Posts Tagged ‘magic’

Revisiting some of Jim Butcher’s rather fun Dresden Files books has made me realise something that’s always bothered me about urban fantasy fiction:

In most fictional worlds where vampires, werewolves, and the like really do exist, most people’s attitudes towards them are exactly the same as in the world where they don’t exist.

That is, this world.

I should perhaps define some terms before getting into this. By “urban fantasy”, I mean stories which are essentially set in the real world, but with a certain fantasy twist. So, we’re not talking Middle Earth here: The Dresden Files are set in Chicago, Sunnydale is fictional but could be any regular town in California, that sort of thing.

There are important and obvious differences between these two tropes. In a completely fictional realm, living with orcs and elves and dwarves is the norm for your characters; with urban fantasy, the protagonist might be one of very few who can give you a glimpse of the magical aspects of your own world.

This isn’t always how it works – there are plenty of stories which take place in a slight variant on our planet, where most geography and history and culture are the same, but some aspect of fantasy has become mainstream, and witches in London are now as populous as hobbits in the Shire. But, in my experience with the genre at least, this is less common.

Most regular people Harry Dresden meets in Chicago thinks he’s crazy for advertising his professional services as a wizard. Awareness of Buffy’s vampire-slaying seems limited to a very exclusive clique, outside of which nobody seems to notice or believe in any of it.

Here’s the thing, though: In the real world, the majority react this way for a very good reason. In this world, if you meet someone who claims to be an actual wizard or to slay vampires, you’d have to be reasoning extremely poorly if you took them wholly at their word.

But in the world of urban fantasy fiction, there really are vampires and wizards and magic.

So why are there still skeptics?

Or perhaps I mean: why is the skeptical position so often depicted almost identically, when you’ve completely changed a crucial aspect of the context – namely, the actual evidence of the phenomenon in question?

The role vampires play in the lore of our world is pretty much exactly what you’d expect to see if vampires weren’t real. If they were really out there, they’d have had a much more significant impact. There ought to be numerous verifiable reports. They shouldn’t be such an elusive unknown quantity if they were real. It’d be like trying to pass off wasps as just an urban legend.

Harry Dresden conjures fire from the air at a single word of command. He summons the wind to do his bidding. He deflects machine-gun bullets with a magical shield. He’s a genuine, powerful wizard. Why is he still having trouble convincing anyone?

I don’t remember if Buffy ever really dealt with the skepticism thing. She knows damn well there are vampires. Most other people don’t, but they tend to come around to the idea pretty quickly when presented with evidence, often in the form of a set of fangs plunging toward their neck.

This is something I’m really struggling with in the urban fantasy novel I’m trying to write my second draft of at the moment. At first I just ignored it, and assumed as cavalierly as many authors do that all the magic and undead creatures wandering around have just been flying under the entire world’s radar for a few centuries. But the basic implausibility of that idea is probably going to be too much for me to comfortably ignore. I’m going to have to find some way to integrate the supernatural into the world at large, or explain its general absence. It’d probably still work as a story if I didn’t, and it wouldn’t bother too many people, but it’ll bug the crap out of me.

I don’t really have an end to this post, so I’m just going to stop abruptly in the mi

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Here’s a video that’s kinda fun if you know what’s going on:



Maybe I should explain what’s going on.

Penn & Teller do a regular magic show in Las Vegas, several times a week, and have been doing so for years now. The show changes constantly, with some tricks being retired once they’ve had their time, and new ones being introduced. About a year ago, they started doing a trick where Teller escapes from a bag of helium.

At one point in the trick, for reasons perhaps best known to himself, Penn takes a photograph of the audience. The above video is a collage of all the photos of every Vegas audience they’ve played to, for the twelve months they’ve been doing this trick.

I saw this a couple of weeks ago, I think because Penn posted a link to it on Twitter. Like just about everyone in the comments thread, I wondered if I’d be able to see myself in there. I’ve never been to Vegas, but I saw P&T at the Hammersmith Apollo when they were briefly in London last October, and I’d seen it happen there. I watched the video, looking out for a different theatre appearing at some point near the beginning of the run.

After a little while, though, I thought to myself… Wait… Did I see them do the helium bag thing at the Hammersmith show?

I was definitely at one of their recent live shows at the Apollo. I’ve definitely heard Penn talk about the helium trick a lot, and I’ve definitely seen it on TV… but am I sure I’m not conflating these different events and remembering something which didn’t actually happen?

Going solely by my memory, I genuinely can’t tell.

At first glance, the memory of seeing the trick happen live, in a theatre, right in front of me, appears to reside in my brain. But I don’t feel like I can extrapolate from that to say that it definitely happened.

One thing I can do, though, is to check some other sources, and measure those against what I seem to remember, to see how plausible it is. A quick check of this very blog finds me reporting on seeing the show last July, not October, so already I’m getting things wrong. And if it was July when I saw them, then surely that was before they’d finished working on the trick and had ever performed it publicly.

Furthermore, their Wikipedia page states:

The duo had hoped to put the trick in their mini-tour in London; however, it was first shown to the public in their Las Vegas show on 18 August 2010.

If that doesn’t count as proof positive that my brain is screwy, I don’t know what does. Your memory of what happened is just one piece of data among many when trying to determine the truth.

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Greetings, people of Earth. I am no longer in Scotland.

Posting is still going to be a bit irregular for a while, but there’s a lot to discuss when I find the time. Here’s Richard Dawkins talking about magic.



The title of his new book, The Magic Of Reality, is an excellent summation of an approach that deserves to be pushed more by skeptics, scientists, atheists, and reality-based thinkers generally. It’s an important myth to bust, that of the skeptic as the humourless spoiler of all things fun. We might insist on pointing out the non-existence of things which don’t exist, but there’s so much that’s really going on in the world, which is thrilling for all the same reasons.

In the above video, he’s discussing what he means by the word “magic”, by breaking it down into three separate categories of event to which the word usually refers. Because of how I’m such a wild and unrestrained free spirit, I’m going to characterise his point as outlined in the title of this post.

