Historically, many magicians have taken a professional satisfaction in exposing self-proclaimed spiritualists and psychics who also make use of trickery and misdirection. Instead of acknowledging their feats as illusions, such charlatans have attributed their powers to magnetic fields, spirits or extra- sensory perception. Paradoxically, exposure of such chicanery has sometimes itself involved elaborate hoaxes and deceptions. Harry Houdini donned elaborate disguises and employed networks of spies to infiltrate and disrupt spiritualist organizations. James Randi orchestrated an elaborate hoax that
ran for several years, in which fake psychics infiltrated a parapsychological lab. In effect, these plans involve stacking lies atop lies in an attempt to reach the truth.
One of our prevailing cultural narratives is that scientific understanding of the world has been steadily marching forward in a neat, linear fashion. And certainly, we have made remarkable progress. But if you look closely, you might notice that many debunked concepts have a tendency to recur over and over again with slight variations. At one time, paranormal practitioners might claim to receive messages from spirits; later, they might claim that these messages were obtained through telepathy; and later still, they might attribute their powers to extra-sensory perception. Each of these marvels
can be effectively duplicated using the same kinds
of magic tricks. Today’s fraudulent bomb-detecting machines are quite probably simply the latest variation of Victorian table-tilting phenomena
and dowsing. Far from being dated tales of archaic superstitions, these weird and apparently inexplicable phenomena represent timeless stories of human curiosity, credulity, ingenuity and guile. They are, by turns, comic and tragic, but consistently fascinating nonetheless. They highlight how illusions can combine with powerful emotional experiences, such as the
fear of death or sorrow at a loss, to create what seem to be extraordinary paranormal experiences that appear to be unexplainable by our current natural scientific conceptions of the world.
While neither magicians nor scientists can ever really ‘prove’ that past testimonies of supernatural phenomena are fraudulent or mistaken, contemporary researchers regularly demonstrate how eccentricities of healthy human perception, memory and cognition can result in vivid and robust illusions. In many cases, scientific explanations of how our minds can produce such illusions are at least as wondrous as the proposed supernatural explanations. For example, we now know that healthy adults who are on the brink of sleep can, under some circumstances, experience vivid dreams that blend seamlessly with their waking world. Indeed, some scientists are increasingly turning to magic as
a tool to explore how sane, intelligent individuals
can experience remarkably weird illusory episodes.
Barring a genuine ability to psychically project your consciousness backwards through time, you cannot truly re-experience historic accounts of these wondrous phenomena. You weren’t there. You didn’t see it. But this book can help reveal what you missed.