In the mid-1970s, physicists Russell Targ and Harold Puthoff experimented with people who exhibited psychic powers: remote vision, premonitions, movement of objects at a distance. Magazine
Nature He accepted the article describing the studies, which was reproduced by the newspapers of the time. But, over time, these results were discredited and what could have been a historical discovery for science remained in a minor anecdote. What happened?
The most comfortable explanation is fraud. Targ and Puthoff, hungry for notoriety, would have fooled the academy with fake experiments. But these two Stanford physicists already had a good reputation before looking for people who dubbed teaspoons with their minds. A second possibility was a misinterpretation of the statistics obtained, taking a random result as real. But, again, how is it possible that so many referees ignored it? Who finally came up with the solution to the puzzle was the less thought scientist or, more precisely, a non-scientist. World famous wizard James "the wonderful" Randi claimed that scientists were being deceived by illusion techniques. Scientists are not trained to detect them not only because they ignore the technique, but because of the overconfidence bias of their training as scientists. Therefore, the works of Targ and Puthoff had been accepted by the academy.
Randi was not just a magician (he prefers the title of "prestidigitator"); His great passion was to discard those who claimed to have powers that defied the laws of physics. Founder of skepticism in the United States, he revealed all kinds of fraud, a practice that Raúl Portal adopted in these lands in the 90s, exposing the "manochantas" of the time.
Flim-Flam! Randi dedicates a chapter to the Targ-Puthoff case, where he calls them "the Laurels and Hardies of psyche" and then, a book exposing nothing less than the Israeli international star Uri Geller, famous in the 70s for twisting metals just by looking at them. But Randi's theory of reporting fraud has a limitation. A wizard should not publicly reveal another wizard's trick! The living used this alibi so they would not get into their business, but Randi resolved this dilemma by appearing on TV next to the impostor on duty, promising to achieve the same effect and clarifying that it was an illusion. In some case of maximum ingenuity, the driver refused to recognize the trick and claimed that Randi also exhibited powers.
While certain illusions use technology, most acts require subtle deception. To fold a spoon, just take it in the middle with your thumb and forefinger and shake it gently … our mind will do the rest. The magicians used psychological failures hundreds of years before scientists discovered them, and while they ignore the theory, their success encouraged scientists to consult them to better understand the human mind and behavior. The most active researcher is Susana Martínez-Conde, who worked with the collaboration of leading magicians, including Randi himself and Teller, the silent companion of Penn Jillette, of the Penn and Teller duo.
A well-used human limitation is the impossibility of paying attention to the environment. The magician distracts at the right time and makes his "magic pass", undetectable even in plain sight. One of the most amazing acts of a show is stealing from the viewer. Cell phones, wallets and watches are stolen without the slightest suspicion and returned at the end. Ah! One recommendation: never bet against a wizard to the mosqueta, that game where you must guess under which of three beakers lives a ball.
Andrés Rieznik is aware of the relationship between magic, science and bias. In his wonderful book
Neuromagia analyzes the brain activity of the public who attends tricks that violate physical laws.
Regarding the biases, Rieznik points out that the esoteric thinking of a certain audience is ideal to create atmospheres of intrigue and sensitivity during the magical act, although it also allows to take advantage of the gullible. "Magic is an ancient art that evolved from the techniques of tahúres, scammers and charlatans. Luckily, modern artists use it to entertain," explains the physicist and magician. For Rieznik, magic is not just wonder, but live art. "The public enjoys learning novel ideas. And there is also room for emotion, as in those games in which improbable coincidences resemble the encounter between soulmates."
Another Argentine magician who flirts with science is Maximiliano Giaconia, an illusionist and professional mentalist, who investigated the relationship between magic and mind in the Neuroscience Laboratory of the Di Tella University. For him, to thoroughly experience the art of amazement requires an adult and educated audience.
"In order for the viewer to be amazed by magic, in the first instance he has to do an intellectual process. Only after that comes the emotional impact," he clarifies. "The illusionists exploit cognitive biases, manipulate memory and attention and anticipate behavior in certain situations. We also induce to make certain decisions. " These procedures are not always linear: "many games require the illusionist to choose paths and decide at the moment the best alternatives. There unexpected miracles arise, which people then interpret as planned. It is a kind of result bias, the viewer judges decisions of the artist based on the final result ".
Wizards also exploit confirmation bias. Several men attend the show determined to "discover the tricks." Paradoxically, with them the illusionists shine, giving false clues to confirm prejudices and adding failures on purpose to excite those who expect a failure. After several threats, the surprise multiplies and the skeptics are speechless. There is also a role for memory holes, which assures us that we have seen miracles that never happened. And there are those who assign miracles to virtue: the magician points to a single card turned in the deck, and when the three of hearts chosen by the lady is revealed, she will not stop thinking that the magician caught her personal psychology.
The relationship between magic and economy is empathetic. After so many years assuming rationality, economist viewers can convince themselves of their immunity to tricks. Their presence in the public is noticeable when they ask the magician to "produce dollars" for a country that needs them so much. Prepared for the occasion, the artist usually grants the wish by making tickets appear and disappear as if it were a tense day in the city.
Illusions have their peak in finance, where gurus are considered magicians. Promises of quick profits abound in this area that take advantage of the biases of naive investors, who buy the same mailboxes over and over again. The most famous of the 30s was Carlo Ponzi, while 70 years later, Bernard Madoff became rich with an almost identical scheme. But the best illusionists are successful citizens, which society qualifies as enlightened when much of its brightness is due to mere luck. James Randi, 91 years old in tow, may be old to unmask those idols and put them in their place.