Harry Potter. Actual witches and wizards doing actual spells, subverting natural laws and invoking supernatural forces. This kind of magic doesn’t exist. (Boo, party-pooper, etc.) If it did, it would be fascinating – but mostly in the context of a rigorous scientific study of it. Everyone would be dying to know how it works. What are the factors that affect how the magic actually functions? Can certain potion ingredients be substituted while maintaining the effect? Do you get more power if you shout the magic words louder?

Fiction can explore hundreds of questions like this in fascinating detail, and weave wonderful worlds around such ideas. I don’t know of any skeptics who are against the idea of enjoying made-up stories. But they are made-up.

Paul Daniels. Tricks, conjuring, illusions. Stage magic. Rabbits out of hats, coins behind ears. It clearly exists, but only creates a fa├žade of the Harry Potter kind of magic by means of deception. This can also be very entertaining and uncontroversial, so long as you don’t get the two kinds confused. You don’t have to believe that David Copperfield can really fly in order to have a good time being fooled.

Scotland. It might not seem obvious why I’m bringing this up for the third example. But have a look at this.

I’ve just spent a week on the Isle of Skye, looking at stuff like that.

Now, I’m sure you’re all worldly people. You’re more well travelled than me, and have no doubt basked personally in such glorious vistas that my holiday snaps seem dull and meagre. But I’d never been before, so let me revel a bit.

The point is, there are things in the world which can be experienced, and which are just amazing. Scotland is gorgeous, and you don’t need to sit through my slide show to remember or imagine views of the world that fill you with awe and which are worth trekking across the globe to experience.

That right there is the magic of reality.

And one of many reasons why it’s superior to Expecto Patronum is that there are extra layers of wonder beneath the experience itself. There are some views of nature which people almost universally find pleasing to look at – and science can tell us why.

With reality, you get to delve further and find out about things like the evolutionary pressures that have led our species to feel a sense of pleasure or comfort from the presence of bodies of water, which historically has been a positive sign for our survival. You get to find out so much about what’s going on in the magical world around you, and so much of it is truly extraordinary.

…This totally isn’t just a post about how amazing and life-changing my trip to a secluded and unblemished part of the countryside was. It’s totally not. I’m making a serious point here. Shut up.

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I realised, sitting in the fourth row of the Hammersmith Apollo on Friday night, that I’m basically the ideal Penn & Teller audience member.

I’m predisposed to like them and enjoy their company a great deal, which helps, but that’s not what I’m getting at. I mean in my approach to watching the magic they do – and I suspect I’m far from alone here – I have what must be close to the perfect attitude to maximise my admiration of their performance.

What I mean is: I’m just smart enough to be really stupid.

Or, I’m just stupid enough to think I’m being smart.

Or something.

I have just enough superficial, surface-level understanding of magic, and deception, and of Penn & Teller’s usual way of doing things, that I briefly delude myself that I can watch out for the clever tricks, the subtle palms and whatnot they must be doing to make something appear where it wasn’t. I think I know misdirection when I see it, so I peer carefully at the other hand and keep my eagle eyes peeled for any tiny hints of subterfuge.

In other words, I am precisely the right kind of idiot. I think I’m watching out for the right things and will have some idea where they’re going and what they’re about to pull. And they still fool me and produce some grand last-minute flourish out of nowhere, that I could never see coming even after it’s happened. Every. Damn. Time.

And obviously they’re going to fool me every damn time. They’ve been doing this for decades, and what the fuck do I know?

It’s a wonderful performance, and I can’t really think of anyone for whom I wouldn’t recommend it. You may have missed your chance in London this time (though, as I type this, there are still tickets available for tonight’s final show (and there was at least one tout outside the theatre when I went)), but if you ever find yourselves in the same city as them when they’re performing in future, go.

If you like magic, go. If you like comedy, go. If you like entertainment, go. If you like joy, go. Just go.

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Yes, I’m still moaning about the lack of time I find to get anything done. Couple of quick links.

James Randi on Uri Geller, summing things up nicely. The guy’s made a decades-long career out of convincing people that he does real, genuine, no-foolin’ magic using psychic alien powers and no trickery whatever. If he’s now claiming to be an illusionist relying on natural means, he’s a disingenuous twat. Randi put it more eloquently.

And when I go home for Christmas, I’m going to have to remember to try out at least some of Richard Wiseman’s quirky science tricks.

And that’s everything that happened today.

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I used to believe in some wacky stuff.

It didn’t seem all that wacky at the time, of course. When I first started taking an interest in the stuff I was reading online, about people’s religious experiences and psychics and mind readers and dowsing and so on, it sounded fascinating, and wasn’t obviously bullshit at all. I guess I tend to think about things a bit differently now, or maybe there are just more things that I’ve learnt aren’t real in the intervening years.

Anyway, there was a lot of stuff about dowsing that caught my eye, and made it seem like an accessible skill. There was reams of advice and personal experiences people wanted to share, and it sounded like you didn’t need to be whisked away from your cupboard under the stairs to a wizards’ school by a hairy giant in order to be a part of it. It sounded like anyone could join in, and learn to access some spiritual dimension which could provide insight and knowledge from beyond this world.

So I bought a crystal pendulum from a new age shop.

It feels so weird typing that sentence now.

It was cheap, but kinda pretty, and looked a lot like this quartz one. The idea, as described on that page, is to clear your mind and mentally ask a series of yes/no questions, while letting the pendulum hang loosely from your fingers. There are various ways the pendulum might swing – circular motions, clockwise or anticlockwise, back and forth, diagonally – and you can calibrate it with some control questions.

I don’t remember exactly how it went when I tried it, but it would have been something like: “Is my name James?” – and I saw it swing forward and back, so I knew that meant yes. “Is today Wednesday?” – another yes, with the same swinging motion. “Is there a dragon in my room?” – and it swung side to side, meaning no.

This was really exciting.

So I decided to test it out properly, and see if I could find out something that I didn’t know, and prove that I was really tapping into some amazing psychic source of power.

I think this is the point where my strategy departed from that of a lot of new age fans.

I got a deck of playing cards and placed one face down in front of me. I didn’t know what card it was, but I held the pendulum over it, and asked yes/no questions to narrow it down. “Is it black?” – no. “Is it red?” – yes. “Is it a picture card?” – no. And so on.

