Science, Magic, & Illusion

pk drawying, illusion / Teaching / Society / Social Epistemology / Reality /

Mission: to wake up the marks

In a documentary on Nobel Laureates Pierre and Marie Curie, Pierre tells their daughter that Aristotle said that fish don’t displace water. When you step into a full bath, it overflows; not so with fish. Some time later he hears a cry of distress. He rushes between rooms to find his daughter at a brimming fish tank, water all over the floor. The water did spill, she accuses him. That’s right, Pierre congratulates her. Don’t trust what Papa says. Don’t trust what Aristotle says. Trust the evidence.

In Leap of Faith, Steve Martin portrays a preacher stuck in an impoverished burg. His team sets the tent up anyway. “Are you from the area.” an usher asks an old woman. She answers that she’s driven a distance. “Then let me make a special place for you at our service.” He puts the woman into a wheelchair and rolls her to a place before the front row. Late in the show the preacher proclaims that he feels the power of Jesus. He puts his hands on a series of people. He sweeps over to the woman who’s been set up in the wheelchair. He puts his hands on her astonished head. He seizes her by the shoulders. “Rise. Walk. Jesus has healed you.” He gives the poor confused lady a shove into the aisle, propelling her toward the rear. The ushers and other plants in the “congregation” fan the cheers and Hallelujahs into a contagion.

Woman in wheelchair: therefore, cripple in wheelchair. Woman walks away; therefore, cripple cured. The preacher knows he can trust the audience to have glib assumptions about cause and effect and to lack the corrective power of disciplined skepticism. The usher has selected her, gambling that the locals won’t recognize her as not crippled. And not just any traveler will do: with a female the preacher’s odds that she won’t queer the “miracle” go way up. Ditto for her age. But the usher has also been trained to scan her disposition: putty in their hands.

Nathaniel Schiffman’s book, Abracadabra, adds that such wheelchairs are rigged to be a poor fit and to cut off circulation above the knees. With any luck on the preacher’s side she’ll come out of the chair with at least one leg asleep and an authentic-seeming limp.

Clarence Darrow took a client who’d been indicted for poisoning her husband. Exhibit A was a cake she’d baked and served him. Chemists had found in it enough arsenic to kill a horse. Once the prosecution had concluded its case, Darrow asked for Exhibit A. Darrow produced a knife, fork, plate, and napkin. He cut a huge slice and ate it with apparent relish. “The defense rests,” he concluded, wiping his mouth. “Not guilty,” the jury decided while Darrow was having his stomach pumped in a private room of the court house.

“Nine out of ten doctors smoke Camels,” the old ad ran. How many people knew that the company took their survey at a medical convention where free cartons of Camels had been pushed onto the attendees?

The “honest” magicians, whatever they say about their tricks during the patter, advertise themselves as illusionists on the marquee. The others mix seamlessly among the priests, lawyers, politicians, salesmen, advertising gurus, movie makers, novelists … the population. Yes, even among the “scientists.” There’s fake science too, not to mention deluded science. note

We’ve all seen it. The magician holds up a box. His spiel assures the marks that the prop is an ordinary box but exceptionally well constructed. Part two is of course true: it was specially made for him, based on a design as old as Egypt. Part one is a patent lie though the patent ran out long before there were patents. The magician smacks one of the box’s sides for tactile illustration. Part of the excellence of the prop’s construction is in how “solidly” it resounds: that particular wall is a regular tympanum. The magician invites a couple of men, invited (in part) on the basis of their apparent robustness, to come on stage and examine the box. (The other criteria for their selection are less flattering. Namely, they’re judged to be male
note of the lady selected for the wheelchair: compliant, tractable, no danger to the trick … In simple: not rational by modern standards for rationality.) They do. They examine it the way they’re shown to examine it. Subtly controlling, “leading” the volunteers’ examination must frequently take more skill and practice than any legerdemain.

Etc. I’ve brought you to this area. You should be able to think out much of it for yourself. Where I still want to “lead” you is the opposite of a trick. I want you to think of how many things there are in civilized life where members of the public are invited to inspect something the government, the preacher, the detective, the doctor … is doing. How much opportunity is there for the skilled professional to control the examination and its results?

Science is only science when anyone can repeat the experiment and duplicate the results. Not in the magician’s lab; in their own basement. Or in a lab in another university, in another country. If the staff in Country B turns out to be in the employ of, or to be partners with, the magician in Country, Lab, Whatever … A, then it isn’t science. It’s sham.

When was the last time you were able to recount the votes in a democratic election? No. The counting is done behind someone’s closed doors. If the counting is checked, it’s checked by some other allied organization, behind their closed doors.

In the court room the prosecutor asks the policeman to produce the evidence. The policeman does. The jury can check it: from the confinement of their box. That is, they can check “stories” about the evidence. Policeman A testifies that he took the evidence from suspect 1, (surrounded by members of his fraternity) put it in a plastic bag, handed it to the evidence officer (another member of his fraternity), etc. Eventually, the jury can actually handle the evidence: no teacher, no policeman, no lawyer present. After it’s been handled by n number of fraternity members. A fossil hunter finds a bone. There are standard protections he has to take with it. It will have to be produced on demand, not to school children, but to other experts who know the tricks, to people whose profession it is to be rationally skeptical. Imagine what evolutionary theory would be like if artifacts had to put in care a fraternity with a vested interest in the theory? What if archaeologists had to turn their fossils over to the Jesuits? But law isn’t science; it’s government.

