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Sport and Competition

Science versus Magic

A competition at the Magic Castle reveals why science can seem magical

This week I spent a couple of days at the Magic Castle in Hollywood with my friend and master magician Andrew Mayne and five other magicians. The theme of the weeklong show was "Science versus Magic."

Magic is incredibly engaging because magicians seem to break known physical laws. Until recently, magicians and "natural philosophers" (scientists) were lumped together for their ability to do the seemingly impossible with physical objects. For his Magic Castle show, Andrew developed an "impossible" trick involving extremely cold (-200C) liquid nitrogen using its unusual physical properties. All magic is science.

But is science magic?

Science can seem like magic because the impossible suddenly appears possible. Science can seem like magic because the tools scientists use are unfamiliar. Science can seem like magic because only the anointed are allowed to do it.

Bupkis! Our brains evolved to make us scientists. We explore our world and draw inferences. We try new things and see what happens. We generalize from examples using the inductive method. Of course, most people do this in a less systematic way than is required by science. But the process is the same. Science is simply a formalization of our casual worldly explorations.

Yet, at the same time we are inclined to believe in weird things such as mind-reading, paranormal phenomena, and where I live, "earthquake weather." Skeptic Society Founder and Scientific American columnist Michael Shermer wrote a book called Why People Believe Weird Things that offers an evolutionary explanation for our consistent misattribution of causes and effects. Science is different from casual experimentation by its careful, logical exclusion of alternative explanations, an idea proposed in 1605 by the man who first formalized the scientific method, Englishman Francis Bacon. Where many people (and even many scientists) fail, is using muddled thinking when seeking explanations. Doctors are taught when examining patients to "look for horses, not zebras when one hears hoof beats." This is Occam's Razor: the simplest explanation is usually the best explanation. No magic required.

But even with peer review, a large proportion of published scientific research is simply "junk science." Let's just call this magic. How can one separate science from magic? First, read all with a skeptical eye. If the results seem too good to be true, they probably are. Just as there are few "get rich quick" schemes floating around, there are few fundamental scientific discoveries that appear without precedent. The "discovery" of Noah's Ark on Mt. Ararat last week with "99.9% certainty" by a religious group strained credulity since scientists have made innumerable expeditions up the mountain and had not found the Ark. The odds of some "true believers" finding it was slim.

But not impossible. A key step to science is replication and verification. If they had found the Ark, it could be verified by inspection by someone outside their group. This method reveals the panel in the top hat hiding the rabbit. Once one is shown how to do a magic trick, it ceases to be magic. It also ceases to be fun. So, enjoy magic for entertainment, and be a skeptical scientist when it comes to discovering new facts.

I think They Might be Giants said it best "Science is Real".

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