You Will Have Fortune-Tellers No More

[In which I attempt to write like Scott Alexander. I have little experience in trying to mimic the writing styles of other people. I’m unsure how well this turned out (current estimate is that it sounds ~25% like Scott, optimistically). Still, it was a fun exercise that ended up taking longer than I thought. Also, I don’t have a medical background, but I do have a magical one. Hence the change in domain knowledge to that of magic.]

I.

Magicians are pretty badass.

Max Malini, whose name sounds like a comic book character straight from Stan Lee’s highly imaginative naming schema, was especially badass. First off, Malini was a well-known Jewish magician in the late 1800s and early 1900s who performed for several US Presidents and at Buckingham Palace.

His most famous trick is probably the one with the ice block.

As the story goes, Malini had a habit of of performing some charming coin magic with a borrowed hat. At some point later, in full-view, from the hat, Malini would spontaneously produce a solid block of ice.

This happened at the dinner table during dinner, where, prior to the illusion, he’d been sitting and eating with everyone else the entire time.

(Remember, this is the 1890s where the only place to get ice was from human drone delivery.)

How was it done?

As the rest of the story goes, Malini actually acquired the block prior to the performance. Then he kept it somewhere on his person and proceeded to head to dinner. Meaning he had to deal with hiding an unwieldy chunk of ice for several hours before even considering whether or not he’d perform the illusion during that night.

The secret to the trick may not be 100% accurate (Malini never quite revealed how he did it). But the point here is that magicians are willing to go to extraordinary lengths to achieve their seemingly impossible results.

Magic is…an interesting field, to say the least. There’s some amount of innovation spurred by things like technological advancements (e.g. magic with an iPhone), but there’s also a certain amount of reverence for the past (e.g. lost secrets that past magicians took to the grave).

It’s also a very strong example of how susceptible our brains can be to bias.

This is part of why I can get a little irritated when I have disputes with people and they won’t even entertain the notion that their memories could be at fault. It’s simply not a thing that crosses their mind, and they quickly dismiss as obviously impossible it when I bring it up.

But, like, even without the huge amount of (albeit now perhaps more shaky) evidence from cognitive psychology showing that our judgment is often led astray, we have literally hundreds of years of a performance art that thrives on manipulating people’s perceptions of reality.

Imagine an alternate universe where, for some reason, things become pitch-black at night. It’s totally dark, no one can see anything. And of course we jump to the reasonable conclusion that everything actually disappears from existence at night, removed entirely from the world.

(Nobody in this universe has had the bright idea to turn on lights at night, save for the Illuminati.)

In lieu of a unifying theory that explains light and vision, then, ad-hoc explanations are used to account for the interactions we have with objects that aren’t really there, postulating things like a “Shadow Realm” where we can somehow affect objects by affecting their shadowy anti-counterparts.

Now it turns out that at night, there are also these theatrical performances which utilize lighting. At night. Everyone goes to these shows where they’re amazed at how these Illuminati folks are able to give the impression that things exist in the darkness.

“How marvelous!” they conclude, “It’s almost as if there truly are objects that exist in the pitch of night!”

Then the performance ends and they are once again forced to navigate the world of Shadow-objects, which can be felt and detected and have a correspondence with their true counterparts, but of course the true objects aren’t really there.

In the above universe, these people have somehow created a separate magisterium for their thoughts about light. Their observations from the lighting performance somehow don’t carry over to their total worldview.

I think this very awkward analogy sorta somewhat represents how I feel about most people’s attitudes to their own brains.

My impression is that people don’t always appreciate how much of an insecure system they are. Humans are easily compromised.

Here’s an example from my own work: At the climax of my shows, I often perform a trick where a spectator merely thinks of a card. I then correctly divine what their card is. From the outside, this is a big deal; the spectator hasn’t said anything, and I’ve seemingly gained access to their inner thoughts.

The reality, of course, is far from appearances.

All I’m actually doing is shifting attention and recollections. From the start, from the words that I choose, I’m looking for ways to set up the situation in my favor. I take care to emphasize the parts that will become important later when you reconstruct your memory of the whole performance. This is all done within the context of the trick, so in some sense the very architecture of my illusion helps with this.

But, really, it just boils down to a few flashy distractions and a few choice phrases.

Just these few tools give me a ton of power to suggest and control what you will ultimately remember.

Remember, this isn’t a boxed superintelligence using superhuman tactics convincing you to let it out.

This is me, a human, with some practice and some words, convincing you to let me in.

(Okay, so obviously the thing I’m trying to point is actually more like self-deception, where you create your own false memories or misremember. It’s less about other people hacking you.

Clearly, it’s not exactly the same as an experienced practitioner of magic giving you messing with your mind, but I think the general argument still stands: People should be far more wary of their own memories, given that a huge body of evidence exists that demonstrates their unreliability.)

Also, do let it sit with you that there’s apparently an entire domain of people out there systematically iterating on their models of the human brain, optimizing for memory control.

II.

If the award for “Most Statistically Unethical Profession” existed, it would probably go to the magicians. We literally make our living off p-hacking. Even more so than psychologists.

What possible reason could there be for us magicians to p-hack?

Remember that the whole point of magic is giving the impression of a miracle. This is best demonstrated by performing feats that would occur less than 5% of the time if you were a muggle.

