08/12/2013 11:12 am ET Updated Oct 12, 2013

More Trick Than Treat

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

I suppose Keith Barry's magic show was entertaining, though far from exceptional. But TED audiences expect more for their money than to be simply entertained. They are expecting to learn something. What were they supposed to learn from Barry's performance?

Stage magicians will tell you that even when they inform an audience that they are using illusions, many from the audience will come up later and insist that the performer really has special "psychic" powers. The best of them, such as James Randi and Penn and Teller, never give away their secrets but still manage to make it clear they that are pure illusionists.

If Barry was trying to teach the audience not to fall for his illusions, he could have done a better job of making that clear. While he briefly mentions that he is performing magic tricks, he still leaves the impression he is profoundly manipulating the human mind. For example, in the blindfolded drive routine he kept insisting that he was seeing through his passenger's eyes by some power of suggestion he called "second sight." Nonsense. It was pure trickery.

It would be nice to just say this is all in fun. But it's more serious than that. Have we already forgotten the infamous spoon-bender Uri Geller, who in the 1970s was able to convince such notables as Arthur Koestler, Arthur C. Clark, and the brilliant physicist David Bohm that he had "genuine psycho-energetic ability"? He and his supporters were able to convince the U.S. government to fund psychic research because of its military implications.

I know of no other field, outside religion, where a phenomenon has failed to be confirmed continuously for over a century and is still taken seriously by so many. -- Victor Stenger

For a long time, phony psychics have thrived as "spiritual advisers" and many use the illusions of professional magicians to convince their clients that they possess a special channel to a reality beyond the senses. Charlatans have been engaged in such deceptions since the mid-nineteenth century. Late in that century, well-known scientists became involved in controlled studies they hoped would to verify the reality of claimed psychic powers such as extra-sensory perception and mind-over-matter. These efforts continue to the present day. In all that time, no evidence has ever been found that has stood up under the same scrutiny scientists apply to test any extraordinary claim. I know of no other field, outside religion, where a phenomenon has failed to be confirmed continuously for over a century and is still taken seriously by so many.

Psychic power has been proved scientifically to be nonexistent, beyond a reasonable doubt. Barry had a chance to hammer another nail into the coffin of psychic belief. Instead, with his ambiguous presentation, he loosened a few of the nails already there.

Now that organized religion is falling out of favor, we find an increasing number of people who say they are "not religious but spiritual." By "spiritual," many simply mean they have feelings of love for humanity and the environment that they admit are likely just the product of purely material processes in the brain. However, "spirit" is generally used to connote something beyond matter, something supernatural akin to the soul. Some who are not-religious-but-spiritual seem to be thinking that while the traditional gods do not exist, there still is "something out there" beyond matter. And, they look to the mind as the conduit to this greater reality.

I am inclined to think that this group watching Barry's show will see it as supporting their wish that the human mind has capabilities that transcend the purely material processes taking place in the brain. Maybe it wasn't his intention, but that's how it came across.

A resurrection of psychic belief could not come at a worse time, when science, reason, and critical thinking are being stifled by powerful interests who see advantage in keeping people ignorant and superstitious. Then they will act irrationally against their own best interests, such as by voting Republican. Humanity is unlikely to survive on this tiny planet with its limited resources if it continues to rely on magical thinking.

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