Look, Ma, I’ve Got Superpowers!

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Recently, I was introduced to the wonderful work of three magicians: Penn & Teller, James Randi, and Derren Brown. The interesting thing is that all of them are agnostic / atheist. Now, while I normally try not to care about someone’s spirituality, the fact that they were all also magicians lent an interesting bent to the way they expressed their skepticism.

Penn & Teller had a segment called ‘Bullshit’ where he would disassemble what they brand as bullshit beliefs. Penn, being the only speaking person in their shows, is very outspoken and has a broad view on many issues such as freedom of speech, alternative medicine, and alien abduction. They also did what many magicians do not do, in that they revealed how magic tricks were done while performing a show.

James Randi has a standing offer of US$1,000,000 to anyone who can prove, under mutually agreed conditions, to display some form of paranormal power. He has had it up for so long that he is now retiring the challenge, so that the money may be used for more useful endeavours. Says a lot, doesn’t it?  He has debunked various mediums and psychics on his shows, and I recall a lot of drama involving high-profile ‘psychics’ such as Uri Geller (the famous Israeli spoon-bender), Allison DuBois (yes, the one who inspired the show ‘Medium’), and Sylvia Browne. Sometimes people accuse him of being particularly harsh on them but I have no complaints. After all, if someone grieving comes to you and you take their money by way of being a charlatan, you deserve all the scorn you get.

Finally (and this is my favourite entertainer), Derren Brown. He does not only know the inner workings behind all the paranormal bullshit, he reproduces them while telling us, the viewer, that it is all tricks and zero super powers. With psychology, cold reading, hypnosis, and a whole host of other skillsets, he does many things, from making a person lose sensation in their limbs, to holding a seance with a dead woman (who is actually alive), to hypnotically teaching a girl how to play masterfully at a piano recital without practising the piano. In one of his shows, he pretty much convinces paranormal practitioners that he, too, has a gift. One of my favourite parts was when he authentically reproduced the Christian ‘experience’ of what is termed ‘being slain in the Spirit’ (popularized by people like Benny Hinn), where Christians keel over backwards after being prayed for.

The moment I saw that clip, my delusions of spirituality left me.

In respective order, observe how each skeptic debunked the supernatural, in increasing order of persuasiveness:

  • By telling people about it (Penn & Teller)
  • By demonstrating that they are lies (James)
  • By imitating them perfectly, as to be indistinguishable from the ‘real thing’ (Derren)

To me, Derren’s method was by far the most effective method. He claims on his programs that he does not use actors or stooges. Assuming this is true (and it is imperative that it is), you will realize that he explains how people tend to have different levels of ‘suggestibility’. This simply is a way to describe how prone a person is to believe something that is said of him or her, consciously or unconsciously. This includes things we believe in or say to ourselves. Some argue that hypnosis is nothing but a ‘heightened state of suggestibility’, and having seen a few sessions of hypnosis it certainly seems that way. Hypnosis always works by ensuring the subject is calm, relaxed, and in a generally positive and open state of mind. Sounds a bit like the end of worship sessions in church, when people are most open to suggestions, eh?

Am I saying that you get hypnotized in church every week? Well, no. At least, not yet. What I am saying, though, is that if a magician can openly reproduce these ‘experiences’ to the point where no one can tell he is lying, who’s to say the evangelist is really calling on God, instead of playing your natural suggestibility against you?

Now if you say, “It sounds too out there, man. What are you smoking?”, I don’t blame you. It does sound very far out, and my own skepticism makes me view this with a grain of salt. How much is real (Derren’s actual abilities), and how much is reel (showmanship and camera work)? That’s an exercise I’ll leave to your own judgment.

The shows do mention, though, that he basically finds the person who is most susceptible to suggestion (or, the sucker who will fall for anything) for these things to work. I suppose once you reach a particular capacity for self-delusion, reality can quite literally bend in ways it was not supposed to.

And with that, I’ll leave you with a little gift.


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