James Randi on Magicians and the Security Mindset

Okay, so he doesn’t use that term. But he explains how a magician’s inherent ability to detect deception can be useful to science.

We can’t make magicians out of scientists — we wouldn’t want to — but we can help scientists “think in the groove” — think like a magician. And we should.

We are not scientists — with a few rare but important exceptions, like Ray Hyman and Richard Wiseman. But our highly specific expertise comes from knowledge of the ways in which our audiences can be led to quite false conclusions by calculated means ­ psychological, physical and especially sensory, visual being rather paramount since it has such a range of variety.

The fact that ours is a concealed art as well as one designed to confound persons of average and advanced thinking skills — our typical audience — makes it rather immune to ordinary analysis or solutions.

I’ve observed that scientists tend to think and perceive logically by using their training and observational skills — of course — and are thus often psychologically insulated from the possibility that there might be chicanery at work. This is where magicians can come in. No matter how well educated, or how basically intelligent, trained, or observant a scientist may be, s/he may be a poor judge of a methodology employed in deliberate deception.

Here’s my essay on the security mindset.

Posted on April 6, 2012 at 5:35 AM28 Comments


Zo April 6, 2012 7:35 AM

It would have been nice if he would explain some of that methodology employed in deliberate deception in the article.

Instead, all the article said was that magicians are good at spotting frauds, so they should work with scientists more often.

Clive Robinson April 6, 2012 8:00 AM

@ Zo,

It would have been nice if he would explain some of that methodology employed in deliberate deception in the article.

First you might note that James Randi is a fairly wealthy “showman”, that is he makes a lot of money by not revealing “trade secrets”.

The article even admits so with,

We can’t make magicians out of scientists — we wouldn’t want to – but we can help scientists

Depending on how cynical you are this could mean “Pay me a lot of money to tell you it’s a fraud”…

Magic is just like any other “closed shop” business and thus it alows the unscrupulous to “take punters” for money.

The clasic example of this is the “Locksmithing” business, ask Matt Blaze (crypto.com) about how he was treated by the “membership” when he showed that some of their “trade secrets” actually harmed customers.

Likewise look at how the industry denies it’s high security locks are vulnerable even when it has been publicaly demonstrated that they can be quite easily picked…

bob April 6, 2012 8:19 AM

OT: Originally came over to mention xkcd as well. The alt text is what makes it funny, without it the comic is just “yawn”. In fact its probably ONLY truly funny to Schneierites.

#Hmmm, Off Topic and On Topic both abbreviate to OT. Thats annoying; how about BOT for Back On Topic?#: This concept makes sense. James P. Hogan wrote a #very good# book called “Code of the Lifemaker” about a society of alien autonomous robots discovered on Titan and an
earth expedition to investigate them which includes a professional “magician” who makes lots of money by pretending to be authentic and a debunker who wants to expose him. Hilarity ensues.

Mike Mol April 6, 2012 8:54 AM

Clive, I think you’re interpreting the context of that sentence incorrectly. Consider how much concern there is over fraud in various fields, and then consider whether or not you want to train scientists in application of misdirection techniques.

It’s not so much about trade secrets; to a magician, trade secrets are about the specific mechanics and actions of a particular trick.

Tricks are invented, sold, bought and adapted upon…but it’s done low-profile; While magicians want the audience to think they see the catch, they don’t want the audience to completely see through it. Further, despite the audience’s curiosity, the audience doesn’t really want to know, either. If the audience knows, then they’re not going to be surprised, and their money is likely wasted. If the audience thinks they know, then one further twist beyond that results in amazement and delight.

It’s not about competition, either; in the market I’ve been privy to watch, “magician” is one of several potential hats a guy holds under the umbrella of ‘entertainment’. For a particular entertainment request, a guy might draw on one of several different skills, or he might subcontract the job out to another entertainer (who has the time, skills and/or materials needed) and take a fee.

Mike Mol April 6, 2012 9:00 AM

The problem with safewords in that context is that it can lead to an easy denial of service vulnerability. For punned definitions of ‘service’.

aikimark April 6, 2012 10:30 AM

I met Randi two weeks ago at the Reason Rally. I wish I had had time to chat with him.

