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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

The Sophist and The Magician

Understanding how we can be manipulated helps us pull back the curtain on charlatans and can even protect democracy.

If you locked Harry Houdini in a trunk, he would probably not be able to get out of it. If you sealed Harry Houdini in a milk can and threw it in the water, he would suffocate and die, even though one of Harry Houdini’s signature acts was escaping from a sealed milk can that had been thrown in the water.

This isn’t strange, though. Harry Houdini was known as an “escape artist,” but he was also an illusionist. Part of his act involved really escaping from things—he was great with handcuffs and straitjackets—but part of it involved tricking you into thinking he was doing things that he wasn’t actually doing. The brilliance of Houdini was that he was able to seamlessly mix the things he was really doing with the things he wasn’t in order to give the impression that he was somehow superhuman. 

Houdini in his milk can.

So, for example, Houdini’s “water torture cell” was a stunning feat in which Houdini’s feet were locked in stocks and then he was lowered into a tank of water. A curtain was pulled round, then drawn back, and Houdini had escaped. But the cell was an illusion. A trick. It had been specially built to allow Houdini to escape. In fact, Houdini was perfectly safe. Likewise, his milk can looked like a real milk can, but it wasn’t. It was a specially-designed milk can that could be opened from the inside. Substitute a real one, and he would have been screwed. 

A great deal of Houdini’s art, then, was fakery, pretending to do great escapes. A brewery challenged Houdini to escape from a sealed barrel full of their beer. He did it. But he didn’t. They had collaborated with Houdini to design a trick barrel. It was fantastic P.R. for both the brewery and Houdini. Houdini would often pretend to struggle with something for much longer than it would actually take him to escape it, because the escape itself was easy. While he did, in fact, know how to escape from lots of kinds of handcuffs, sometimes the handcuffs were fake. Sometimes he had tricked the person who had cuffed him into letting him look at the key beforehand, giving them back a fake key and pocketing the real one. It was a mixture of fact and illusion: the straitjacket escapes were real, the product of a great deal of practice. Other escapes were based on concealing critical information from the audience.

There can be a sense of disappointment when we realize that much of what Houdini did wasn’t “real.” But there shouldn’t be. In fact, Houdini was a genius, and his act was brilliant. He was secretly a great inventor who could design all kinds of things that looked inescapable but were actually engineered precisely so they made escaping a cinch. He didn’t want anyone to know he was an inventor, though, because that would have destroyed the whole act. He wanted people to think of him as someone with bizarre, physically impossible powers of escape. 

A magician does things that seem like they cannot be done, that defy our understanding of the rules by which the world operates. This means that the magician’s art involves deceiving people, because obviously whatever they are doing can be done somehow. A magician pulls a rabbit out of an empty hat. Empty hats, by definition, do not contain rabbits, so the magician did not, in fact, pull a rabbit out of an empty hat. Something has happened, then, that we have not noticed. It is not a miracle. It’s a trick. In an important sense, there is no such thing as magic. That is, it is not possible to do the impossible. Only the possible is possible. The magician’s art is making things that are possible look like they’re not. But if the thing you’re seeing is actually clearly impossible, then something must be going on that you don’t understand. 

When you watch an incredibly good magic act, it can feel as if you’ve seen something that literally cannot have happened. Nothing in your understanding of the rules by which the universe operates permits the thing you have seen to be true. For example, here’s magician Eric Chien doing seemingly impossible feats with cards—turning them from red to black, making them disappear and reappear, and even changing the color of his own clothes in an instant. When you discover how it was actually done (there is a YouTube explainer video, though I will not link to it), it goes from seeming impossible to seeming obvious, and you can never see the “magic” again.

This is why magicians are very reluctant to tell anybody who is not an aspiring magician how their tricks are done. The moment you know, the trick is ruined for you. It seems unimpressive (ah, it was just in his jacket). They shouldn’t tell you the answer, because your job is to figure it out yourself, not to cheat. 

But even though there is a certain disenchantment that occurs when you learn the mundane reality of what looked so miraculous, there can be a re-enchantment when you realize everything that has gone into making the trick go right. You start to appreciate the skill and ingenuity that goes with trying to come up with and execute an action that defies human beings’ understandings of the laws of the universe. 

If you learn how a few magic tricks work, and come to appreciate how simply and brilliantly they can fool very smart people, you realize how much at risk we all are of believing things that aren’t true, or being unable to grasp what is going on “behind the curtain.” Each of us sees a small sliver of reality, and from that observed sliver it can be impossible to figure out what it is we’re not seeing. 

Karl Marx said that even ordinary commodities had “magic and necromancy” surrounding them, in part because, as with a magician’s trick, we do not see what is going on under the surface to create the thing we hold in our hands. I do not see the labor that goes into making the items I consume. The wider economy and the conditions under which things are produced are made invisible.

I see “rhetorical magic tricks” occurring all the time, too, the use of the selective presentation of information to convince people that something false is real. I consider PragerU to be master illusionists, for instance, because they carefully conceal and reveal little pieces of information in order to get viewers to believe a totally false picture of the world. They will display a shocking statistic, for instance, and decline to tell you how it was made. If you knew the secret behind the manufacture of the statistic, it would cease to seem impressive, because you’d know exactly how you were being manipulated. 