Eventually I narrowed it down to “Is it the five of diamonds?” and got a yes. It had given me a definite answer to everything I asked. It had never contradicted itself. I’d started with absolutely no knowledge or assumptions or preconceptions about the card in front of me, and my pendulum had honed directly in on its identity as the five of diamonds.

I still remember the fluttering in my chest – half excitement and half genuine fear – in the second or two before I turned over the king of clubs.

Aw, crap.

It turns out that there’s a bunch of reasons why people believe in this kind of thing, and post articles to the internet about their powerfully moving personal experiences with it. And these reasons don’t require magic to actually be real.

When I first started looking into it, it didn’t require any particular daftness on my part to take it seriously – it just seemed to be a part of the world. A somewhat secretive, not generally known, exclusive part, but that just made it all the more fun. At the depth at which I explored it at the time, I didn’t find any good reason to suppose that it was all completely fictitious. People were taking it for granted, writing detailed accounts of their achievements, and beginners’ guides to the basic techniques.

But once you start thinking about it more critically, you realise that magic powers aren’t the only explanation. They’re not the best explanation. In fact, they’re not even a very good explanation.

Some people are very keen to find evidence that supports the idea that their dangling crystal can tell them things – so confirmation bias plays a big part in explaining why it’s so widely believed, as well as a host of other logical fallacies. But the ideomotor effect is one of the most persuasive aspects if you don’t know what it is. And it’s the one I’m supposed to be talking about here.

When I was asking myself those questions, I really was trying to hold the pendulum as still as possible. I know I wasn’t deliberately swinging it around to make myself seem like an amazing wizard (“Look, it knows my name!!”), but it’s worth asking: how good am I at holding my hand perfectly still? When I look closely at my outstretched digits as I try to remain motionless, I seem surprisingly wobbly. If I’m going to hold something on a thin and flexible cord or chain, it seems likely that my natural shakiness is going to have some effect.

And it turns out that the pendulum picks up more than just a general jiggle from my unsteady muscles. Let’s say I know a forward-swing means yes, because of my first test question. If I then ask something else which I know, or expect, has the answer yes, then on some level of consciousness I’m going to be imagining getting a forward-swing answer from the pendulum. My hand will then actually twitch, without my being aware of it, to make the pendulum swing forward.

The mental processes to do this can really happen inside your head, without the part where you’re conscious of it. It “bypasses volition”, to be a bit technical (volition being your capacity to do something by your own will).

You can try it easily yourself with any weight on some sort of dangling cord. I’m trying it now with one of the earphones from my mp3 player on its lead, and it’s still quite odd to see. I concentrate on a clockwise spinning motion, and it starts spinning clockwise, even though I’m still trying to hold it as steady as I can.

If you’re thinking that this might be evidence that I was secretly psychic all along, you’re still leaping to a more complicated explanation than is necessary. If I’m not directly touching the cord, or holding it in such a way that my hand movements won’t affect its swing, then it doesn’t respond in the same way. It only moves like this when I have the capacity to be swinging it around unconsciously. The best explanation is that I’m simply moving my hand.

There’s also a common hypnotic trick, where you’re asked to close your eyes and stick your arms out, then vividly imagine a heavy weight in one hand pulling it down, and a balloon tied to the other pulling it up. You focus on the respective feelings of pressure and lightness for a while, and if you’re anything like me, after a couple of minutes you open your eyes and find that you’ve lifted and lowered your hands accordingly by several inches, without being aware of doing it.

The point is, your mind’s good at doing stuff like this without telling you about it.

Now, this doesn’t mean that nobody can dowse anything, or that we’ve proved that Ouija boards are universally a load of crap (yes, the people are just pushing the glass around even if they don’t realise it). But it reminds us the importance of asking the question “Is there a simpler, less Harry Potter explanation?” when we see something we think might be magic.

If I was doing actual magic over my playing card that time, then my skills make Neville Longbottom look like Gandalf. I must really suck at magic. I didn’t even get close to getting the card right. Magic just isn’t a good enough explanation for what happened there. But the idea that my hand wasn’t perfectly still, and made the pendulum swing a little by entirely natural means? Yep, that fits.

But what if I had got it right? What if I had no way of knowing what card I was staring at the back of, and wasn’t being provided the information by any means except the pendulum, and I actually got it right? And it kept happening, consistently?

Well, the ideomotor effect wouldn’t cover that. And I’d be a millionaire.

But it does cover, y’know, every case that’s ever been examined of any kind of dowsing ever. Except the ones that are outright fraud, where there’s conscious deception taking place. But there really doesn’t need to be any malice or dishonesty for people to make magical claims that aren’t based in reality. If you don’t know what the ideomotor effect is, and maybe don’t test out your new idea all that rigorously, and kinda let slide the few occasions where it doesn’t work… then I can imagine this being pretty convincing.

People who do things like dowsing aren’t being stupid or evil. But they are claiming that they can do magic, and it’s a big ask that we should take that at face value without daring to question it any further, even if we don’t doubt their sincerity. It’s the kind of massive claim that we should probably, y’know, check.

And, unfortunately for any aspiring Weasleys out there, natural phenomena like the ideomotor effect provide a better explanation for every instance of “magic” that’s yet been observed. They account perfectly for what’s going on, but the magical explanation fails to explain why the effect always vanishes when studied closely. It just doesn’t work. The five of diamonds was not my card.

Sorry, Hermione. Muggles win.

A more academic and less chatty approach to this topic can be found at The Skeptic’s Dictionary, RationalWiki, SkepticWiki, and all over the place really. Barrett Dorko and Ray Hyman, among others, have written rather more scientifically rigorous documents about the ideomotor effect in action, with examples of experiments in which it’s been seen.

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There are two methods you can use to bend spoons. (They both work just as well on forks, keys, and a variety of other objects, usually small and metallic. Spoons are traditional.)

The first one is to be psychic and use your magic psychic powers. Much distorted cutlery has been presented as the result of claimed paranormal abilities. Uri Geller, for example, has made a decades-long career out of doing almost literally nothing else. You can just tap into some strange cosmic energy, and alter the state of matter through the sheer force of your will, according to your desires. You can harness this inexplicable artefact of nature, a phenomenon as yet unexplained by science, the potential of which has ramifications beyond imagining for the socio-economic development of our species, and use it to make your kitchenware go a bit wonky.

