Who do you call to investigate charlatans and tricksters?

March 26, 2012 | By | 10 Replies More

When someone makes a supernatural claim, James Randi would not recruit only scientists to investigate. He writes that you should consider hiring a trickster to investigate a trickster. More particularly, you should bring in a magician:

I particularly like the way our associate, magician and skeptic Jamy Ian Swiss, has expressed this point:

Any magician worth his salt will tell you that the smarter an audience, the more easily fooled they are. That’s a very counterintuitive idea. But it’s why scientists, for example, get in trouble with psychics and such types. Scientists aren’t trained to study something that’s deceptive. Did you ever hear of a sneaky amoeba? I don’t think so. You know, they don’t get together on the slide and go, “Hey, let’s fool the big guy.”

. . .

Harry Houdini stood on the floor of the U.S. Congress and stridently denounced a variety of hoaxers, flaunting his cash prize for an example of a supernatural feat that would prove him wrong. Magicians like Penn & Teller and others have stepped forward to express their expert opinions concerning expensive and wasteful pursuits of chimeras. What we need now is to formalize this. We magicians have to make it clear that the insights we need to be magicians can be leveraged in the scientific method, and that we are on call.


Category: Pseudo-science, scientific method

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (10)

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  1. xxx says:

    “Who do you call to investigate charlatans and tricksters?”

    Actually, you call “whom.”

  2. Jim Razinha says:

    “whom” is an artificially imposed rule that has no logical base save from two books written in the 1700s by Robert Lowth and Lindley Murray. Apparently, they are also the reason why sentences shouldn’t end in prepositions…makes little sense when looking at the vast majority of languages in the world. Deconstructing the application of Latin constructs to a Germanic language makes great fun for linguists and keeps the grammar police employed…but perpetuation of archaic rules for no rational reason in a world rapidly getting smaller and smaller each day?

    I’ve had a real awakening listening to John McWhorter’s “The Story of Human Language” from The Teaching Company’s Great Courses. I think I already have a fairly well developed world view, but factoring in languages and their development, interactions, diversity has only enhanced that. Given that I can only speak one language, it would be easy to assume only one way to speak something…but having lived on both coasts, north and south and north/south middle of the U.S., it’s clear that is far from the truth.

    There are some rules that should go, and some rules that simply will disappear as a matter of natural development…I vote “whom” off the island .

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Thanks, Jim. After getting scolded, I looked up the use of “who, whom” in Bryan Garner’s Garners’s Modern American Usage, and he mounts a barely tepid defense of the rule suggested by xxx. I frankly have better things to do than to write in ways that will please the 1% of the population who have nothing better to do than work hard at sounding archaic, and out of touch. Real people with real lives no longer go around saying things like “Whom do you call?”

      Yep. I also vote “whom” off the island too. And xxx is not my first choice for people to invite to parties I throw. “Hey, Joe, why not go visit xxx, who is standing alone in the corner. Maybe you can have a scintillating conversation about whom.”

      I’ve enjoyed quite a few of those video courses from Great Courses. I’ll need to take a look at McWhorters course.

    • Jim Razinha says:

      I’ve not checked out any of the video courses…there are many available in the local library system, but whom has the time? (Sorry…couldn’t resist…)

      I’ve replaced NPR for a while with some Great Courses. Three more in the Language series – out of 36 – and I’m shifting to The History of Science Antiquity to 1700. I was alternating between them, but I found McWhorter’s fascinating. I suspect his positions are not without controversy in the linguistic sphere, but he’s still an entertaining listen. I’d like to look into the Lowth and Murray texts someday.

  3. xxx says:

    Excuse me for being correct.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    I will now continue to skewer whomever hides behind the moniker of “xxx” by using a passage and a video I discovered at “Bad Astronomy.”

    “Whom” needs to be struck from the language. We don’t need it — the word “who” works perfectly well, and it’s obvious from context if it’s being used as a subjective or objective pronoun. Whom serves no actual purpose anymore except to let pedantic grammarians feel superior when it gets misused.

    And consider this delightful video essay by Stephen Fry:

    Stephen Fry Kinetic Typography – Language from Matthew Rogers on Vimeo.

  5. We’re getting carried away. xxx was correct in his (or her) assertion over proper grammatical usage, which is always contentious among those who use it improperly. Colloquial usage has always been at odds. Grammar is not for spoken interactions but for written wherein consideration of how a message may be received in the future. We don’t write “correctly” in order to appease the English 101 teacher in our heads but to make sure meaning is transmitted to the third, fouth, or tenth generation beyond us.

    There are many contested usages—for instance, an inclusive “they” when referring to one or more unknown persons, when the likelihood is that only one is meant but more might be—but these are matters of ongoing debate. As is this one.

    In times of sloppy thinking, piss-poor language usage, incoherence, and just plain ignorance, beating up on someone for pointing out correct grammatical construction—and at such length—seems petty.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Mark: I have been testy about this. I think it’s because “whom” is on its way out in modern writing. It’s like trying to promote the use of “nary” or “henceforth,” “naught,” “beseech” or “whither.” It’s got a dusty dying quality to it. Sure, I’ll say and write “To whom are you referring?”, where the object form is obvious. but where the word has the syntax of a subject (even though it functions like an object), “whom” is losing the war, and not just among people who don’t communicate at high levels. If they blew the whistle on me because I used “ain’t,” fine and well.

      Caveat: I sometimes end sentences with prepositions, and I usually do it on purpose.

  6. xxx says:

    Thank you, Mr. Tiedemann.

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