prominent blog praises Sleights of Mind

Discussions of new films, books, television shows, and media indirectly related to magic and magicians. For example, there may be a book on mnemonics or theatrical technique we should know or at least know about.

Postby MManchester » 02/11/13 07:31 PM

Readers of Genii will know that the book Sleights of Mind was met with objections to the theories advanced by its authors Stephen L Macknick and Susana Martinez-Conde. Richard Kaufman, Richard Wiseman, David Britland and Tom Stone all offered dissenting opinions in Genii in its July and November 2011 issues.

Cory Doctorow, an editor of the popular blog Boing Boing, heaped lavish praise on the book in a post today calling it "a marvellous read, a very well-balanced mix of summaries of published scientific insights into visual and attention systems."

http://boingboing.net/2013/02/11/sleigh ... crets.html

He had mentioned the book the previous day in reference to a video of Apollo Robbins who consulted on the book. I took the opportunity to make a lengthy comment pointing out that not everyone in the magic community agrees with their findings.

http://boingboing.net/2013/02/07/apollo ... ocket.html

It's unclear if Doctorow even read my remarks. He certainly makes no reference to challenges to the authors' claims which is certainly disappointing.
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Postby Richard Kaufman » 02/11/13 07:55 PM

I just posted there as well.
I don't think it's like Roger Ebert's blog, where he actually reads every entry before it's posted.
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Postby Max Maven » 02/11/13 11:12 PM

Richard, in your comment on that blog you state that "most pickpocket acts are fraudulent." That is opposite to my knowledge. Yes, there have been stage pickpockets who have used stooges, but I think they are in the minority.

Ricki Dunn, Gentleman Jack, Borra...
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Postby Richard Kaufman » 02/11/13 11:40 PM

Max, I wished you responded to my emails as quickly as you do to my comments here on the forum!

I'm not a pickpocket, either genuine or fraudulent, but my impression from listen to others is not the same as yours. I have heard that Dunn's act was mostly stooged.
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Postby Max Maven » 02/12/13 03:53 AM

You are completely wrong about Ricki Dunn's act. When he added the shirt pull, he used a stooge, but that was not an essential component of the act. Everything else was legit -- and all done while holding a lemon in one hand!
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Postby r paul wilson » 02/12/13 05:18 AM

I completely agree with Richard's comments on the BB blog.

It's all too easy make claims about a little known subject that holds fascination with the laity. It all seems to make sense to the lay person but I found the claims to be lazy theories backed up by questionable ideas.

The fact they choose to fascinate their readers with our secrets really just pisses me off. They use our proven methods to illustrate and support their naive and assumptive conclusions.

At Magic Con, the authors gave a talk that was filled with material borrowed from numerous sources. All of it interesting but nothing I hadn't seen before or collated myself for presentations with a little help from Google.

It is my understanding that more than a few of the well-known magicians cited in this book are unhappy about their secrets being shared.

The book is the result of what happens when a layperson tries to understand magic using their own experience or field of expertise and the public, mistaking the book as an opportunity to learn our secrets, accepts what is presented without having any reason (or foundation) to question.

It is a perfect example of "in the land of the blind, one eye is king." Naturally, Cory Doctorow likes the book because it feeds his life-long fascination with the subject and presents a logical case but I suspect their science may be just as dubious as their magic.

The very fact they lacked the imagination to construct their own magic-like effects to support their hokum, makes me wonder if the entire book isn't just a Lego-brick house made up of other scientists ideas and popular theories. In my opinion, this is a textbook example of scientists setting out to prove their own preconceptions rather than learn the true nature of the subject they hope to explore.

It's all too easy for outsiders and incompetent insiders (Fooling Houdini) to feed the hunger for information about any subject shrouded in secrecy. If the public wants information, they'll take it wherever they can get it in it's easiest to swallow format.

Sleights Of Mind is a badly built soap-box derby car that's winning the Grand Prix because no one else has turned up for the race (other than Alex Stone in a stolen car that he doesn't know how to drive).

