I have never been a big fan of magic tricks. They aren’t real. I realize, of course, that magic tricks are often astonishingly clever and to become good at it requires years of practice, skill development and showmanship. But at its core, to me a magic trick is intended to trick people. Magic shows leave me, at best, confused and no wiser or at worst, feeling duped. I recognize that good entertainment doesn’t need to be didactic. It is just not my cup of tea.
I Am Not Amazed
When I was young, the Amazing Kreskin was very popular and our family watched his show regularly in the 70’s. My Mum was particularly intrigued by his hypnotism exploits.
I always found the shows faintly annoying. I knew it wasn’t real and I was frustrated that nothing was ever revealed – no new knowledge or insight. From the perspective of the audience, one is expected to just marvel at the cleverness of the magician while knowing you were tricked, not sure how you were tricked but also that you may be tricked again and may never know how you were tricked or how any of it was done. Saying, “I don’t know” is a good thing for skeptics to practice, but not when you know someone else does know and won’t explain. I can understand why a person would want to be the magician though using the same explanation in reverse.
I hear all the magical reasons for not revealing how it is done – magician ethics, building and maintaining a sense of awe, skill and showmanship. But honestly, they all sound like the values and ethics of a bygone era. We should be done with being hoodwinked for entertainment – we get that enough in politics and medicine and education and religion and the list goes on.
One way to revitalize the profession comes from individuals like James Randi and Derren Brown often use these same skills to reveal dishonesty in other areas – now those are the shows I find truly intriguing.
Since about 2004, I have been a fan of an internet show out of Austin, Texas called the Atheist Experience. I particularly enjoyed the shows hosted by the “new guy”, Matt Dillahunty. Over the years, I avidly watched his many online debates, became a Patreon supporter and followed his appearances on other podcasts and events. I also noted that he was a magician. Except that the USA seems a rather hostile place lately, I thought I might even go to Texas some day and see the show in person. But, last night, Matt Dillahunty came to my hometown in Canada touring for his show titled, Magic and Skepticism.
I bought the tickets as soon as I heard on January 9 so I had a bit of a wait until the show started at 8PM on April 10.
I don’t tend to engage in role model worship or any kind of group-think mentality, but I enjoy listening to and being challenged by smart people and Matt is definitely that.
The Order of Merlin
The show started with an introduction pre-recorded by Seth Andrews. Matt came out and chatted informally for a few minutes then started into the show.
It was a mixture of talking about some of my favourite topics in skepticism while doing several professional-level magic tricks. He tied skepticism into being aware of how easy it is to be misdirected – as we were misdirected. I liked the premise.
He talked about Ray Comfort, the Cottingley fairies hoax, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Houdini – interesting if well known. I like that he mentioned that he was doing tricks not ‘real’ magic. He also discussed how people don’t necessarily believe that even when told (I know!). I like the comment that skepticism is not synonymous with debunking or asking but why for infinity. It is a process to try to eliminate bias and consider all available information. It should end in a tentative position – including “I don’t know”.
He set aside time for a Q&A at the end of the presentation which created some interesting discussions. Unlike many visitors from the US, he acknowledged he was in Canada and was able to talk within that context. In my experience, this is rare in speakers from the U.S.
I did hang around a bit afterwards and sure enough he came out to chat. He was incredibly relaxed, friendly and genuine. I spoke with him briefly and Hub took a picture for me so there is proof.
I’m still don’t care for magic tricks as an entertainment form, but that is just a personal bias. I definitely enjoyed the evening with Matt Dillahunty. I hope he comes back again.