James Randi April 7, 2012 1:14 PM

Hogan was kind enough to send me a copy of “Code of the Lifemaker” and have my likeness – a rather heroic version – shown on the jacket. As for “rather wealthy,” I own my house, and have an adequate income, but any of the psychic frauds do MUCH better, I assure you… And as for the lock industry misrepresenting their products, I would like to see someone “pick” a Fichet lock without destroying it…

Clive Robinson April 7, 2012 10:33 PM

@ James Randi,

As for”rather wealthy,” I own my house, and have an adequate income, but any of the psychic frauds do MUCH better, I assure you..

Hmm you are also the author of over ten books that have sold world wide reasonably well appeared in quite a few television programs / series and have set up a foundation to educate people in spotting “quackery” amongst other things so I’ll let others make their own minds up on that.

With regards Fichet locks you did not say which of the Fichet companies or their products you are refering to. One of the copanies is now a subsiduary of ASSA Abloy, and I know atleast one of the locks has been picked (as opposed to bypassed or decoded).

Many years ago I used to be involved with the design of high security locks as well as electronic locks and the mechanics involved for the hotel industry, and had occasion to play around with one particular Fichet model (eight lever 787) as that was the cheapest one available at the time (they are very expensive even second hand and I believe some are in excess of 500USD currently).

The problem with it (appart from the easily damaged key) was that the components were made on way to tight a tolerance and as such would either fail to unlock or bind if there was a temprature gradient across the lock. Part of the problem was the very close tolerance on the pivot of the leavers that used the principle of leavers to magnify the movment from the key cut out to drive the gear wheels that aligned the gates.

And yes I happen to know it can be picked because I and a friend spent some considerable time doing so. However as the method involves reconstructing the key even if you put in a great deal of practice you would probably not pick it in less than a few days that way. Also you need a set of watchmakers tools including a lathe to make up a new tool each time you had found a correct depth.

Surprisingly for such a complicated lock it is fairly simple to take appart, however you do need a key to put it back together again or else you will not be able to align the wheels. The interesting thing about the design is once you get it open you can cut up your own new key and reassemble the lock to match without having to machine new parts for the lock unlike most locks.

However as you said,

I would like to see someone “pick” a Fichet lock without destroying it…

I did a quick search of You Tube and it shows a couple of videos of people (supposadly) picking a Fichet lock. So as I’ve not watched them I’m guessing they either show a much faster way than my friend and I used or they are edited highlights,


Zo April 8, 2012 6:11 AM

@Randi: So… no tips on what to look for in a fraud?

I mean, there are what? Perhaps something on the order of thousands of professional magicians and millions of scientists. Education would seem to be the best way to go about this.

Pseudonym April 8, 2012 9:19 PM

A lot of people in this thread seem to be asking Randi nicely for more information. I’m not going to be nice.

It is the ideal of science, and part of its culture, that there are no secrets. We publish our results for everyone, scientist and non-scientist alike, to see.

I respect showbusiness as a profession, and appreciate what you do. But if you think you have something to contribute to science, you’re going to have to meet us part-way.

Scientists don’t trust the results of anyone who refuse to provide enough information to reproduce the experiment. So show your damn working.

q April 9, 2012 4:43 AM

@people who demand info from James Randi

Uh, guys, did you.. ahem.. read the article? I know it’s presumptuous to ask commenters of the modern Internet age to actually read the object of the commenting, but I was hoping this blog might be different…

The article proposes that magician’s mindset might be useful to science. What do you expect Randi can write to satisfy your demands?

Nick P April 9, 2012 12:49 PM

@ q

“The article proposes that magician’s mindset might be useful to science. What do you expect Randi can write to satisfy your demands?”

Maybe how it works, examples, principles, etc. You know… like how Schneier described the security mindset in a way that allowed others to develop theirs. As the kids say these days: “Duh!”