When I was in the seventh or eighth grade (1951 or so) the teacher announced that we were going to have class elections. First, we’d “want” to form political parties. “Who would like to nominate a name for the first party?” Um, err, one compliant girl fumbled. Er, the Republican Party! “Good. Now: who would like to second that nomination?” Uh, I second. “Excellent. Now: who would like to nominate an alternate party?”
I … I nominate the Democratic Party. “Very good.” Etc. She got a second. Four kids were off the hot seat. “All right then,” she continued, “are there any other nominations?” This last was said perfunctorily, without really looking. Why should she look? We were Americans. We had now independently recreated our political culture.

My friend Joe and I were exchanging nauseous glances. I don’t imagine either of us could have articulated our disgust at the time. But I can articulate mine now. We weren’t rehearsing for democracy: we were being
rehearsed, scripted. The director says to the actress, “Now say I love you. Sincerely. With all my heart.” It’s bad enough that marriage vows have been rehearsed and directed, scripted by people dead for centuries, people who can never have met you, know nothing of your relationship. But how shallow is the farce when the voice of the people is practically lip-synched?

So the teacher was asking if there were any other nominations. Joe & I are exchanging retching signs. One of us — I’m fairly sure it was Joe — blurts, “Communist!”

The teacher, as I say, wasn’t looking, wasn’t listening. But she heard that all right. (McCarthy Era, remember.) “You’re going to the principal’s office, right now, ” she says. The other of us — I’m fairly sure it was me — reflexed a protest. So the two of us were marched out of the room. Leaving the others to “practice” their “democracy.”

Let me assure you: I know I didn’t know what “communist” meant. I’ll bet Joe didn’t. I’m not sure we knew what “pledge allegiance” meant either. Does a ten year old girl know what she’s saying when she opines that something or other “sucks”?

Enough. Either you see what I’m saying or you never will. I’ll end this session with a single (multi-sided) question followed by hints toward an answer:

There we are, confined in the jury box, having the evidence presented to us. There’s the judge, elevated above all on his “bench.” What’s he wearing? Basic black. That’s right. Black is an important part of the answer. Now, what about the shape, the cut, the fit? What does it remind you of? Preacher’s robes? Yes. Very right. Keep going. Graduation gowns? Academic garb. Professors’ robes. Good. What is all this stuff? Where does it come from? Medieval times? Right. Yes. But also much, much older. How did Disney dress Mickey Mouse in Fantasia?

The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Hint: when he played The Sorcerer’s Apprentice?

That’s right! Preacher, scholar, judge … they all wear the garb of sorcerers. Magicians. Don’t be fooled by the doctors shortening the gown and dying it white. (Mickey is here in red: but he’s the apprentice; his master was I believe dressed in black. White magic, black magic, red student-magic: it’s all magic.) (And none of it has any effect whatsoever apart from our psyches: and that’s a huge effect.)

Every morning to earn my bread,
I go to the market where lies are sold.


Is the priest really changing the wine into the blood of Christ? Or is he faking it, knowing you wouldn’t know the difference? In either case, he performs his “miracle” while elevated above you. Like the judge’s bench, the altar is on a stage.

Alan Watts pointed out that the God of the Jews and Christians is a thoroughly indoor god. His rituals are staged: special lighting and all. The preacher reads the scripture from the lectern, elevated above even the altar. Certainly it’s to see and hear him better. But it’s also to make him and his scripture top dog. The pulpit is elevated still higher. Do Christians believe that their own particular preacher is higher than the Bible? Apparently. That’s the illusion fostered by the architecture.

I hope you can read in your own comparisons for court rooms and other elements of civilized architecture. But be assured: I am not suggesting that trickery and illusion is all that takes place in, say, a courthouse. I’m saying that the apparatus is there for it. The same stage that holds the magician, that screens the audience from certain compromising perspectives, can also hold a singer, a lecture, a debate … So: is the court adequate to determine who stole Barbara’s necklace? Sometimes. What it’s always adequate for I see as more significant: witch hunts.

Life is for those who still have illusions.

One compares how evidence is examined in a laboratory experiment, in scientific field work, on a magician’s stage, and in a court of law. Magicians use “covers.” So too do courts of law. (Legislatures, Board Rooms, etc.)

I iterate: The best a reasonable man can do is to argue a point reasonably; proof (apart from tautologies) is the exclusive domain of charlatans.

Related pieces I’ll check, remount, link as I can:
Magic, our Father, Science and Society, Authority, Covers
@ K. 1998 07 01


Male Versions:

An ex-football player will do fine. We think of football players as rugged, masculine, independent, no nonsense … But isn’t it the case that football is the essence of corporate organization? Players hit only after the quarterback gives the signal. The quarterback typically gives a signal issued by the coach. When some other authority figure blows a whistle, hostilities cease or there may be penalties, hierarchically distributed. Isn’t it then the coach (or is it the ref) who’s the real “man”?

