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Background

It is common to get questions related to magicians and magic tricks, both by self-described illusionists and scammers.

These come in diverse forms:

The claims involved come in different forms too:

  • "Honest liars" like Randi/Penn & Teller openly explain everything they do is prestidigitation.

  • Magicians like Derren Brown, who admit off-stage that it is prestidigitation, but use hokum on-stage, which can and does leave people with the wrong impression.

  • Magicians who just do a straight act, and don't discuss the issue.

  • Scammers like Uri Geller, who use prestidigitation, but maintain they have special powers.

(These categorisations are just a serving suggestion, feel free to make up your own or argue, for example, that Penn & Teller are more similar to Brown than I am admitting.)


The Questions

It strikes me that there seem to be some questions we welcome, and some we reject, without the policy being at all clear.

Are questions about magic considered notable?

Is it reasonable to ask "Did the coin really come out of the kid's ear?" What about "Can a hypnotist really make you so strong you can lie like a plank between two chairs?" or "Do the swords really get swallowed?". Roughly, where is the line/what is the criteria?

Should the secrets of magic tricks be revealed in answers?

Is the policy any different when it is talking about Geller bending spoons compared to Randi reading a word in an sealed envelope? Does it make any difference if we know the answer ("The trick was described in Houdini's biography."), think we know the answer ("It looks like a standard Skappart Box, with the centre-line gimmick inverted."), or are just guessing like random audience members in the foyer afterwards ("Maybe he used magnets to hold a mirror up?").

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I'd say it's only on-topic if the performing magician is claiming that it is not a trick. Uri Geller claims he has supernatural powers, debunking his tricks is clearly on-topic.

Stage magicians that don't claim to have any special powers are out of scope in my opinion. We know those are tricks, so there isn't anything to debunk.

The general notability guideline holds, if enough people actually believe the trick to be magic, or if the well-known magician publicly claims that it is real magic (not as part of the act, but outside of it), it is a notable claim.

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  • How about this? It is a magic trick presented as though someone dies when a magic trick goes wrong. It is a classic example of a magician lying on stage. The YouTube comments have settled down a little now, but if you back 10 months, they are calling for the arrest of the magician, and mourning the poor assistant. At what point do we say "Um... You believe your eyes during a magic show? Really?" – Oddthinking Jul 30 '12 at 7:37
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    What about Derren Brown? His disclaimer is that he uses a mix of psychology, showmanship, etc, and he muddies the waters by "explaining" his tricks with pure bunkum revolving around fake psychology. Since many, many people believe he has the powers he sort of claims he does, there is something to debunk. – philosodad Jul 30 '12 at 12:48
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I think we might need to impose tighter standards on the quality of questions in this area, but I think any blanket ban would pose too many problems. I think revealing tricks should not usually be a problem as it should be possible to create good answers without doing so if they are carefully thought through.

The problem about blanket bans on magic questions or answers is that they make some classes of obviously notable claims hard to deal with. For example, questions about whether Uri Geller has "special" powers. He claims so in public and many people believe him. Various Psychics make similar claims in related areas. But notable skeptics such as Randi, who claims that his tricks involve misdirection and prestidigitation, can reproduce exactly the same effects. A satisfactory resolution of the claim requires some level of discussion of stage magic. I would be skeptically satisfied that claims for special powers are debunked if someone like Randi can produce the same effect under the same conditions.

We don't need to reveal how Randi does it in order to be mostly convinced of the key issue, though. This isn't perfect, but unless we pose a conspiracy theory ("Randi really does have special powers, he just won't admit it") it should usually be good enough that he can demonstrate an equivalent "trick" and claim is is based on misdirection for us to be happy that "special powers" are not required.

This leaves a grey area for some Derren Brown tricks. He sometimes seems to create false explanations for how his results are achieved. I think it should be legitimate to question those false claims where they have notable implications (perhaps something like "does NLP allow you to manipulate other people?") Another view would be that he is just raising the game about the ways he misdirects your attention so it is no different from asking how a normal card trick is done. I think notability here has to be judged on whether there are wider implications of his claimed method (can hypnotism persuade someone to rob a bank?) I would accept an answer from another magician who claims to be able to reproduce on of these tricks via normal stage magic without psychological trickery. This would debunk some of Brown's spurious claims about how his tricks work. But I still don't absolutely require knowing how the trick is really done.

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I think a claim notable if it is made as if it were true, and many people believe the claim is true because of the context of the claim. In that case, there is something to be debunked. Debunking is about the people being bunked, not about the bunker.

As for revealing how a magician does a trick on stage, if they are using a mechanic that a person with some familiarity with magic can easily identify, you aren't revealing much, and if they aren't, you're making a well informed guess and may not be revealing anything at all. Unless you have a personal or business relationship with the magician in question that gives you inside knowledge I don't see the problem.

Also, if there is a common belief about how some trick is done (for example, escaping from a straightjacket by dislocating your shoulder) then explaining how it is actually done could prevent someone from injuring themselves or others.

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  • Ursula Martinez is a UK-based cabaret/theatre performer who does a well-known NSFW magic act called Hanky Panky. She repeatedly vanishes and produces a hanky, and strips off to show that the hanky isn't hidden in her clothes. The gimmick she uses in the trick is blatantly obvious to anyone with some familiarity with magic. However, I totally disagree that it would be appropriate to reveal it. To reveal it would spoil the act for both her and the audience. I have no personal or business relationship with her; that's irrelevant. – Oddthinking Jul 30 '12 at 13:36
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    @Oddthinking "The gimmick she uses in the trick is blatantly obvious" is incompatible, as a phrase, with "I totally disagree that it would be appropriate to reveal it". If it is "obvious" than you aren't revealing anything that anyone can't find out with some research... for example, by reading stack overflow. Magicians do not make their money because we don't know the mechanics, they make money by being engaging and entertaining. – philosodad Jul 30 '12 at 15:25
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    I said it was blatantly obvious to those familiar with magic - that's a tiny minority of the audience. If magicians themselves didn't believe that ignorance of the techniques was a necessary as part of their acts, they wouldn't spend so much effort hiding their secrets off-stage. Like with many film or book plots, knowing too much is a spoiler. – Oddthinking Aug 2 '12 at 1:52
  • Clearly, you've made up your mind on this topic, so I see no point in discussing it further. – philosodad Aug 2 '12 at 5:11
  • Thank you for the insult. You will notice I backed my statements up with examples and supporting argument - I did not simply dismiss your argument out of hand. – Oddthinking Aug 2 '12 at 6:00
  • @Oddthinking I'm not insulting you. I'm simply stating that I do not believe that you are going to change your mind. You have a belief that revealing the mechanic will ruin the trick and cause the performer financial damage. I think that this is not true, as evidenced by Penn and Teller's making money with visible tricks years ago. You are obviously a fan of magic, so you'll be familiar with this example and have dismissed it already, so that pretty much ends the conversation. – philosodad Aug 2 '12 at 13:26

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