Once you perform something this impressive, like guessing which integer from 1 to 20 the spectator chose, they will have no choice but to yield to your suitably significant demonstration and accept the alternative hypothesis that you are a wizard.

Here, then, are the tricks employed by the dark side of magic:

1) We run different hypotheses depending on the observed outcome: There’s a classic ESP trick where the magician lays out five cards: a circle, square, wavy lines, cross, and star.

You’re asked to select a card. Say you choose the circle. Then I turn over all the cards to show only the circle had an “X” marked on the back of it.

Impressive! (Although we note that the p-value shows it’s not quite that significant…better repeat the trick twice!)

What you do see is that all the other cards are unmarked from the back, which is the whole point of the trick.

What you don’t see is that the image of the square was tattooed on my chest, the wavy lines were printed on a card hidden under the tablecloth, the cross was on my necklace, and a copy of the star card was stashed under my hat.

You see, for every outcome, I’ve got a way of selecting an impossibility that matches your choice.

As the old adage goes, “If it passes by a spectator, it passes by a peer review board.”

2) We abuse degrees of freedom all the time: Do you know why magicians love playing cards? Because there’s 4 suits, 13 values, and 2 colors. That’s a hell of a lot of variables under my control.

Say you select a card and it is the 4 of Clubs.

What are my options?

For an apparent miracle, I can match the color, suit, value, or even letters in the card’s name (of which there is “4 of clubs”, “four of clubs”, “four clubs”, among other spellings). And that’s all with regards only to your own card.

Is your 4 of Clubs six cards away from the 6 of Hearts? Then I’ve got a miracle. Is it 9 cards away from the Two of Spades? Then I’ll spell out “t-w-o, s-p-a-d-e-s” and I’ve got another miracle.

With these factors, randomness is actually a welcome friend. In a deck of 52 cards, enough shuffling is bound to give me some choice combinations of cards I can utilize in some way.

For magicians, every piece of information is something that can be twisted in such a way to conform to the desired outcome.

And I mean everything, from the letters in your name to the color of your shirt, to your birthday. With just these variables, I’m practically guaranteed a significant result every time.

(Admittedly, magicians have yet to incorporate kabbalistic significance into their practice. If they did, I fear to think of the miracles they could bring about.)

3) We just make up our own data: Sometimes, when swapping out hypotheses and messing with degrees of freedom isn’t enough, we’ll venture into the third circle of Statistics Hell: tampering with the experimental results.

Say you catch on to the above two sneaky tactics. I decide to show you a new trick: I declare that you shall select the Ace of Spades.

Your eyes widen. I have boldly stated my hypothesis in advance.

I show you a fair deck and mix it up face down. I ask you to select one card. You nod. So far so good.

You pick out one card. It’s the 4 of Clubs. It’s not the Ace of Spades.

I am visibly disappointed, and I toss the card face-down onto the table.

Now I make a mystic pass with my hands. We turn the card over again.

Magically, it’s now transformed into the Ace of Spades!

What’s the secret here?

From what I’ve said above about how magic operates, you might think that a dialogue between two magicians on how to achieve the above effect looks like this:

Alice: “Hey, so what if we first subtly crafted our presentation as to give the impression that the spectator chose the 4? Then, we could redirect their attention to how it’s really an Ace.”

Bob: “I dunno about that. Doesn’t seem clever enough. I think we should also give them the impression of having thought that they might have been given the impression that it wasn’t a 4 but then verified that it was indeed a 4. I mean, obviously it’s not, but we could give them the impression that such a verification happened.”

Alice: “What if the spectator doubts their impression that they had doubted and then verified that no impression was there?”

Bob: “Stack overflow at line: 4.”

What it really usually looks like, though, is something like this:

Alice: “Hey, so what if we first subtly crafted our presentation as to give the impression that the spectator chose the 4? Then, we could redirect their attention to how it’s really an Ace.”

Bob: “I dunno about that. Let’s just switch it for the Ace when they’re not looking.”

Alice: “Okay.”

You see, we’re not afraid to make our experimental results come out the way we want.

III.

And there you have it. You too can sacrifice your statistical chastity in a bona-fide bid for dark magical power.

In the comments, someone will probably point out how I’m reading too much into this whole magic business.

“So what if people can accept that magic affects their perception and yet still maintain faith in their own memories?” someone might say.

“Too much doubt leads to Descartes and spooky demons, and you obviously don’t want to go that far. Plus, people are often contradictory. Obviously that’s sub-optimal, but that’s how a lot of people function.”

I think that’s generally true, but I’ve found navigating discussions far more fruitful when I assume the other side thinks they’re internally consistent. They don’t have to be, but it’s a lot easier if I model them as such. Basic interlocutor decency and all that.

As for the bit about most people not integrating magic into their worldview, I guess that’s true as well. (But we really should know better.)

Still, magic or not, everything influences us.

It’s probably best to imagine influence as a spectrum, with things like “a cool summer breeze” on one end and “direct thought insertion” at the other end.

In fact, it’d be great to have a real physical scale that we could use, one with a large slider that could easily indicate the level of influence present in any situation. Then we’d be able to calibrate it when other people gave their judgment calls on how manipulative they felt a certain thing was.

With some basic slide of hand, we’d match a call.

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