That’s one way.

The other way is to just hold a spoon and bend it. Using your hands.

The second way is much easier.

But, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, simply using obvious brute force renders the whole activity rather pointless. Because this method is so easy, it’s also deeply unimpressive. Anyone can bend a spoon, after all – but it takes someone quite special to be able to bend a spoon with only the power of their mind.

Which leads us to a question brimming with potential and overflowing with possibilities. Suppose you used the second method of bending a spoon, and just brought your arm muscles into play to give it a bit of a twist, but then – and this is the clever bit – you use some cunning misdirection of some sort, and dress it up as an example of the first method, to make it look like you’re demonstrating psychic powers.

Now wouldn’t that just be a thing.

I’d be surprised if nobody’s thought of this before.

Now, don’t get flustered before I’ve even said anything controversial. All I’m asking you to accept at this point is the simple fact that bending a small metal spoon with your hands is entirely possible, and so is inaccurately claiming that you were using psychic powers to do it. Look, here’s Hugh Laurie doing exactly that:

I’m pretty sure I could do that too, by just bending some spoons and going “Ta-da!” But that doesn’t really prove anything. The above demonstration is, obviously, part of a comedy sketch, and it’s funny because it would only bamboozle a stupid person. It seems fair to ask: could a better version of a similar trick be performed, so that non-idiots would be taken in by it?

Well, I’m going to suggest that it could. And I don’t think this is very controversial, either. If you’re going to disagree at this stage, and argue that nobody possessing the wherewithal not to drool all over themselves could ever possibly be fooled by some sort of trick, and persuaded that a bent spoon hadn’t simply been bent by physical force alone… well, good luck with that in a world where people who still think wrestling is real manage to get dressed in the mornings without help. People are always getting taken in by fake stuff, even intelligent people. If you’re a trusting person, and inclined to believe in psychic powers already, then it doesn’t seem implausible that someone might, in theory, be able to trick you.

For instance, take a look at this guy bending spoons:

That’s Michael Shermer, and he’s definitely using the second method to do it. He’s a skeptic, and he openly admits that he’s doing tricks. But he makes it look pretty good, doesn’t he? If he were to tell you he was using psychic powers, you wouldn’t have to be a complete idiot to believe him. It certainly doesn’t look like he’s just bending things with his hands, at any rate. It looks a lot like things look when people claim to be using the first method, and demonstrating real paranormal abilities.

Even if you think that Shermer’s demonstration isn’t quite as convincing as someone you’ve seen who claims to be genuinely using the first method (the fork thing isn’t all that subtle, for instance), it still seems possible that someone with their mental faculties grossly intact could still be fooled. If Shermer were unscrupulous enough to attach grandiose claims of psychic mastery to his techniques, and maybe hammed up the performance a bit, it could be moderately persuasive. The kind of people who might find it plausible wouldn’t have to be stupid or clueless at all, just like Uri Geller’s millions of fans aren’t all dribbling idiots. A lot of them are adequately functioning members of society.

A number of tricksters like Shermer are out there, bending spoons through non-magical means, and can be found all over YouTube. Many of them take the approach of confessedly bending spoons by the second method alone, and inviting us to marvel at how this can be made to look like the first method. Others will also show us the secrets behind the tricks they’re using, and give an even greater insight into how the effects of the first method can be simulated.

In short, if you put on an act just like these guys show you, you can make it look a lot like you have psychic powers. And not just to stupid people.

All the second method boils down to is “bend the spoon with your hands”, but disguising what you’re doing is where the interesting skills lie. For one thing, it’s important that people aren’t watching your hands too closely while you’re just exerting brute force. Cause a distraction, divert people with some attention-grabbing patter, move your hands somewhere out of sight, point at something else – anything that’ll give you a brief moment where you can give the metal a quick twist, so that when onlookers next see it, the bend is there.

Obviously if they look back to find it suddenly sharply bent, though, it might occur to them that they just missed you doing something devious. This can undermine your magical kudos, but luckily there are plenty of optical effects and quirks you can take advantage of too. If you’re moving the spoon around a lot, it’ll be hard for anyone to tell how bent it actually is, and you might be able to make it look like it’s becoming increasingly curved as they watch, even if it’s staying the same. You can see this sort of effect by holding a pencil horizontally in front of you, near one end, and waggling it up and down. The way the other end flops about will look loose and rubbery. (Try it, and you can really see the effect. Remember, we’re still not talking about stupid people. Even intelligent brains get easily confused by things they weren’t designed to be able to cope with.)

Also, a straight line can look either more or less curved depending on the angle at which you’re looking at it. I suspect that Michael Shermer is using this point to good effect in his final demonstration in the video above. The rod is bent from the time he holds it up, but the bend is held horizontally, in line with the plane on which you’re seeing it, so it still looks flat. The bend comes into view as he rotates it, but he’s making other gestures and telling you to see it bending upwards, so the truth might not be obvious.

Now, although this might all be a jolly interesting exercise, I must add that none of this has any direct bearing on anybody who’s actually using the first method – that is, anyone really bending spoons with genuine psychic powers. That’d be like miming to a Mariah Carey track and expecting Simon Cowell to give you a record deal. They’re not affected by the details of how a similar effect can be faked, because they know that they’re doing something completely different.

But we don’t know that. And these details are extremely relevant to our assessment of performers claiming to use the first method. Shermer could have claimed to possess psychic powers, and it’s not unreasonable to suggest that many people would have believed him – but, because of his honesty, we know that those people would have been mistaken.

Who else might also be mistaken?

It’s not just the case that the second method can look a lot like the first – on top of that, people who claim to be using psychic powers often really seem like they’re doing tricks. Uri Geller may be a good example of this (depending on whether he’s calling what he does “magic” or “mystificationalism” today). This video seems to show him simply bending a spoon while people are distracted from looking at it directly, as well as providing supportive evidence that his broken spoons look like they’ve been bent repeatedly.

And then there’s his famous appearance on The Tonight Show, where he doesn’t bend any cutlery by any process, paranormal or otherwise. This makes sense if we were to assume he’s using the second method: he can’t just blatantly bend them, because that wouldn’t make for an interesting demonstration, and he can’t work with his own props which are designed for this very purpose, so there’s really nothing he can do. It’s harder to reconcile it with the idea of actual psychic abilities, which inconveniently fail to function every time we try to get a good look at them.

