Recently, I interviewed D.J. Grothe, vice president and director of outreach programs for the Center for Inquiry, in a restaurant inside Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. At a nearby table, a group of fifteen or so men spoke in hushed tones. Sometimes they were entirely inaudible to me, and the only way I knew they spoke at all was by the movement of their lips. It was reminiscent of watching a group of government operatives taking lunch. But, to my knowledge, none of the men in the restaurant were government operatives. They were mentalists - mentalists attending Luke Jermay's Mentalism Workshop.
"It's not exactly a secret society," Grothe said, "but it is a society committed to keeping secrets."
I had never really thought of the secretive aspect of magic before. I mean, sure, mentalists aren't supposed to tell you how it's done, but I never envisioned a whisper-filled meeting that included celebrities like Teller, Max Maven, Eric Mead, and Jamy Ian Swiss. And, for something extra cool, Larry Fong, Director of Photography for 300 and Watchmen gave an excellent talk on story-telling.
I never saw any of the actual workshop - I assume because I'm not that cool - but Grothe was willing to fill me in on a few of the details: The event is, sadly for me, invitation only, and has a very small number of attendees. The one I visited was the fifth of its kind.
I asked Grothe what the group was doing behind closed doors.
"There are lectures, performances and explorations of certain problems in mentalism. It is a real workshop - meaning people perform and get brutal feedback from the greatest thinkers in this field," he said, "... Also there is occasional discussion about the claims that mentalists may make in their performances. When someone is dealing with the intimate details about someone's life, I think it raises some serious ethical questions."
When Grothe told me this, the entirety of my being went, "Huh." Until right then, I hadn't thought of magic as something that had ethical implications. But then again, if a mentalist feigned paranormal abilities, it would be extraordinarily difficult for the vast majority of us to see through it. And is it fair to ask a trickster to let us know in advance that we are being tricked?
"I have a pretty unyielding position [on disclaimers in mentalism]," Grothe said, "Although I consider myself a very open-minded skeptic, I am uncomfortable when someone - even if he is onstage -performs theatrical mind-reading so effectively that the majority of the audience leaves believing in supernatural powers."
Banachek, the renowned mentalist, says at the beginning of his presentations that he uses his five senses to create the illusion of a sixth. Having been at Banachek's shows before, I have seen the audience visibly shaken by his abilities, even with a disclaimer. And this does lead them to wonder if he has supernatural abilities.
"Mentalists ask the biggest questions people can ask, such as ‘Do I have a soul?' ‘Do I have a mind that is separate from my body?' ‘Can I survive my death, or can dead people communicate from beyond the grave?'... What most people think of as trivial - let me show you a trick where I can read your mind - is actually connected to these big, profound questions," Grothe said.
I swear, from the content of this article, it's going to appear that I don't think about anything at all - because again, I never thought about that. Performances are beautiful, yes, and sometimes even a simple French Drop can have this exquisite sort of flair, yet I never before thought of mentalists as philosophers. The image suits them very well.
And Grothe's search is not just within the philosophical areas of magic - though he was a professional magician for a number of years. He is also one of the voices of skepticism for CFI with his podcast, Point of Inquiry, and is also an associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. Grothe works arduously to offer the public an opportunity to examine their beliefs, whatever they happen to be.
"Magic and mentalism offer a corrective to some skeptic's, ‘I'm right, you're wrong' approach. Magic and mentalism says to everyone, ‘Imagine how easy it is for you to be deceived,' and that even great scientists can be fooled with well-performed magic. Even smart people - and, in fact, especially smart people - can be fooled by the magical arts."
Grothe also believes that a paranormal claim, even a ridiculous sounding one, demands an investigation.
"Whether or not this stuff is real, we should ask the question. Even if we think the evidence says ‘No.' But that does not mean the questions should stop being asked... The skeptic is wrong when he or she says, ‘I know all that stuff's bull.' I favor open-minded skepticism. We can't reject any claims out of hand," he said.
The term ‘open-minded skeptic' has always been a little confusing for me. A skeptic, by definition, should be open-minded. But I have experienced the dogmatic nature some skeptics have adopted, and I find it worrying, just as Grothe does. If we, as skeptics, feel like we've already got all the answers that are important, then we are no better than the groups we say are wrong. Investigation is always a good, positive thing. Even if curiosity did kill a cat once.
"The appreciation of mystery that comes from well-performed mentalism, I hope, may make us a little less debunking, and a little more inquiring," Grothe said.
And I agree.