of an amateur magician I find that I get most of my satisfaction out of knowing just how some tricks are preformed and yet still not being able to catch the really good performers slights.

  5. I enjoy magic tricks not because they fool me, but because if they are well done, it shows a great amount of skill and preparation.

    For example, there is a card trick video somewhere where a magician performs card tricks in rhythm to a piece of music, echoing the lyrics and the beats. The tricks he does mostly aren't that spectacular, but it is done in such a perfect flow that I really, really enjoy it without even thinking how it's done.

    On the other hand, a recent trick on the German "phenomenon" (the next Uri Geller) was confounding to me, but boring and not fascinating at all, because it wasn't well performed and seemed to involve camera trickery.

    Of course, I once went to see David Copperfield when his flying act was fairly new, and that wasn't just well done, that was also amazing to think about: "How did he do it?" So I enjoyed being led by the nose, so to speak – but the difference to true believers is I never thought he could really fly, I knew I was being led by the nose and, for the sake of the show and entertainment, I chose to go along with it where, if my pastor had started flying around, I might have walked out.

  6. Yes, I think we see this pattern a lot:

    1 – The universe does something unexpected

    2 – We form a hypothesis about why our expectations were violated, usually in terms of other expectations that have not been violated.

    3 – we go to test our hypothesis, and find out it is mostly, or even completely wrong, and learn something new, and possibly even conceptually radically new (this is rarer).

    4 – new hypothesis we wouldn't have thought of at first is now mostly correct. the process of testing it may yield more surprises.

    Step 3 is where the character of scientists is often tested along with their hypotheses.

  7. "For a lot of tricks, the secret isn’t nearly so impressive. I am a beginning amateur magician, and if you knew how I do the tricks you really wouldn’t be impressed by them:)"

    This is a big reason why I like to be fooled. Sure, in the P&T sketch, it is cool to see what he actually does, but the truth behind a trick is often not nearly as cool as the trick itself.

  8. I used to dabble in magic (and can still do a few simple things), and I have to say that knowing how something is done only increases my appreciation for a finely crafted performance.

  9. It's been said that the child is the one who thinks it's magic, the adult is the one who sits back and enjoys the performance, and the adolescent is the one who insists on knowing how it's done.

    Actually, in the case of mentalism, the trick often relies on the fact that it's a performance. The psychological aspects of the trick wouldn't work if the magician were not able to control the setting in which the trick is performed.

  10. If you watch a magician perform, he'll almost always keep a certain distance between himself and the audience. This helps to stop people from grabbing, and helps to control the angle. I know if you grab at some of my props when I do a trick, I'd be lost.

  11. Yeah, I also enjoy magic tricks for the performance, not the “trick”. I love knowing how they’re done, because that just increases my appreciation for the performer’s ability to conceal the trick.

    One example that stands out in my mind is a James Randi documentary where Randi explains how Uri Gellar does his spoon-bending trick. Immediately after the explanation, he performs the trick, and even though he’s just told you what to look for, you (or at least I) still miss it.

    But I guess some people like to play the Director’s Commentaries on their favourite DVDs (I’m totally one of them) while other’s don’t.

  12. Being the creative DIY-person that I am, I always enjoy tricks which rely on special props. Like objects which appear to be smaller inside than they really are by clever use of perspective, mirrors, fake "seams", etc…

    That combined with the often amazing flexibility of some people's bodies always results in fascinating stuff.

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