Magicians can spot tricks a mile off which means that for decades they have been the rationalists right hand man when it comes to exposing phoney psychics for the tricksters they are.
Using simple-yet-effective tricks to make people think you have psychic abilities when you don’t without disclosing the fact that you are using these tricks and not a paranormal ability isn’t new. The most common trick used is a technique called cold reading where vague statements are made that seem personal to the sitter, convincing them that the message from the psychic is unique to them. In reality it would seem unique to a whole host of people. To see this in action you just need to look at the amount of hands that go up at a psychic stage show every time the psychic is looking for a new person in the audience to read.
At QEDcon in April, a science and skepticism conference held annually in Manchester, US based mentalist Mark Edward spoke out against psychic tricksters. For decades Edward had worked as a professional psychic but he revealed all the tricks used by modern mediums and psychics in his book ‘psychic blues’ in 2012. During his talk he told the audience that they should “get up on [their] feet and take out the garbage!” Garbage meaning fake psychics who prey on those who are vulnerable and desperate.
Yet, despite this, he still occasionally works as a medium or psychic without disclosing to his audience that he is using trickery to achieve his results, preferring to allow them to “make up their own minds”.
“There is wiggle room” he claimed in defence of this during the ‘Skepticism and Magic’ panel session at QEDcon while fellow panellists, Professor Richard Wiseman and Paul Zenon looked on unamused. If he used a disclaimer, he explained, the effect would be ruined, but the others didn’t agree. Edward met a similar reaction at another skeptic conference, The Amazing Meeting, held in Las Vegas in 2013 by the James Randi Educational Foundation.
So, why does Edward afford himself the privilege of using this so-called “wiggle room” to not reveal his trickery to his audience yet get angry when other people do the same? Is he alone in this approach?
I wondered, does this so-called “wiggle room” actually exist at all? I wanted to find out if it was a common held view with magical communities and so I signed up to online magic websites and began asking other members how I could convince people that I was using paranormal abilities to read their future and communicate with the dead.
‘I am not a shut-eye’ I wrote on a forum, assuring the other members that I haven’t fooled myself into believing I am actually psychic (which is what a shut-eye does), ‘I want real work. How can I learn to do this convincingly?’
I expected to be called out as a fraud and as unethical but this never happened. Instead the other members of these magic communities sent me suggestions and tips despite the clear indication that my intentions were not completely honest.
When I used to think of magicians and psychics I would think of Harry Houdini, James Randi or Derren Brown cleverly revealing the tricks you should be wary of while well known psychics got angry in response. Now, following my brief introduction to magic communities I think of people like Paul Voodini instead. I was linked to Voodini’s website several times by magicians who assured me I could convince anyone of my non-existent abilities if I were to buy the pre-packaged tricks I found there.
One particular trick on Voodini’s website called Reader of Minds boasts ‘having worked for many years alongside the UK’s most popular “shut eye” mediums and clairvoyants, he has studied their performance techniques and is now able to present to you the subtle art of ungimmicked mind-reading’ all for the sum of just £18. Bargain.
He isn’t the only one who sells tricks like this. Elsewhere I was offered routines that would teach me how to deliver convincing tarot card readings, zener card readings, gemstone readings, fortune telling, palmistry and more. Services that are regularly on offer at psychic fairs up and down the country every weekend.
These out-of-the-box tricks make fooling people an easy task for those with no imagination and creativity of their own and, although in a lot of cases they’re purchased by people who just want to be the next Derren Brown or Dynamo, there’s no knowing how many people who claim to have genuine paranormal abilities are actually customers on these sites. I don’t think you have to be psychic to predict that it’s probably quite a few…
It is difficult, then, to imagine how anyone can defend the idea that “wiggle room” should exist when it comes to disclosing or not disclosing the use of trickery and illusion to read minds and more. I wish I could say that Mark Edward and his fellow tricksters were just fooling themselves when they claim it exists for them, but sadly they’re probably fooling countless other people too.
Beware the Wiggle room…