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Postby PapaG » 02/12/13 10:40 AM

Great post Paul.
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Postby MManchester » 02/13/13 04:48 PM

If I didn't know better I'd think there is a relationship between the authors of Sleights of Mind and Boing Boing editors. For the third time in a week the theories discussed in the book have been mentioned, this time by the blog's science columnist.

The linked article, published yesterday, on InsideScience.org also does not question the results. Again, individuals must use the article's comments to point out disputes to the claims that Macknik continues to make. (Note: the Boing Boing editor tags the article as "slight-of-hand")

http://boingboing.net/2013/02/13/the-sc ... magic.html

http://www.insidescience.org/content/an ... ealize/935
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Postby Richard Kaufman » 02/13/13 05:01 PM

The publisher's publicist finds a sympathetic ear, or there is a friend working there.
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Postby R.E.Byrnes » 02/14/13 11:49 AM

Not a great book; not horrendous, either. And I doubt the vast majority of non-magician readers actually retain any of the methods revealed in the book (i.e., competently performed, none of the tricks with methods revealed in the book is diminished because of the book).
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Postby Glenn Bishop » 02/14/13 01:12 PM

Richard Kaufman wrote:I'm not a pickpocket, either genuine or fraudulent, but my impression from listen to others is not the same as yours. I have heard that Dunn's act was mostly stooged.


If I remember right - A stooge is a person that "traveled" with the act and was paid by the performer to act like a member of the audience.

On the occasions that Ricky Dunn did the shirt pull like Blackstone it was just set up ahead of time with a volunteer from the audience. The proper Vaudeville term from my own experience growing up in a house with two old school vaudevillians is the act was "staged" not "stooged" or used stooges.

That is to say the act was "staged" ahead of time.

I have also seen Ricky Dunn do his act without the shirt pull or without being "staged".

Having studied many of the old school pickpocket acts many of them used only one staged volunteer from the audience. And that was often to do only the belt and shirt pull.
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Postby Richard Kaufman » 02/14/13 01:51 PM

I had a long talk with Max Maven last night, who corrected my impression that Ricki Dunn's pickpocketing was stooged. It was not. Obviously a shirt pull must be, but the rest of his act was legit pickpocketing.
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Postby Luigi Anzivino » 02/14/13 04:09 PM

I'm a bit surprised and saddened to see this backlash against the book on this forum and in the comments sections of Boing Boing and other blogs. I think they come across as petty and do magic a disservice.

As an (amateur) magician and a full-fledged (former) neuroscientist, I think the book is not about trying to explain magic through neuroscience, but rather it is about introducing neuroscience concepts to a larger audience using magic as a "hook" and common ground for examples. Most of the concepts discussed in the book are fairly standard textbook principles, nothing that a moderately advanced college-level Principles of Neuroscience class wouldn't teach or at least touch upon. The authors don't claim to have come up with a great unifying theory of how magic works, but rather they are using sleight of hand and psychological principles used by magicians as real-world-relevant examples of neuroscience principles being applied.

There seems to be considerable interest and fascination right now about magic, both as an art form, and as a way to manipulate our perception, attention, and memory (the neuroscience angle). I think the magic community has much more to gain from embracing this attention and grabbing a foothold in people's imagination as a sophisticated collection of techniques, rather than making a fuss about revealing secrets.

I understand that some magicians can't abide any secret being revealed, but in this case it is not the juvenile ego-centrism of the youtube tutorial, but carefully selected techniques (revealed by and with the blessing of big names in magic, I might add) that are revealed in the context of explaining how they reveal the inner workings of our brains.

In my experience, lay people come away from reading this book with a deeper appreciation of both the human brain, and magic as an art form and a craft, and in no way better suited to figure out how the tricks I show them work. They won't be able to deconstruct the workings of a trick, but they will have a sense that magic is more than a cheap gimmick bought at a store and performed the same day, but rather it builds on an intuitive understanding and capacity to manipulate the human psyche.

Why would that be bad for magic?

