Skeptics have launched hundreds – probably thousands – of careful, honest tests of a variety of magicians. In some cases these studies and tests were poorly designed; in many cases however, they are quite well designed and hard to argue with.
Here is some disappointing news that most magic types do not want you to know:
Every single one of these tests has shown that magic does not work. There isn’t even one exception.
Many believers don’t want to accept this. Often, they would rather reject science than face these facts. It’s a sad state of affairs.
But wait – isn’t my job to make magic scrolls for you? Why the heck am I telling you this?
Knowledge is important. The skeptics’ tests of magicians have given us vital information. But those tests only tell half the story.
Of Shamans and Showmen
As I immersed myself in skeptical literature from 2004 – 2010, I noticed something odd. Every one of the tests and studies I encountered focused on individuals best described as entertainers. Typically, the “magicians” being tested were from first-world Western countries, with little or no connection to any longstanding magical tradition, and made their living by impressing audiences or customers.
It’s not surprising that these showmen (and women) were all talk.
I wondered if I was missing something. I sent an email to a number of my skeptic friends, asking if they knew of any studies that tested traditional, tribal or ceremonial magical systems. Highlights from the responses:
Almost everything the Skeptical community does is based around de-bunking show-people… and obvious flim-flammers. They typically are not going after the Dalai Lama or some Inuit shaman.
Studies of this kind are not done very often, and when they are they are almost always targeted at charlatans… or at practices that could put people at risk.
We were unable to turn up even one skeptic test involving a tribal magician or anyone else who is part of a long magical lineage.
This is a major oversight. Traditional systems of magic require intensive training. They’re handed down across generations, in a community or culture that relies on them for results. As with any other traditional art, each generation of magicians hones the techniques, removing those that clearly don’t work.
If a school of magic survives this kind of system for centuries, I would expect it to be at least as effective as other bodies of nonscientific learning handed down: a mixed bag of things that really do work, and things that were retained only because of tradition or doctrine. Systems of traditional herbal medicine are good examples of this.
But that’s just theory. Do any of these magical ceremonies actually have the power to change the world around them?
It turns out they do.
Although the skeptic community has not tested any traditional tribal techniques, scientists have investigated several. Tomorrow I’ll look at a few of these techniques – and some surprising results.
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