But Magic may, in certain circumstances, involve science.

I attended the Town of Parry Sound volunteer appreciation night at the Stockey Centre a couple of weeks ago. The evening featured the magician Vitaly Beckman. His performance was remarkable. His biggest illusion, at least in the first half of the show, involved having members of the audience mark an oversized playing card by signing and ripping the card. This started with members of the audience signing and ripping the card, followed by a member of the audience signing the marked and ripped card onstage. The card was then placed into an oversized pack of cards on the stage. Following a little activity onstage, with the pack of cards seeming to stay right on the stage, the marked card appeared in the audience. Was it teleported? How was it done?

The whole performance was very well executed leaving the audience and me to wonder how this was done. I defaulted to the thought that this was magic, the art of illusion. I was impressed but not convinced that Vitaly was actually able to teleport the card. If he could teleport items, if we as a society could teleport, it would mean that we had reached the future imagined by Star Trek. There would be no need for cars, trucks, trains, airplanes and ships to transport people and freight, they could just be teleported.

As less than a rank amateur when it comes to magic I had no idea how the trick was performed, but I was convinced that there was no ’teleporting’ of cards going on. My sense is that a professional magician in the audience would have been able to view the same scene and quickly figure out how the illusion was performed. I couldn’t, and defaulted to my belief that magic is performance art based on illusion. It is not what it seems.

The same thought process is used by many people when it comes to science and the product of science, including climate science. Because they don’t understand how science ‘works’, and they do not have the technical knowledge and training related to any particular science, be it climate, oceanography, astrophysics or vaccines, they default to the comforting thought that this is not real, it’s an illusion. This is particularly the case when an idea raised by science is at odds with their faith, interests or economic interests. It’s the same as my response to magic; I don’t understand it so it can’t be real.

The greatest difference between magic and science relates to transparency. The first rule of entry to the world of magic is that you agree not to publicly share how illusions are performed. You not only don’t tell people how you perform your illusions, you also don’t tell people how other magicians perform their illusions. Science by contrast is the exact opposite. You are not just encouraged to share your results, you are required to fully explain your methods and how you reached your conclusions. The results and conclusions are subject to review by other scientists to ensure there were no obvious errors in methods or analysis. In many cases other experts will repeat the same experiments to ensure the results are real and can be repeated. This represents a foundation of science, full disclosure and peer review. When science seems unbelievable, it is often found to be just that, unbelievable. This can be the result of sloppy science, confounding results, or dishonesty.

Science is a process, not an outcome. It requires time for the process to work. It took a couple of years for the concept of cold fusion to be firmly debunked. Decades were required for the medical community to accept that simple disinfection could lead to significantly fewer deaths in hospitals, most notably healthy young women in the maternity ward. More recently we saw how long it took for medical opinion to firmly accept the harm of smoking. You can go back to the 1950s and find advertisements featuring physicians promoting the health benefits of smoking. While the dangers of smoking were recognized half a century ago it took decades to provide confirming evidence and overcome the resistance of those who had a personal and economic interest in promoting smoking.

Science is not magic, it is a process that has evolved with a set of checks and balances that help validate its conclusions. Sometimes what you don’t understand can be true. Rejecting science because it conflicts with your beliefs or interests is understandable. But in the end that doesn’t justify defaulting to the belief that science is an illusion just because you don’t understand it.

Science is not magic – it abhors illusions and secrecy. Science is also not a religion – it encourages heresy.

Magic at the Stockey Centre

(Note: I had this post in draft form for a couple of weeks following the performance at the Stockey Centre. Today seemed an appropriate day to edit and post it up.)