So, we have:

– a claimed paranormal phenomenon which is less than paradigm-shattering in its scope to begin with,
– a simple and naturalistic method by which the same effect of this phenomenon can be achieved,
– a plausible set of reasons why this naturalistic method could be mistaken for something more ground-breaking,
– an example of people demonstrating what a powerful illusion this naturalistic method can provide,
– a number of good reasons why certain individuals might be motivated to disguise this non-event as something more remarkable,
– some evidence that the man most commonly associated with this phenomenon could be using exactly these techniques to do just this,
– and a complete lack of verifiable examples of the phenomenon actually taking place in a way that can’t be easily replicated by conjurers or practised amateurs doing tricks.

Let’s stop being impressed by this now.

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People have been doing magic for thousands of years. It’s never worked.

A bold and sweeping claim, perhaps, but no-one who knows me would deny either that I am bold or that I sweep. So I stand by it. Ideally, waving your hands and casting spells is the sort of idea that people grow out of a good while before they’re allowed to drive. (Or at least they’ll learn to understand fantasy as distinct from reality by the time they’re old enough to cause any significant damage to the world around them.)

Something like therapeutic touch has been around for millennia. The basic premise really does still amount to just touching someone, or waving your hands near them, and healing them with magic. And not just while in character as a level 8 cleric tending to your party’s injured wizard. Some people really think they can manipulate human physiology on exactly such a basic level.

The specific method of therapeutic touch was first devised in the 1970s, and still doesn’t seem to have gone away yet, despite being the same old ineffective nonsense as ever. They do some magic, and supposedly it makes things better. They use terms like qi and bio-energetic fields instead of magic, but it’s no more scientific (or less vague and indefinable) than just going “Ta-da!” and expecting things to happen. No physicist or chemist can tell you what this supposed energy field is, how it interacts with the rest of the world, how it fits in with the Standard Model of particle physics, or what consistent measurable effect it has.

An effort is sometimes made to make it sound scientific, but any claim involving the magic word “quantum” in conjunction with words like “natural” or “holistic” (as they so often do) should be examined with great suspicion, particularly when made by someone trying to sell you something. Quantum theory is a model of the behaviour of matter on an atomic scale, and encompasses the indeterminate nature of the existence of particles when their attributes are measured. Things on a quantum scale behave weirdly, and very unlike they normally do in the real world (i.e. on the much larger scale that we’re used to living in).

It does not mean that reality can be rearranged anyway you choose simply by wanting it hard enough, or that the nature of matter can be manipulated in any meaningful way. It does not imply the existence of any sort of mystical energy field which can be accessed, influenced, or understood, by something as macroscopic, unquantum, and irrelevant as the human mind. There is nothing like this in the entirety of physics. Leave the quantum alone. Seriously, put it down, it’s clear you don’t know how to handle it safely. Have some Fuzzy Felt.

The point about measurable effects may be the most important, however. Not fitting in with our current theories needn’t be an absolute barrier. There was a time when we didn’t have a clue what a neutrino was, but they were still out there doing their thing all the while, and eventually we noticed them. And because we kept noticing them, and they always cropped up in the same circumstances and behaved in the same way, we couldn’t ignore them. And if there’s some qi flowing through everyone which has any rules to its existence at all, we should be able to notice it. If it’s there.

This is really just basic scientific competence. If we can’t notice the stuff in some way, then believing that it exists is pointless. And if we can notice it, then we should be able to make sure it is where we think it is. If we back it into a corner, it won’t vanish into the aether, like the aether did.

However, in practice, the bio-energetic field that TT practitioners claim to work with has an annoying habit of completely disappearing whenever we try and look at it close up.

The most famous example of this came about after a nine-year-old girl had an idea for a school science project.

Emily Rosa invited twenty-one experienced TT practitioners to come and test out their skills, and to see if this human energy field really could be so easily detected by those who claimed to be experts. She sat each of them in turn at a table, and had them reach their hands through two holes in a partition. Rosa herself was on the opposite side, holding her own hand over one of the practitioner’s hands, either the left or the right. For each of ten “trials”, she would flip a coin to choose which of their hands to pick, hold her hand slightly over that hand, and ask them to tell her which of their hands she’d chosen.

According to all the standard claims of TT, this should have been easy. They should have been able to feel the energy from her body radiating outwards, if it was really present and “tactile as taffy“, as these things apparently usually are. But when they didn’t know what they were supposed to be feeling, the effect vanished. In this blinded experiment, the group of practitioners made 123 correct predictions out of 280 attempts between them. That’s slightly crappier than the most likely result of pure guesswork.

In 1998, Rosa’s results were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. There have been some criticisms about the testing, and doubts about the validity of the results, but Larry Sarner has already addressed these in ample detail over at Quackwatch. Even if Rosa was biased against TT, there was no real opportunity for that to affect the results; the ability that she was testing (to physically feel a human energy field) was exactly in line with what practitioners say they can do; and so forth.

But even if there were ways in which her methodology could have been tightened up, why has that not been done? Why have the people complaining about the poor quality of her research not done higher-quality studies and produced some successful results? If Rosa’s study is so flawed, it should be a single inconclusive anomaly, among a plethora of better controlled and more scientifically rigorous published papers. If that were the case, then we could acknowledge that the nine-year-old girl may not have thought of everything, and had mistakenly set things up in a way which didn’t recognise the genuine effects of this phenomenon. But all the evidence would imply that she pretty much nailed it. All the positive data we have on therapeutic touch comes from anecdotes and personal accounts, which aren’t enough to prove anything. All they can do is prompt us to wonder whether there might be something interesting going on here, and come up with some scientific tests to find out.

And we know what happened when we did that.

It’s not just science fair evidence against it, though. The Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking also tested a TT practitioner in 1996, in conjunction with the good ol’ JREF. That didn’t go well for therapeutic touch either. The participant, Nancy Woods, mentioned one factor which people used to criticise Emily Rosa’s study – she said that when the body is normal and healthy, there’s nothing for her to detect, but being close to an injured or painful body part is what provides a noticeable sensation. (Remember, though, that the practitioners Rosa tested were confident in their ability to detect energy fields in her perfectly healthy hands.)

