This paper, very slightly amended here, first appeared in the September Issue of the 'Skeptical Adversaria' (the Newsletter of ASKE, the Association for Skeptical Enquiry), 2004, pp1-3.
In this presentation I am going to discuss the role of scientists in our society particularly in relation to the power that they wield. I shall also say something about science and religion. But before I go further, let me give due acknowledgement to the fact that it is a simplification to think of scientists as some homogenous subsection of the population and to have debates about scientists telling us this or scientists not believing that, or conspiracy theories based on what the scientists are not telling us, and so on. I really would prefer to talk about scholarship and learning in general and not just science, and this includes history, political studies, biography and so on. And I also include anyone who is engaged in a professional activity that is informed by scientific methods of enquiry.
I was listening to a very interesting Radio 4 programme recently about famous mentalists of the last century - the Piddingtons, Romark, Chan Canasta, etc. At the end of the programme the opinion was expressed by the veterans interviewed that the heyday of the mentalists was now over. They did not seem very impressed by the new mentalists, notably David Blaine and Derren Brown. (I don't think Uri Geller was mentioned much and I can understand why.)
I was very surprised at this as although these relative newcomers do other things besides mind-reading, they are popular and controversial, appear regularly on television, and perform some innovative and astonishing mind-reading feats. Especially impressive are those demonstrations involving members of the public approached in the street, seemingly without any rehearsal.
There are a number of questions that come to mind when I watch their televised performances and I imagine that they also come to the minds of many ASKE members. Firstly, the stunts are filmed, so inevitably one wonders if anything of significance is going on that is not recorded on camera, or whether any of the stunts rely on the positioning of the camera shot. How much cutting and pasting is done by the editors? How much preparation and even rehearsal actually goes on that we do not see? (I have always felt that magicians who rely on tricks of the camera are cheating, but I understand that there are some magicians who believe this is fair game.)
The second question is how much do people such as our two heroes rely on modern technology - miniature microphones and cameras and microchips? I imagine, for example, that it should be possible with microchip technology to design a pen that remembers what it has just written or drawn, and therefore can be used to demonstrate the claimed telepathic reproduction of a written statement or drawing.
My final observation is the one of most interest to skeptics. In former times we were impressed by the best of the mentalists, either because we believed they had genuine telepathic powers, or because they were using a strategy that was so clever that it eluded all our attempts to detect it. (In the words of the announcer at the end of the Piddingtons' radio show, 'You be the judge'). With the new mentalists, however, comes a third possibility: they are using the latest scientific knowledge to detect cues in a person's body language, vocal tone, eye movements, etc., likewise to influence others by their own subtle behaviour, verbal nuances, covert signals, etc. For example, Derren Brown performed a stunt in which he appeared to correctly anticipate the contents of an advertisement poster put together by a group of designers. It was then revealed that the designers were subjected beforehand to subliminal influences: as they made their way by taxi to the studio, objects were deliberately planted at various points in the passing scene and drawings of these eventually ended up on the designer's poster.
A moment's thought should reveal the absurdity of this explanation. For example, there is nothing to distinguish the planted objects from any other object that the designers passed during their taxi ride. In any case, research on subliminal perception does not indicate that such a manoeuvre is at all possible. Yet in a recent televised compilation of famous magical tricks, a 'celebrity' declared that this particular stunt was 'frightening' in that it revealed how our minds can be covertly manipulated in this fashion. In another demonstration by Derren Brown he appeared to be able to determine whether people were telling the truth or not.
Thus the message is conveyed that the performers are not using any paranormal ability but are nonetheless possessed of extraordinary talents based on state-of-the-art knowledge of human psychology. As well as subliminal perception and observation of body language, techniques that are claimed to be used by the new mentalists include hypnosis or suggestion, and neuro-linguistic programming.
If it were indeed the case that these performers are using cutting-edge psychology, where does it leave all the students successfully emerging from their three years of undergraduate study of the subject, not to mention several years of postgraduate training, who are no more able to perform these astonishing feats of mentalism than the next person? And for that matter why cannot I, after 37 years studying and practising psychology, perform them either?
I put these questions to two ASKE members, Dougie Gibbard, who is a professional magician (semi-retired), and Tony Youens who in his spare time is also a magician. First, lets' hear from Tony.