Rajesh April 10, 2012 12:21 AM

Thanks Bruce. I also follow clive whenever i visit schneier.com
(best regards from the core of my

Clive Robinson April 10, 2012 3:10 AM

@ Nick P,

The Teller article is quite good but in it’s self it creates a deception…

The one key sentance in the artcle from which the rest of the whole cloth is spun is,

Magic’s about understanding—and then manipulating—how viewers digest the sensory information

It’s a fundemental principle I’ve often expressed on this blog. Only I was not talking about magic, but “lying by telling the truth”.

As I often explain to people there is no truth just incompleate perspectives, that is there is always one more “truth” than there are observers or listeners.

The fundemental trick behind “lying by telling the truth” is to move other peoples perspectives in a desired direction without telling a lie or otherwise raising suspicion. The thing is that most humans actually want to beleive what people say unless the person gives them reason to disbelieve.

As Teller points out Neuroscientists are late to the party on this one. However they have proved (as far as they are concerned) that a persons memory is malable. The mechanism by which it is done is the one that transfers memory from short term to long term storage and back again and the fact that human memory is more discrete than continuous. That is in general we remember distinct features not flow, and our memories are more often than not vivid features like photographs that our brain subsequently links together (hence the reason we experiance compression and expansion of time).

So to “sell a lie” and make some one believe it is a mater of making them shuffle and twist/distort their own memory. To do it you get them to pull the memory from long term into short term memory, twist it just a little and let it go back from short to long term, and repeat as often as required to make the adjustment of their perspective little by little. And in the process also shuffle the order and time spacing of their feature pictures.

Importantly you should not make direct or hard statments to them as this will cause them to be suspicious and thus wary of you. Because people know the difference between black and white but not the shades of grey.

For instance if you talk about the colour of something, don’t say “It was blue” when it was actually black, say “I think it was bluish black, but the light was not good”. You sow the seed of “blue” and distract the listener away from thinking about it by making them think about the lighting conditions. You then give them four or five other things to think about (thus pushing the colour “blue-black” back into longterm memory) before bringing the subject of colour back up again in a different way with “As they turned I got a brief flash of blue but it was gone in less than a moment in the poor light”. You have not at any point actually said “It was Blue” which means if challenged you can back down by again repeating about the poor lighting, thus you are not caught in a direct lie just the appearance of not being in a good position to see the colour well.

But as Teller pointed out what you are doing is several tricks at once. That is you combine the perception shift with another trick, which is the fact that most humans can only keep between three and five things in short term memory, if you can make them keep their mind focused on five fairly inconsequential items that are not relevant then you can slide your perception shifts past them more easily. Likewise you are including the trick of allowing them to beleive you because you have not lied to them only been uncertain due to circumstances at the time.

There is of course another asspect to this, most interviews are recorded if pushed you can show that your story evolving slowly was due to the duress of the interview, that is you start out telling what is very close to the truth and end up getting further and further from it which is what you would expect as an honest person gets tired and disoriented, where as a person lying you would expect the opposite.

As many people are begining to realise one of the Magicians main arts is controlling the audiances perspective via their field of view. They are greatly aided in this by the fact that due to either where the TV camera or audiance seating is the audiance already has a limited view. And further and perhaps more importantly the audiances eyes are drawn to bright colours and fast movment, thus missing the real action done slowly in the grey of shadow with the other hand.

To “lie by telling the truth” you can perform the same trick linguisticaly, by providing irrelevant “jive” to keep up a fast and colourful tempo as you slide the perception shifts by them verbally.

Then there is misdirection, it is said that people telling lies have facial ticks etc which people can be trained to recognise. If you do have to tell an actual lie then know in advance you need to provide a visual misdirection just fractionaly before hand. The audiances eyes flick towards the action by instinct. However the golden rule is “don’t lie” so rather than make a false statment which you can be caught out in, turn the question around. That is if some one says “Did you do X” you can say “Why on earth would I do X?” pause and then say “What on earth makes you think I would do that?” pause and say “Are you insane?” then you have given yourself an opening to move away from it, you have also hijacked the rythm and pattern of the questioner and forced them onto the back foot. As long as they persist you can keep it hijacked almost indefinatly which is to the questioners disadvantage. You can then turn the question against them by accusing them of saying that you did it and they have a closed mind to the truth etc etc, the longer they persist the more you can wrong foot them the more agitated you can get and the more reason you have for not continuing to talk to them.