We spend considerable resources on stage convincing spectators that we are able to do more than we really are, and here come two authors who do such a great job of doing just that for all of us as a category of performers, and we spit on it? Maybe we deserve our spot "just a notch above mimes"... ;)

Respectfully,
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Postby Dustin Stinett » 02/14/13 04:13 PM

Coincidently, while doing some work on the Billy Project last night, I found a clipping from a New Tops magazine. It is an article on Dunn written by Clarke Crandall. Among a list of "pet peeves" of Dunn's was, "critics who accuse him, in print, of using stooges ..." [emphasis mine].

I think the "in print" comment implies that his critics would never address him directly with their opinions.

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Postby Bill Mullins » 02/14/13 07:38 PM

Luigi Anzivino wrote: I understand that some magicians can't abide any secret being revealed, but in this case it is not the juvenile ego-centrism of the youtube tutorial, but carefully selected techniques (revealed by and with the blessing of big names in magic, I might add) that are revealed in the context of explaining how they reveal the inner workings of our brains.

I'm not an absolutist with respect to revelation of secrets. There is a time and a place where it is appropriate, and I can see the argument that an academic discussion may be an appropriate place. I'm not sure that this particular academic discussion is appropriate, however. Two troubling aspects:
1. Macknik and Martinez-Conde are not magicians with track records of respect for the craft. They are neuroscientists, and their interests probably don't align with those of magicians and magic. Decisions they make about whether or not to reveal a particular secret may not be made with magic's best interests in mind, but with the academic (i.e., requirement to publish) interests of the authors foremost. Let's face, people revealing magic's secrets has been a quick and easy attention getter since Reginald Scot (see the Masked Magician, Herbert Becker, and Boing Boing's interest in the subject research).
2. Macknik and Martinez-Conde have, since this area has become their research topic, become members of the Magic Circle, the IBM, the SAM, and the Magic Castle. I believe each of these organizations has as a membership requirement an oath not to reveal magic secrets. I wonder if they joined these organizations, not because the want to become better magicians and become part of the respective fraternities, but rather to enhance their bona fides to lay people, and to get their foot in the door of the community with accelerated access to secrets and magicians. At any rate, the oaths didn't seem to mean much to them.
As far as your statement "revealed by and with the blessing of big names in magic", I'll direct you to Paul Wilson's post above:
It is my understanding that more than a few of the well-known magicians cited in this book are unhappy about their secrets being shared.
Paul is plugged-in enough that his statement raises huge red flags about the situation.
If Mac King, Johnny Thompson, Apollo Robbins, Teller or anyone else who has worked with them is dissatisfied with the experience, they likely would be classy enough to not publicly state so now. But it would be interesting to know for sure.
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Postby Richard Kaufman » 02/14/13 08:12 PM

Our displeasure at Sleights of Mind has nothing to do with the few tricks revealed.

It has to do with the fact that these scientists are imposing nonsense neuroscience "facts" about what we do in a book that laymen who don't know any better will read.

Magic is not about neuroscience. It is about physical and psychological misdirection. Things we can talk about and describe thoroughly without resorting to ridiculous scientific hoo-hah. Occam's Razor puts an end to this silly conversation.
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Postby Luigi Anzivino » 02/14/13 10:39 PM

Richard Kaufman wrote:Our displeasure at Sleights of Mind has nothing to do with the few tricks revealed.

It has to do with the fact that these scientists are imposing nonsense neuroscience "facts" about what we do in a book that laymen who don't know any better will read.

Magic is not about neuroscience. It is about physical and psychological misdirection. Things we can talk about and describe thoroughly without resorting to ridiculous scientific hoo-hah. Occam's Razor puts an end to this silly conversation.


My point, and your post confirms it, is that magicians seem to think that this book is about explaining magic through neuroscience, but it is not. It is about divulging neuroscience theories and scientific findings to the general public using magic as an example and to draw people into an otherwise fairly difficult and remarkably unsexy topic. You might not agree that magic is a good vehicle to convey these sort of concepts, but lots of readers apparently disagree with you. And as I said, I think people who read the book don't walk away thinking they understand how magic works, but they have a deeper appreciation for how complex the human brain is, and as a side benefit they also have a deeper appreciation for magic as an art that taps into that complexity in ways they hadn't considered before.