A basketball example intrudes. Shaquille O’Neal played for the Magic. During the playoffs a couple of years ago there was some business about O’Neal attending his grandmother’s funeral. He was late returning. The coach announced on TV, before a wide public, that if Shaq showed for pre-game practice, he started the game; if not, he was out for the first half. Shaq didn’t show till game time. Shaq started. Has the sham of corporate- and state-type organization ever been more transparent than in the coach’s humiliating interview at half time? Talk about double-talk. Of course the coach isn’t really the boss in professional sports. He’s a figurehead, a prop, a trick, an illusion. The coach said he don’t play; the owner said he did. The truth was there on the floor for all to see.

Of course the real hierarchies are complex. A “Lombardi” might boss an owner in one or another circumstance. What must the Krauss — Jackson — Michael Jordan triumvirate have been like at Chicago throughout the ’90s? Any dictator knows who he has to please: whatever his theoretical powers. A president can fuck the people, the media … left and right so long as some blend of the
note … arms manufacturers … Wall Street … cattle interests … is pleased. (You can freely (somewhat) trade elements between groups one and two. Bosses are transient, not permanent. Land was the only important resource for millennia. It’s still important, but now has rivals.)

Other thoughts that deserve their own module I’ll précis here.

Some biologists want a sperm count for a male panther in the Florida Everglades. Do they go up to the panther and ask it nicely? Hold still. We just want to stick this thing up your dick. It won’t hurt a bit.? No. They knock it out. For its own good. Dr. Paul Quinnett’s marvelous treatise on the evolution of fishing man, Pavlov’s Trout, reports a detail that even this science fan had not known about Pavlov’s famous experiment. Pavlov placed dogs on a veterinary table, rang a bell, fed them, etc. After a while the dogs salivated on hearing the bell etc. But there was one dog whose salivations never got recorded, with or without the food: they never got the dog on the table. An imperfectly domesticated individual. After all these millennia of cooperative de-clawing. Dr. Quinnett suggests that that’s why we de-clawed men love to fish: we experience tactile contact with something wild, something not “de-clawed.”

I once heard a dog trainer say that every puppy attacks its master at least once: usually when so young and helpless the attack isn’t even noticed as a bite. The bite doesn’t work. The pup gets the idea that it’s impossible and stops trying. Woe betide the owner of the Doberman who tries his bite for the first time at age two. Bye-bye.

I extend this idea. Did you ever notice how many revolutionaries are physical shrimps? The football players’ bite failed in the cradle. Now they do what they’re told: proxy masculinity on tap for the owner. Ditto soldiers, etc. Maybe the infant Keats was too chicken to bite in the cradle. Once he was all five feet of himself, he hadn’t learned how powerless he was. So he wrote (esthetically) revolutionary poems; he thought daring thoughts. (I developed these points a bit further in an Evolutionary History module.)


Marriage Vows:

On the bkMarcus wedding, see my paean.


Deluded Science:

And with the Fed’s financial hypodermic needle deep (60%!) into the treasuries of (ahem) private universities, how can science be much more honest than the government?



My story King has a guy running through jungle as though his pursuers were cannibals. When they catch him, they don’t eat him: no blood, no torture; they crown him. He’s their new king. They put him in a cave. To imprison him? No. For his own safety. After all, no king: no sun, no rain, no game, no fruitfulness … Only readers of anthropology know that part of our history. (I don’t see us as having changed much). But here’s an example normal historians will recognize. When Emperor Caligula was murdered, Claudius ran and hid behind the curtains. Oh please. Not me.

Once upon a time the Romans had gotten rid of their kings. Never again. They were so proud when they made Julius dictator. See? No king. But then, after Julius, after Augustus, after Tiberius, Nero, Caligula … Wouldn’t you think they’d have had enough of caesars too? I bet plenty of ordinary Romans thought so. I know that more than one of the caesars also thought so. Both Nero and Caligula’s insane behavior has been interpreted as satire: irony in the face of their utter helplessness as emperors to institute their longed for social and political reforms. If I can’t do good, then I’ll torture slaves instead. Abuse what power I do have. Poor dictators. The army found the trembling Claudius and inaugurated him.

Why? For decades, for the life of me, I couldn’t figure it out. US too. We’re told we’re a government of the people. I’m a people. How come I have no meaningful communication with “my” government? There are many others like me. I was finally handed the answer I recognize as right by Roman historian Michael Grant. Who needs an emperor? The army needs an emperor. Somebody’s got to sign the checks. Their patsy can rape or disembowel all of the slaves he wants so long as he signs the checks on time. The army will even make sure there’s more than enough money in the account to steal millions and yet have the checks clear.

(Did you know that Julius’ personal debt to Crassus (it isn’t just the army, some people out of uniform have major control in the army) at the time he was made dictator was around $500,000,000? (1970ish dollars) Julius paid Crassus back his first year in office.)

Social Epistemology Reality

About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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