Then there is stage dressing, Magicians and con artists know about this, you are what you look and sound like in most peoples minds. You nearly always get told about this indirectly with the “first impressions are lasting impressions” or “thirty second rule” when taught how to sell either yourself (interviews) or products. That is you take “blending in” and you use it to your advantage by being either pro or contrary as needed. Thus knowing how to speak in the same way your audiance expects you to do makes you subconciously fit their prejudices of the role you wish to play.

But as both magicians and con artists know you have to practice practice practice to get this to all appear natural, because the most important part of “lying by telling the truth” is to look natural not awkward.

Jonadab April 10, 2012 6:48 AM

It would have been nice if he would
explain some of that methodology
employed in deliberate deception in
the article.

There’s not much to tell. Generally speaking, stage magic consists mostly of various recombinations of half a dozen or so basic tricks that you probably already know in principle, fleshed out with stores and decorations and whatnot to make them seem more original. The flashy gestures he makes with the wand in his right hand are to prevent you from staring too closely at what the left hand is doing surreptitiously. The volunteer from the audience is a plant — she’s in collusion with the magician. The little ball never went into any of the the three cups in the first place; he palmed it. The box has a trap door in the bottom that leads to the area under the stage. Letting everyone examine the hat and see that it was ordinary was just to distract from the possibility that the table was rigged. There were actually n+1 playing cards, not just the n that he enumerated; one of them was concealed at all times but which one was concealed changed partway through the trick. And, my personal favorite, the laws of math or physics or chemistry or whatever are actually slightly different than your elementary school teacher implied. (Base-two math alone accounts for about half of all “mind reading” tricks.)


Chasmosaur April 10, 2012 9:52 AM

It’s funny. One of the reasons I became a scientist was because I thought it was like real magic. The books I read and tricks I practiced were sleight of hand – a skill to be certain – but I wanted something more.

I’m not dissing good magicians – they are masters of psychology and sociology, more so than some psychologists and sociologists I’ve met. And frequently some of the most ingenious engineers you’ll ever meet, to boot. A good magician is brilliant, without doubt, and I know a few scientists who would benefit from observing their behaviour.

But dismissing all scientists as too rigid to see through the trick is kind of dismissive. It’s also situational – if I’m at a magic show, I just want to appreciate the show. I don’t look to dissect their trick, because that takes the fun out of it. I am paying to be entertained by their deception.

However, I am not going to take a psychic at face value. And more than once I’ve read a paper and marveled it got past the peer review process for the gaps in data and methodology. In that situation, I’m looking for the deception.

Gopiballava April 10, 2012 9:03 PM

Randi tells a story about a scientist who called him asking for advice. A guy had come in and could make a matchbox that was resting on his forearm flip up.

The scientist explained how he had gone to a store and bought a large box of matchboxes and properly randomized the selection of matchboxes.

While this was being described over the phone, Randi asked his assistant to grab a book from the shelf. He asked the scientist for his fax number. Faxed him a page from an old magic book describing how the trick was done.

SPOILER ALERT: Pinch your skin when placing the matchbox on your arm. Tense it to make the box flip up.

Mindset. That’s the problem. Controlling for the wrong things. Not understanding that the subject can change the experiment.

Peter E Retep April 10, 2012 9:33 PM

Illusionists are trained to parse creation
separately and apart from presentation,
separately and apart from experience.

Scientists are trained to pursue
what’s present as fait accompli
from first observation to result
as cause and effect.

Scarcely a fair fight

Peter E Retep April 10, 2012 9:55 PM

Illusionists are trained to parse creation
separately and apart from presentation,
separately and apart from experience.

Scientists are trained to pursue
what’s present as fait accompli
from first observation to result
as cause and effect.

Scarcely a fair fight.

S Dep S Peds April 10, 2012 9:59 PM

Security is trained to keep everything
within ordered expectations
and if it deviates, to see it back in.
Almost no contest.

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