Why is that bad for magicians? Why wouldn't we use that perception to augment our prestige and frame our performances as more sophisticated than the mere execution of mechanical steps?

Obviously some people's displeasure (like Bill above) is based at least in part on the fact that some secrets are revealed, and I understand the gut reaction of being upset that some of the game has been given away. But I would argue that, based on the recent surge in popular interest in all things magical in the mainstream media, and particularly in the connection between magic and the mind, perhaps opening the veil a tiny bit is not all bad for magic. And let's be honest: if someone wants to find out how a trick is done, all they have to do is look around. This very forum practices open discussion of secret techniques!

I am going to avoid commenting on your use of scare quotes around neuroscience "facts" and the use of the oxymoronic phrase "scientific hoo-hah" because... whaaaa?!
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Postby Richard Kaufman » 02/14/13 11:04 PM

Pseudo-scientific hoo-ha.
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Postby Richard Forster » 02/15/13 09:05 AM

Richard Kaufman wrote:I had a long talk with Max Maven last night, who corrected my impression that Ricki Dunn's pickpocketing was stooged. It was not. Obviously a shirt pull must be, but the rest of his act was legit pickpocketing.


Ricki Dunn's book The Professional Stage Pickpocket has a few pages (p41-45) on the use of confederates. He states at the start of that section "I will admit to their occasional use. Whilst the necessity for using confederates has long since passed, if the need were to arise, whereby it was advantageous to use one, I would do so without hesitation.".
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 02/15/13 10:17 AM

Cory Doctorow, an editor of the popular blog Boing Boing, heaped lavish praise on the book in a post today calling it "a marvellous read, a very well-balanced mix of summaries of published scientific insights into visual and attention systems."


Reads like a sensible assesment of the book. I have read the book. The authors (at least the one with whom I've corresponded) appear to understand that our craft is a part of the performing arts and exercised some discretion when describing methods used - see the ellision on the Nemo 1500 method description for example.

IMHO it's a book which discusses how the way we biologically experience things effects what we percieve of things in context, using magic for both illustrative and entertaining digression purposes.

Not sure what to make of magicians offering themselves as dog and pony shows for science events. Or magicians attempting to discuss the topics of perception, cognition and conviction with audiences.
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Postby r paul wilson » 02/20/13 04:08 AM

The fact that magicians are rejecting this book and its conclusions is easy to explain away with our disdain for exposure and side-step the real issue, as I see it.

The ideas presented as facts to explain how and why magic works seem like nonsense to me and to many whom I respect. This book does not open my eyes other than to roll them towards the back of my head as the authors convince themselves that their notions of science apply to our performances of magic.

I am not an academic and, for many academics, thats enough to dismiss my argument but I am a magician and my many years of experience tells me that most of what is presented as fact (about magic) is naive and unsubstantial so I naturally wonder about the science in the book. I suggest reading Professor Wiseman's article in the July 2011 Genii where he discusses the actual research he is aware of in the field.

I have no personal beef with the authors. They are nice people, for what it's worth, but a frank and honest appraisal of this book, from a magician's perspective, is necessary.

On the subject of exposure, I appreciate the desire laymen have to learn something but it saddens me that the decision of what to share is taken by those who are not invested in the art or have any experience to inform that decision or simply don't care what they give away so long as it furthers their own agenda.

Yes, I call their conclusions about magic into question and, yes, I think I know much more about magic than the authors but I am no scientist so we must rely on others to properly assess every aspect of the book. Exposure is not the issue, the supposed facts (as they pertain to magic) are.

In my opinion the book reads like an attempt to stick the authors preconceived ideas onto an art that is much misunderstood from the outside, probably ignoring actual facts and valuable insight from the inside, which does not fit the authors expectations.

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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 02/20/13 10:42 AM

Perception is not persuasion. And Congition is not the same as conviction.