A few random comments. I don't know of any pen such as you describe. (Any ideas from our readers? - Ed.). Generally mentalists use pretty simple 'technology' to achieve their effects.
I agree that it is difficult to make any accurate judgements when something goes out on TV. I find performers far less able when they are live. This applies equally to the latest celebrity mediums.
Derren Brown did his 'Séance' show, which I thought was very misleading and actually gave people a false impression of what was going on. Derren himself has strong opinions regarding cold reading and such and has written pretty scathing attacks on the whole thing. I'm not sure where my own view lies. On the one hand Derren is giving a false impression about science but on the other hand he doesn't pretend to be anything more than an entertainer (unlike Geller). I think if he started selling books on 'How to use psychology' I would consider him worthy of exposure, but as far as I know he doesn't do this.
Simon Singh wrote an article on Derren Brown that is relevant to your own. (It was here but it may no longer be accessible.)
Thank you Tony. Now, let's hear what Dougie has to say.
My response to your article could be summed up in one sentence. 'Mentalism is a branch of magic.' But I'll try to expand on that without breaking the so-called 'Magician's Code'.
Many magicians include mental magic effects in their acts. If you name a card and it turns out to be the only card in the pack with your name on it, do you think the magician has just demonstrated precognition or performed a clever card trick? Hopefully the latter. But if that same magician accurately reproduces a drawing you have secretly made, is he reading your mind? The answer you give may depend on the situation in which the performance is given. I think the psychological term is 'framing' (or perhaps this is a magician's concept). If you're attending a psychic fair and a stall holder apparently reveals personal information about you, you may believe he or she has access to your mind. However, if you're a well-read skeptic you're probably muttering 'Nice bit of cold reading'.
Magical purists suggest there is a difference between mental magic and mentalism but this is not the place to go into that. I find it interesting that you think of David Blaine as a mentalist. To me he is clearly a magician. He does card tricks! The fact that he reveals the name of a girl's boyfriend in an unusual way hardly puts him in the same class as the Piddingtons or Derren Brown. Strangely, Derren Brown is a mentalist who admits he is a magician. And very good he is in both roles. You didn't mention Kreskin, who performed as a mentalist but admitted his hobby is magic!
There are other very good mentalists around but the ones you mention are well known because of their appearances on radio and television. There will always be a market for such performers whilst the public remain so superstitious.
Belief in gods, an afterlife, contact with the dead, access to occult knowledge, all these are apparently necessary to spice up what for many is a rather mundane existence. It's up to the psychologist to explain this! Richard Wiseman, is an excellent magician and an expert in the psychology of deception. He is the Perrott-Warrick Senior Research Fellow at the University of Hertfordshire. He has shown that individuals' beliefs and expectations can, on occasion, lead them to be unreliable witnesses of supposedly paranormal phenomena. This is also true of people witnessing or experiencing magical effects.
Magicians, and therefore mentalists, have always been at the forefront in the use of technology. The so-called 'father of modern magic', Robert Houdin was a fine example of this. You can read some of his accomplishments in 'The Great Illusionists' by Edwin A. Dawes. If a TV evangelist will use a hidden miniature receiver why wouldn't a mentalist? If you were making your living as a mentalist wouldn't you use all the possible methods you have listed - and more! You would use the latest technology, stooges, TV editing, culling of the most successful shoots, etc. You're another kind of magician whose intention is to deceive and hopefully to entertain.
What does cause friction in the magical-mentalist fraternity is when mentalists go that one step too far and begin to lay claim to real paranormal powers. A few have been known to claim to be able to affect the future and even to heal. Some magicians have extended their concerns further and taken on charlatans of all kinds. Who better to expose fraudulent psychic surgeons than an expert in deception and sleight of hand in particular. In this country we have experts like Ali Bongo and Paul Daniels. In the United States, but with an international reputation, we have James Randi. If we were allowed skeptic saints, James Randi would surely be one. Let's put it on the line. If any mentalist could really forecast future events repeatedly, genuinely demonstrate telepathy, or control people's minds and/or actions he or she would accept the $1,000,000 Paranormal Challenge offered by the James Randi Educational Foundation.
It's no coincidence that most mentalists start their careers as magicians. The difficulty is to continue that career successfully without going that one step too far.
Many thanks Dougie.