So, the testers enlisted someone with chronic wrist pain and some nasty-sounding medical conditions with Latin names, and Woods agreed that she’d be able to tell this lady’s wrist apart from a healthy equivalent in another person. And indeed, in the preliminary “open” test, her magic powers seemed to be working fine. Ten times in a row, she tried using TT to detect the energy field from the injured wrist, and she got it dead on the money every time. Pretty impressive… but not really. The open test meant that she could see whether she was waving her hands over the woman with the wrist problem or the healthy chap. Under those circumstances, yes, therapeutic touch seems to work amazingly well.

But when you change that one tiny detail, and simply don’t tell her the answer beforehand, those energy fields suddenly become a lot less reliable. Their effect – and with it, any evidence that they actually exist – completely vanishes.

When Woods only had her TT sense of the energy fields to rely on, her success rate dropped to 11 out of 20. When you have to pick one of two options, being right about half the time doesn’t really require particularly impressive magical powers. It was working flawlessly mere moments before. Whatever can have happened?

There has been no study since which has shown significantly different results, and demonstrated anyone’s ability to consistently achieve the claims of TT in a true blinded test, let alone actually curing anyone. (If you think I’m wrong, send me a link to where it’s happened.) And until we have some similar, legitimate evidence that the proposed mechanisms of therapeutic touch are the most likely cause of what’s going on – ruling out all the usual bad reasons why people buy into alternative medicine, on the basis of multiple anecdotes or personal experience and so on – there’s simply no reason it should be believed.

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Qi is a term from traditional Chinese culture, translating into modern English as “some sort of mystical cosmic energy or something”. It has been understood as things like “breath” or “spirit”, but the New Agers have got a hold of it now and they’re not letting go. (Damn those Westerners, with their bastardisation of an ancient dignified culture, and their technological advances, and their evidence-based medicine.) However, it doesn’t seem to be any less vague a term in either case.

“Energy” is a favourite term of the New Age movement despite nobody seeming to know what it means. (It’s not to be confused with the scientific concept of energy as a measure of ability to do work, of course. This use of “energy” actually means something and can be measured in useful ways; this is one reason why you don’t see many hippie physicists.) I can’t find a case of qi being much more precisely defined than this – it seems to just be some ethereal, non-physical, immaterial, abstract stuff, which has some place in our model of reality but not one that anyone can measure. It’s an extremely convenient formulation: its definition is so vague that just about anything can be claimed to be affected by it, but whenever empirical data fails to show up you can just say that “it doesn’t work that way”. Because there’s no consistent or well-defined way it does work, you can be as evasive as you like about the results.

Basically, qi is the force by which the “karate master” in this video knocks people out. Like when he waves his hands around that guy’s head without touching him and… nothing happens. But that’s a special case, because the guy may have had his tongue in a certain place in his mouth, which totally nullifies the effects. Yes, apparently that’s actually how it works. Also if you raise one toe and lower another, that’ll do it to. Wiggle your feet a bit and you’re totally safe from energy which would otherwise knock you on your arse. Oh, it also doesn’t work if you don’t believe in it. I don’t know how much more evident it needs to be that this is nonsense. Try maintaining a skeptical attitude to electricity while sticking a fork in a mains outlet, and see how far that gets you. (Note: do not actually see how far this gets you.)

Qi is also what the Kiai Master in this video is using to make people fall down by waving his hands… until he’s faced by someone who doesn’t buy into his crap, at which point he gets punched in the face.

Amidst all the blather about “life force” and whatnot, a number of seemingly testable claims about qi seem to be made. For instance, “I can exert a force to knock someone over by channeling this energy” is easily tested, and the above videos provide some pretty good disconfirming evidence. Even if the claim is something like “I can do all that, but only if the person isn’t moving their tongue or their toes in a particular way”, I can still imagine putting together a testing protocol where people’s extremities are carefully monitored as the power of the qi is supposedly flung their way.

Believers in pseudoscience are always keen to complain when people actually try and find out if the stuff they’re pushing really works, as if this is somehow unfair. But like anything else, if qi actually does something, then if you want us to believe it, you’ll have to tell us something it actually does, and then let us see whether it actually does it. If it could ever be convincingly demonstrated, then it wouldn’t matter that it’s all vague and mystical nonsense. If it works, it works.

It doesn’t work. It’s not there. The magic is nothing more than mentalism, the medical uses are nothing more than placebos. The long and illustrious history of qi as something widely believed in by millions of people who didn’t understand what it is, dating back to a time when you could expect to be dead by 30 and nobody had even invented the lever yet, isn’t very impressive in the face of absolutely no supporting evidence.

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It will probably surprise very few of you that I don’t believe in astrology. I don’t think there’s any significance to what sign I’m born under, but then, I’m a “Give way to oncoming traffic”, and that’s typical of us.

What’s The Score-pio?

Astrology is the idea that the positions and movements of the stars and planets have a direct effect on our manifest destiny. I’m far too apathetic to distinguish between the different kinds of astrology that exist, but my sarcasm can be applied to any of them with much the same effect. Depending on where Neptune happens to be at any given moment, and what direction your birth sign seems to be going relative to us, astrology might tell you that you’re going to clash with a friend over financial affairs, or you should take a risk in matters of the heart. Or something.

I’m getting ahead of myself here, and being dismissively facetious well ahead of schedule. What I was jocularly referencing a couple of sentences ago was the concept of a horoscope. This generally refers to a set of predictions or divinations made for someone, based on astrological measurements of stuff in the sky. How the current actions of Neptune (or Titan or Antares) affect you depends upon the celestial conditions at the moment you were born, sometimes measured to the nearest minute.

It’s not always that precise, though, and people are often conveniently grouped into one of twelve zodiac categories, based on which constellation is in the Sun’s apparent path through the sky at that point in Earth’s orbit, or something. Constellations, remember, are bunches of stars that have absolutely no connection to each other whatsoever, except that from this particular vantage point in the universe, some people who lived way back in the days before light pollution was invented, and who had all the qualifications that you need to look at the sky, thought that these stars looked like a guy carrying some water.