There are good magicians and there are evil magicians. The good magicians are the ones who tell you they’re putting on a show, and encourage you to think critically and not to believe they have superpowers. Good magicians help debunk the frauds who try actually to actively deceive the public into believing false things—Houdini, James Randi, and Penn & Teller have all been famous “skeptics” who have exposed charlatans who trick people into thinking they’re able to communicate with dead relatives and such. The good magicians teach you how to think critically. 

My friend Katie Fernelius recently wrote an essay about magic for this magazine. Her father is a magician who could “make coins spill out of my ear, produce felt balls under copper cups, teleport a card from the middle of the deck to the top, and tear safety pins through a handkerchief without leaving holes” and Katie talks about what it is like to grow up in that “church of the peculiar” that is a magician’s household. Katie’s article got me watching videos of magicians, particularly the wonderful TV show Penn and Teller: Fool Us, in which some of the world’s best magicians try to stump Penn and Teller—themselves two of the most well-regarded magicians in the world. If Penn and Teller, who between them have over 100 years of experience performing magic, cannot figure out how a trick is done, the magician contestant wins a trophy. The fact that Penn and Teller, who both know as much about magic as you probably can know, are still consistently fooled by other magicians, shows that absolutely nobody is so smart that they can’t be deceived by appearances. 

Like Katie, I quickly became hooked on the show, because you get to try to figure out what is going on and what you’re missing. It’s a bit like a detective show. You watch some astonishing thing, and then spend ages puzzling over how it must somehow make sense. For example, here’s a trick that fooled Penn and Teller, in which the magician swiftly locates a particular packing peanut in a giant crate overflowing with them. The magician himself later revealed the secret of the trick in a YouTube video—or at least part of it. Once you see his explanation, you may smack yourself on the forehead. But before the fact, it’s damn hard to figure out—and extremely fun to try.

Real-life trickery and illusion is not always explained in helpful YouTube videos. It takes a critical intelligence to try to unravel how the appearance of things differs from the reality of things. Watching videos of magic tricks, I thought about Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump, all of whom succeeded in convincing audiences to believe in an image of themselves far different from the reality. There are indeed “magic words” that can be used to manipulate perception. 

And oftentimes to win us to our harm
The instruments of darkness tell us truths
Win us with honest trifles, to betray us
In deepest consequence—
— Shakespeare, Macbeth

Have you ever heard of “paltering”? It means lying with facts. That is: no fact you have presented is false, but you are still lying. At first, it can be difficult to grasp how this is possible. A fact is, by definition, true. A lie is, by definition, false. So if everything you’ve said has been true, how can it also be false? Surely this is a paradox. 

It’s not a paradox. I’ve written before about how Alan Dershowitz does it. He will report one true fact, but leave out another critically important fact that provides important context. (For example, reporting on violence by Palestinians without discussing its motivation or what it arises in response to.) The most skilled “palterer” in the world is probably Bjorn Lomborg, who writes books of climate change skepticism that use real facts but presents them incredibly selectively in order to present a false picture of environmental reality. It’s very deft, and it drives scientists nuts, because you have to be pretty well-educated in the subject matter to actually notice how the trickery is being done. 

We know how omissions can mislead. Consider the following exchange:


Are you rich? 


I do not consider myself rich. I do not own a home. I do not own a car. I have given 90 percent of what I earned away. I still eat egg McMuffins for breakfast. I still own the same pair of blue jeans I had in high school. Certainly, I have spiritual wealth. In that sense, I am rich.

Every fact in the statement is perhaps true, but the person answering might still be a multi-billionaire. I recently interviewed former health insurance industry executive Wendell Potter, who described the ways that his industry’s P.R. flaks would carefully massage the truth, so that they were never lying in the most literal, technical sense but were fundamentally deceiving people about the nature of health care systems. 

This is one reason why, when people like Dershowitz say, “I challenge you to find a single false fact in what I have said,” it means nothing. You can simply pluck out the facts that favor your conclusion and leave out the ones that disfavor it, and every fact is true even though the conclusion is false. It’s magic! 

I performed the first actual magic trick of my life recently. As a child, at one point I had been given a magic kit, but I hated it. I was impatient and didn’t think anyone would be fooled and knew I wasn’t quick or dextrous enough to do any “sleight of hand.” This time I picked a trick that didn’t involve any technical skill on the part of the performer; you just had to set it up correctly and follow the steps exactly. (It helps to be good at bullshitting a covering story, which fortunately is a skill of mine.) And it worked: the person I did it for was impressed and didn’t know how I did it. 

I was elated, of course, because I never thought I could do a magic trick, and realizing you’ve been able to disguise reality from someone gives you an incredible sense of power. But it’s also a little disturbing, because you know that you were able to successfully conceal the truth and that even intelligent people might not be able to know how you did it. 

I felt the same often in law school. I came to see how a good sophist could produce arguments that looked extremely persuasive even though they were ultimately totally wrong. As someone who has studied arguments and knows how the tricks work, I could see how people were being manipulated, but it’s often hard to spot the deceptions without experience. I’m consistently impressed when I read books by people like Dinesh D’Souza at how deftly they produce pseudo-logic that can seem sensible but isn’t at all. It’s scary to realize that without a citizenry that has cultivated its critical faculties and developed a cautious skepticism toward the claims of pundits and politicians, ill-intentioned people may manage to make the destruction of democracy (or even humanity itself) look reasonable.

Learn to analyze magicians’ tricks then. In the case of stage magic, don’t spoil the fun by looking up the techniques, unless you want to try them on someone yourself. But every person should at the very least develop an awareness of how easy it is to be fooled and how what we see before our eyes may be nothing but an illusion.

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