IMHO magic depends not so much on matters of scientific perception which are addressed by questions of validation ( like "how can one know if x?") and falsification ("how can one know if anything but x?" but instead upon having answers to questions like: "Just how sure are you that they believe that X?" and "How long can you expect that they will not question that X?"

IMHO it's sensible to make a map of our house of deception using the tools and descriptive language of Rhetoric, marking off our map in tried-and-tested enthymemes. Treating these enthymemes as hypotheses may well be feasible and worth investigation.
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 02/20/13 12:02 PM

Hi Monty Hall, I won't switch because the one I already chose is more special to me. ;)
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Postby Michael Kamen » 02/20/13 03:03 PM

I have read the book also. I think it is key that it was not written for magicians. If magicians read it hoping to gain insight into magic craft they will likely be disappointed. It is written as a popular-level exegesis about recent learnings in the field of neuroscience. It is scientific. Most people are familiar with being fooled by magicians, so the examples facilitate understanding by the intended popular audience.

Strange world: Some magicians are also interested in what science can tell us about life, the universe, and everything. Who would have thunk.
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Postby Bill Mullins » 02/20/13 03:46 PM

But the problem lies not just with their book (which is presumably intended for an intelligent, but non-academic, audience). It is also with their academic articles. These articles are filled with the same presuppositions about how magic works, and are just as wrong.

To the extent that these academic articles end up being successful, they will be cited by other scientists who are working in similar areas; thus the errors will propagate.
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Postby Michael Kamen » 02/20/13 04:54 PM

Bill Mullins wrote:But the problem lies not just with their book (which is presumably intended for an intelligent, but non-academic, audience). It is also with their academic articles. These articles are filled with the same presuppositions about how magic works, and are just as wrong.

To the extent that these academic articles end up being successful, they will be cited by other scientists who are working in similar areas; thus the errors will propagate.


Maybe so Bill, but I am not sure I would personally care whether a scientist has a precisely accurate understanding of how magic works in performance or not. I would even suggest that there is no demonstrable harm to magicians in this, but potentially useful benefit to the public in helping them form some kind of mental modelling of how their brains work.
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Postby Edward Pungot » 02/20/13 05:15 PM

There's always Burt Wonderstone to set the record straight.
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 02/20/13 06:14 PM

Is it even in our interests to have an accurate discussion of the mechanics of deception and strategies for refining those mechanics in open published plaintext?
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Postby Bill Mullins » 02/20/13 07:16 PM

Michael Kamen wrote: Maybe so Bill, but I am not sure I would personally care whether a scientist has a precisely accurate understanding of how magic works in performance or not. I would even suggest that there is no demonstrable harm to magicians in this, but potentially useful benefit to the public in helping them form some kind of mental modelling of how their brains work.


How their writings affect magicians is only part of the point. They are wrong (mistaken, perhaps), and that is sufficient reason to be critical of them.

Whether or not laypeople (lay with respect to magic, not science) believe the wrong things about magic is good or bad for magic is a different discussion (but if it is a good thing for magicians, then magicians should probably be writing the story, rather than reacting to what the scientists are saying).
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 02/20/13 08:14 PM

Bill, what purpose would it serve to write and publish that 'story'?
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Postby Michael Kamen » 02/20/13 09:32 PM

Bill Mullins wrote:
Michael Kamen wrote: Maybe so Bill, but I am not sure I would personally care whether a scientist has a precisely accurate understanding of how magic works in performance or not. I would even suggest that there is no demonstrable harm to magicians in this, but potentially useful benefit to the public in helping them form some kind of mental modelling of how their brains work.


How their writings affect magicians is only part of the point. They are wrong (mistaken, perhaps), and that is sufficient reason to be critical of them.

Whether or not laypeople (lay with respect to magic, not science) believe the wrong things about magic is good or bad for magic is a different discussion (but if it is a good thing for magicians, then magicians should probably be writing the story, rather than reacting to what the scientists are saying).