Yeah, this seems like a good time to get back on track with the sarcasm. There’s really nothing definitive or non-arbitrary about the twelve traditional zodiac signs; the names we have for them are based on what some ancient Greeks (probably) thought some of the bright dots in the sky looked like. They were looking for patterns, and were pretty creative. Case in point: that water-carrier. I don’t know how they got that. Even if you get rid of all the background stars, and put in some helpful lines showing you where the image is supposed to be, it’s still a bit of a stretch. Quite where this guy came from, I’ve no idea. And if you use a telescope to look toward Aquarius, and get a better, clearer view, which doesn’t depend on how much we’re squinting or how cloudy the sky is as we’re peering up there, it looks like this. That’s just a whole lot of stars. That’s what you’ll see pretty much anywhere in the sky, if you’re really looking. There are, like, thousands of stars out there, probably. (Let me know if any of those links are broken by the time you’re reading this, but they’re not hard to hunt down.)

I’m guessing that carrying water was a more respected and important profession, with a few more perks, back in the days of the earliest stargazers. Because it was important to people at the time, that’s what those people saw when they looked for patterns. One of the other, non-zodiac constellations they identified is of Orion, a hunter who was quite a big deal at the time, but would be unlikely to leap out at anyone from the surrounding bunch of stars these days.

My point is that the divisions of the sky into zodiac groups is entirely arbitrary; there’s nothing about the stars themselves which fits them into such convenient groups. But according to astrology, the boundaries of these groups define what personality type everybody on the planet possesses.

There’s a constellation called Ophiuchus which, although not recognised by astrology, is one of our zodiacal constellations – the Sun passes through it over the course of the year (though I’m still not clear on exactly what that means, astronomically speaking). It was identified by Ptolemy in the second century CE, and if anyone can explain why only the other twelve affect people’s lives in a way that the “serpent-holder” just isn’t able to, please go ahead. The sun is actually in the constellation Ophiuchus as I post this, and nowhere near Sagittarius, as the traditional astrological arrangement would suggest – but supposedly this doesn’t matter to the mysterious forces that use arbitrary groupings of celestial bodies to magically control our destiny.

Harry Potter And The Deathly Hal-leo-s

I don’t call it magic only to be pejorative. If you look at how astrology is supposed to work, the only mechanisms to explain how it could possibly function as described are utterly magical. Occasionally, people try and bring in known physical effects to explain it, like the gravitational or electromagnetic fields exerted by these distant stars or planets. This sort of hopeless scrambling for any plausible rationale makes people who’ve ever passed a science test laugh in your face, and actual cosmologists want to bang your head into a table with a force proportional to your mass. Any known physical effects of any stars or planets in the sky are utterly dwarfed by those of the Sun, or simply of the Earth itself. And why would feeling a miniscule physical pull in a particular direction specifically affect something so general as how “diplomatic” or “individualistic” I turn out to be?

Most astrologers are fractionally wiser than to seriously suggest this (or have got fed up with all the headaches from the desk-smacking), but there’s really no way any physical laws could explain it all, even as-yet undiscovered ones. The whole premise seems to run on far more narrativium than has ever been observed in our universe. The reasoning appeals to our sense of narrative, and can make for a pleasing story with an aesthetically acceptable line of causality, but the causality of the universe depends upon the interaction of matter, not of concepts.

For instance. Your personal horoscope depends on when you were born, often down to the minute, or more informally to the day. What effect do the stars suddenly begin to have on you at this exact point, and what is it about being born that causes this change? It can’t be to do with the developmental process – some children are born weeks or months premature, at different stages of growth, and nobody reaches some perfect and precise stage of completion as a human being at the exact point the umbilical cord is cut. It’d be a strange physical force that can be obstructed by a human female uterus, but affects us all for the rest of our lives.

In many ways, birth is an idea, a moment defined by how people view it more than by any actual, definable physical changes. (The point at which a developing embryo becomes a living human being is even more nebulous, hence much of the debate over abortion.) Astrology relies on that conceptual, story-telling principle for the moment of someone’s birth to be a meaningful anchor for everything that follows.

Similarly, the planet Mars is a sort of reddish colour, because of the iron oxide (rust) on its surface, and its blood-coloured appearance has provided us with many of the planet’s associated ideas. The Roman god Mars was the god of war and bloodshed – and, correspondingly, the planet’s astrological connections today are to concepts like aggression, impulsiveness, and energy. This seems to be another entirely arbitrary link, derived from the stories an ancient civilisation told about their gods, inspired by the blood-red colour of an object in the sky. Mercury was the messenger god to the Romans, and the planet is associated with communication, information, writing, and apparently email (thanks, Wikipedia) by astrologers. Ceres was a goddess of agriculture and fertility, and astrology.com tells us that “periods of fertility and menstruation are under Ceres’ domain”. Asteroids are traditionally given female names; if the tradition were different, and this asteroid had instead been named, say, Dionysus, it would probably be said to have an entirely different effect on us (left as an exercise to the reader, because I can’t think of a snappy joke to make about it right now). It’s a magical, story-telling connection, and that’s not how the universe works.

The origins of the underlying concepts are easily explained, but what’s not explained is why we should actually believe any of this. Why should it be taken any more seriously than most people take the Roman gods themselves these days? Most people don’t anthropomorphise those particular gods in the same way any more, and assume instead that some people basically made them up. It seems that astrology should be taken the same way. It’s a necessarily story-based belief system, descended from ancient superstitions and religions, and there is no possible way it could work as its proponents claim, except by magic. Proper magic, not just a perinormal phenomenon that’s yet to be scientifically understood. Actual, real magic.


Can-cercumstantial Evidence and Capri-cornclusive Proof

But, all of this is only a devastating criticism of astrology if it’s assumed that this explanation – the magical factor that could theoretically provide a causal link between patterns of stars and whether I’m going to win the lottery – is really as ridiculous and ineffective as I’m glibly making it sound. I don’t know for sure that magic doesn’t exist, and neither do you. And it’s vital to remember that all the above rambling about how implausible it seems is irrelevant if it actually works.

To reiterate: if astrology works, it doesn’t matter how ludicrous the notion seems to me, or how arbitrary the moment of birth that calibrates it all, or how mundane the narrative origins of the legends that surround it. If it works, then it works, regardless of whether it ought to.

