A series of apparently impossible events

Exploring Smoke and Mirrors at Wellcome Collection for New Scientist, 1 May 2019

ACCORDING to John Nevil Maskelyne, “a bad conjurer will make a good medium any day”. He meant that, as a stage magician in 19th-century London, he had to produce successful effects night after night, while rivals who claimed their illusions were powered by the spirit world could simply blame a bad set on “unhelpful spirits”, or even on the audience’s own scepticism.

A gaffe-ridden performance in the UK by one set of spiritualists, the US Davenport Brothers, drove Maskelyne to invent his own act. With his friend, the cabinet maker George Alfred Cooke, he created an “anti-spiritualist” entertainment, at once replicating and debunking the spiritualist movement’s stock-in-trade effects.

Matthew Tompkins teases out the historical implications of Maskelyne’s story in The Spectacle of Illusion: Magic, the paranormal and the complicity of the mind (Thames & Hudson). It is a lavishly illustrated history to accompany Smoke and Mirrors, a new and intriguing exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London.

Historical accident was partly responsible. In 1895, Guglielmo Marconi sent long-wave radio signals over a distance of a couple of kilometres, and, for decades after, hardly a year passed in which some researcher didn’t announce a new type of invisible ray. The world turned out to have aspects hidden from unaided human perception. Was it so unreasonable of people to speculate about what, or who, might lurk in those hidden corners of reality? Were they so gullible, reeling as they were from the mass killings of the first world war, to populate these invisible realms with their dead?

In 1924, the magazine Scientific American offered $2500 to any medium who could demonstrate their powers under scientific controls. The medium Mina “Margery” Crandon decided to try her hand, but she reckoned without the efforts of one Harry “Handcuff” Houdini, who eventually exposed her as a fraud.

Yet spiritualism persisted, shading off into parapsychology, quantum speculation and any number of cults. Understanding why is more the purview of a psychologist such as Gustav Kuhn, who, as well as being a major contributor to the show, offers insight into magic and magical belief in his own new book, Experiencing the Impossible (MIT Press).

Kuhn, a member of the Magic Circle, finds Maskelyne’s “anti-spiritualist” form of stage magic alive in the hands of illusionist Derren Brown. He suggests that Brown is more of a traditional magician than he lets on, dismissing the occult while he endorses mysterious psychological phenomena, mostly to do with “subconscious priming”, that, at root, are non-scientific.

Kuhn defines magic as “the experience of wonder that results from perceiving an apparently impossible event”. Definitions of what is impossible differ, and different illusions work for different people. You can even design it for animals, as a torrent of YouTube videos, based largely on Finnish magician Jose Ahonen’s “Magic for Dogs”, attest.

Tricking dogs is one thing, but why do our minds fall for magic? It was the 18th-century Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, David Hume, who argued that there is no metaphysical glue binding events, and that we only ever infer causal relationships, be they real or illusory.

Twinned with our susceptibility to wrongly infer relationships between events in the world is our ability to fool ourselves at an even deeper level. Numerous studies, including one by researcher and former magician Jay Olson and clinician Amir Raz which sits at the exit to the Wellcome show, conclude that our feeling of free will may be an essential trick of the mind.

Inferring connections makes us confident in ourselves and our abilities, and it is this confidence, this necessary delusion about the brilliance of our cognitive abilities, that lets us function… and be tricked. Even after reading both books, I defy you to see through the illusions and wonders in store at the exhibition.

The science of desperate fumbling


How Sexual Desire Works: The enigmatic urge by Frederick Toates (Cambridge University Press)
Fuckology: Critical essays on John Money’s diagnostic concepts by Lisa Downing, Iain Morland, Nikki Sullivan (University of Chicago Press)

for New Scientist

SEX. It’s one of the few subjects about which we know everything and nothing: a paradox facing all who study it scientifically. Sex doesn’t have to be private, but most sex acts are, so even when shame is put aside, it’s a tricky thing to study. How do you make a science out of more or less desperate fumbling?

To judge by an exhibition on sexology, the first show at a newly refurbished Wellcome Collection in London, researchers were more upbeat in the 20th century.

Take Magnus Hirschfeld, a Jewish radical who collected books, documents and artefacts on sexual behaviour, charted his proclivities in coloured inks, and fought discrimination against homosexuals. His Institute of Sexology, which was ransacked by the Nazis in 1933, gives the name to the Wellcome show.

Then there is Alfred Kinsey, who brought taxonomic skills gained studying gall wasps to the complexities of human sexual behaviour. And in the 1960s and 70s, William Masters and Virginia Johnson observed the sexual responses of anyone for whom they could get ethical approval.

One of the strongest elements of the show looks at Marie Stopes, who was a vigorous advocate of contraception and was opposed to sexual shame.

Today, the British National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, set up in 1990, is one of the few globally to gather the broad information that would have fascinated Stopes. Most of today’s cash funds brain-imaging studies or “performance” drugs.

Leaving Wellcome’s quiet, informative show, you would be forgiven for thinking its unblushing researchers have gifted us a profounder understanding of ourselves. On reflection, however, it’s hard to say what their work adds up to.

Is sexology a science, or a series of well-intentioned, evidence-based campaigns? Maybe labelling this messy field as science is helpful, securing funding in an age of austerity. For it is the absence of understanding of our needs and desires that matters, showing up over time in illegal abortions, gay-bashing, sexually transmitted diseases and more.

How Sexual Desire Works is psychologist Frederick Toates’s stab at a proper scientific account. He maps the mess as rigorously as he can, and the book is worth it for its bibliography alone. But sexual desire turns out to be as much about boredom, habit, disgust, rage, self-image, disappointment and the like as it is about desire. How to make a science out of this?

John Money, a New Zealand-born psychologist who died in 2006, applied boundless energy to the problem, creating concepts, with their own neologisms, such as “troopbondance”. In Fuckology (another of his), Lisa Downing and co-authors capture his story ably.

Money was interested in gender identity, and the possibilities for gender reassignment. Depending on what you read, he either tried to eradicate “man” and “woman” as categories, or to link sexuality and gender with a scalpel. After a botched circumcision, David Reimer had gender reassignment surgery at age 2, on Money’s recommendation. His miserable life and suicide in 2004 defined the psychologist’s reputation.

The authors are ironic about Money’s approach to his work: “To admit the potential of being wrong, or to settle for the productive tension of ambiguity, is not a feature of Money’s rhetorical range…”

But Money is in good company. Sexology lures big personalities: Sigmund Freud was its founder, after all. Have these strong egos bequeathed us a science? It’s hard to say. Sex, when push comes to shove, is not for the faint-hearted.