The only thing I want my audience to believe about magic is that it is fake, yet there seems to be no other explanation than "magic." They will come away with that whether or not they read this book. The book explains elements of how the brain processes information. Such an understanding potentially increases the appreciation of magic well done. This book only enhances magic appreciation.
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Postby Brad Henderson » 02/20/13 09:57 PM

except that they are wrong.

If we want someone to appreciate what we do, then we should empower them to be able to appreciate what we actually do.

This is different from supporting or encouraging misinformation which serves no purpose other than to sell books for over zealous writers who desperately want to believe their own hypotheses to the detriment of accurately representing what it is we might want someone to appreciate.
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Postby Michael Kamen » 02/20/13 10:18 PM

Not what we do -- what they do. The predicted appreciation of magic would be incidental, as the book was not written for that purpose. My point is that this should not cause us any concern.
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Postby Bill Mullins » 02/20/13 11:16 PM

The parts of their work that should concern us (as magicians) are those that expose methods and practices that magicians have generally agreed should be kept secret. That is of only passing concern to me -- exposure has always existed, and this is but a drop in that bucket. (although I kind of resent that their membership in organizations I am also a member of may have facilitated that)

The parts of their work that should concern us as sentient, rational beings are those parts that are factually incorrect. As magicians, we are in a unique place to say "That is not how misdirection works, and here is the evidence". We should do so (at least to the extent we can without demeaning magic). That's how the search for knowledge (aka science) is supposed to work.
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Postby Bill Mullins » 02/20/13 11:18 PM

Jonathan Townsend wrote:Bill, what purpose would it serve to write and publish that 'story'?


Some magicians are comfortable using pseudo-science as part of their patter or backstory. If I were one of them, I'd want it to be _my_ pseudo-science, rather than Macknik and Martinez-Conde's.
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Postby Michael Kamen » 02/20/13 11:45 PM

Bill Mullins wrote:The parts of their work that should concern us (as magicians) are those that expose methods and practices that magicians have generally agreed should be kept secret. That is of only passing concern to me -- exposure has always existed, and this is but a drop in that bucket. (although I kind of resent that their membership in organizations I am also a member of may have facilitated that)

The parts of their work that should concern us as sentient, rational beings are those parts that are factually incorrect. As magicians, we are in a unique place to say "That is not how misdirection works, and here is the evidence". We should do so (at least to the extent we can without demeaning magic). That's how the search for knowledge (aka science) is supposed to work.

Since I have already offered my reasoning as to why I think this is not relevant, I will respectfully agree to disagree and look forward to reading all points of view on this interesting topic.
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Postby Luigi Anzivino » 02/21/13 06:46 PM

My thinking is much in line with Michael, so I will also stop reiterating the same argument, except to note that we should set our expectations appropriately with regards to what hard science can successfully "explain". Science in general, and neuroscience in particular, are reductionist by necessity and philosophy, so it is beyond their purview and ability to tackle something as broad as "misdirection" directly.

What neuroscience is a good at is breaking down something as complex as misdirection into putative components, and then tackle each individually. So it might be able to make statements about how our brain deals with, say, switching attentional focus from one stimulus to another; it can make inferences about brain structures involved in that, what toll such a task takes on cognitive loads, maybe which chemicals are released by our neurons when engaged in task-switching, etc. To the extent that we can agree that switching attention between stimuli is a component of misdirection, such studies are relevant to the understanding of how magicians are able to do what they are, but only in the way that having a good grasp of plumbing is relevant to the understanding of how to build Caesar's Palace.

It's easy for a magician to read a neuroscientists perspective and say: "but there is so much more to misdirection and our art!". And there is. I think the current discussion is an interesting reflection on science's failure to adequately communicate what it is and what it isn't concerned with, and which approach it follows...
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 02/21/13 10:59 PM

Luigi Anzivino wrote:...it is beyond their purview and ability to tackle something as broad as "misdirection" directly....


Um... okay I respectfully disagree.
Mundus vult decipi
Jonathan Townsend
 
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Joined: 01/17/08 01:00 PM
Location: Westchester, NY


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