So, is this the point at which I introduce the switch to the above two thousand words’ bait, and conclusively demonstrate that astrology definitely totally works, just like the people with newspaper columns on the cartoons pages say it does?

Go on, have a guess.

Astrology doesn’t work. It’s been tested. It’s failed. Repeatedly. It’s not science. It’s nonsense.

Why doesn’t everyone think so? Well, whether or not astrology works depends on what exactly you mean by “works”.

I’m Sure There’s A Perfectly Aries-onable Explanation

Now, don’t read too much into that – I’m not going to start vacillating and saying, well, maybe it has some merit, even if we don’t really know how. Astrology doesn’t work, in the sense that it is completely unable to demonstrate any of the grandiose, measurable, paradigm-shattering real-world effects that are attributed to it. Like being able to predict the future or determine someone’s personality by looking at the stars.

But if you’re asking whether predictions made by astrologers can sometimes line up with what happens to somebody, and whether some people really identify with their supposed astrological personality type, and whether sometimes the descriptions or advice your horoscope gives might seem spooky because they’re so much in tune with your life… then sure, astrology works.

The thing is, if your criteria are as loose as this, then a magic 8-ball can work great too.

It’s not enough that people sometimes just feel that the things in their horoscope apply to them with uncanny accuracy. That could conceivably happen, even without magic. If you don’t want to risk being horribly wrong, you have to ask things like: How hard is it to make a prediction, or an assessment of your character, which most people will relate to, while seeming very personal? And how often is your horoscope really that accurate? If you read it every day, are you just remembering the occasions, once in a while, when the scattergun approach happens to hit the target for you, and forgetting all those other times when you just went “Meh, not really”?

If you tell someone things like “You tend to be self-critical”, “You sometimes feel unconnected to everyone around you and withdraw into your own world”, “You find it hard to apologise when you know you were wrong”, “You sometimes wish you were smarter”, then there’s a chance they’ll be convinced that you have a deep and personal insight into them specifically, if it doesn’t occur to them at the time to think that these are almost universal feelings. I mean, who the hell finds apologies easy? It’s called the Forer effect, and it sets the bar for how impressive an actual personal prediction or evaluation would have to be.

It’s just as easy to make predictions that can’t really be wrong. If your horoscope says it’s a good day for taking risks with your romantic life, then maybe you’ll be inspired to do something daring and ask out someone you’ve had your eye on. If it turns out well, then yay, score one for astrology! If not, you’re probably going to be too preoccupied with some reassuring ice cream to keep a memorable tally of all the times the stars haven’t hit the mark. Or, maybe you just weren’t daring enough. It’s usually kept vague enough that there are plenty of get-out clauses.

Just because it’s in a newspaper column, or you know someone who’s into it who seems totally sincere, doesn’t mean it can’t all be bunk. I can say with confidence that there are some things you don’t believe in, which thousands of people are passionately committed to and take as a proven certainty. It’s still worth investigating whether something like astrology actually seems to be real; if it is, we should be able to tell for sure. “I know it’s been right for me in the past” doesn’t tell us anything, unless we’ve established that it’s been so right, in such an improbable way, that it’s not just a trick of anyone’s memory, or some generous interpretations of vague and general terms.

When Newton figured out gravity, people didn’t just accept it because they remembered seeing things falling down and decided it sounded right. He had to do pages and pages of really hard maths to prove it. I’ll let you off the calculus this time, but it’s up to astrologers to prove that it works, to demonstrate that they’re doing more than essentially making shit up in a way that makes some people go “Ooh, that’s so me”.

They’ve kinda sucked at this so far.

If there’s anything to this particular brand of astrology, scientific tests of its efficacy ought to work. Wikipedia reports some people claiming that “the scientific method does not apply to astrology”, but that’s bollocks. I won’t assume that this is a majority view, but you can’t both claim that this is a real phenomenon with measurable real-world effects, and then deny that any of these effects can actually be measured. Science works, bitches. However hard you try and stop force from equalling mass times acceleration, it’ll keep on doing it, and the universe will continue to hammer this fact into your skull, everywhere you look. If astrology also works (bitches), then we shouldn’t be able to make it stop working, however hard we try.

In practice, though, the effects seem to go away very quickly. There are a number of ways you can try some experiments, or just gather a large amount of data to look for significant evidence. SkepticWiki suggests a good one: have someone provide you with a list of horoscope predictions for different signs for the day that’s just passed, without telling you which one is supposed to apply to you. See if you can tell which was yours, based on which prediction best matched up with the day you actually had.

You’d have to do it more than once, obviously – otherwise you’ve got a 1 in 12 chance of guessing right anyway, and there are coincidences. But if you gathered enough data, and if these newspaper horoscopes are capable of making good predictions, then you should end up with some strong, supportive evidence. Why wouldn’t this work?

The only reason you shouldn’t be able to discover that people can pick their own horoscope from a mess of others, and deduce that these predictions must really have some genuine bearing on the lives of a particular one-twelfth of the population, is if this particular claim is crap. Of course, a lot of astrologers claim very different things, and it’s important to remember that we can’t just sweep aside the whole horde of practitioners, many of whom see the newspaper-column style of horoscope as being just as meaningless as I do, because of this one result which doesn’t apply to them.

But we can still sweep them aside and get back to ignoring them, because none of it works. However you define it, there’s not a shred of data supporting any kind of astrological claims, or providing results that rule out all non-astrological explanations (or at least make them seem less likely than the alternative). It’s been tested time and again, and sometimes comprehensively and with lots of maths that goes over my head, and it never succeeds in producing any actual results beyond the Forer effect, which can be replicated by any skilled trickster.

If I’m wrong, point me to the data. In fact, even better: point your data toward a scientific journal. Sure, they’ll probably have some annoying demands, like your methodology being peer-reviewed and your experiments reproduced and verified by independent parties, but the same demands are made of everything else in the entire domain of “science we actually take seriously”. If it works, it should continue to work even if people neither expect nor want it to.

Whatever astrology means to you, it starts off with a highly implausible-sounding view of the way the universe works, and with simple, rational, mundane explanations already existing for its only obvious “results”. Until someone’s shown that it can actually do something we don’t already have an answer for, the sensible thing is not to believe a word of it.

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