Teller (of Penn & Teller) on Revealing Magic Tricks


Photo by Peter Yang for Esquire.

The magicians Penn & Teller are in New York this summer performing Penn & Teller On Broadway. In a conversation with Teller (the quiet one) last week, the topic of explaining magic tricks came up, and I happened to have a tape recorder running. An edited transcript is below.

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Awe Increases Religious Belief

In February of 1971, Lunar Module Pilot Edgar Mitchell was on his way back from the moon when he had an epiphany. Staring out the window at the stars, he realized that everything is connected. The experience was so “puzzling and powerful,” he told me, that upon touchdown he launched a quest into what it was all about, seeking the wisdom of mystics and holy men around the world. He wasn’t alone in his spiritual awakening; an analysis of astronauts’ reports reveals that for many, the awesomeness of spaceflight increased their belief in God. New research may explain why.

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All Paths Lead to Magical Thinking

In recent years, psychologists have come to understand religion and paranormal belief as resulting, in most people, from simple errors in reasoning. You believe in God or astrology or a purpose in life because you apply ideas about people—that they have thoughts and intentions—to the natural world. Some display this tendency more than others, but it’s there in everyone, even atheistic heathens like me. What has not been clarified is exactly how the various cognitive biases interact to produce specific ideas about the supernatural—until now.

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Even Top Scientists Believe Everything Was Created by Magic

In a 2012 Gallup poll, only 15 percent of Americans said humans evolved without God’s guidance. By comparison, 32 percent said God guided our evolution, and 46 percent said God created us in our present form (appendix and all). Many countries have done a better job than we have at quashing creationism and intelligent design, but we do teach evolution in (most of) our schools, so what’s going on? Why are those nonscientific beliefs so persistent? It could be human nature: New research suggests even top scientists are not immune to such magical intuitions.

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Everything Is a F**king Miracle

In 2010, Insane Clown Posse released their now-infamous music video “Miracles.” (See below.) They described their wonder at all the things around them, from the spectacular (rainbows, childbirth) to the mundane (water, fire, air, dirt). People mocked them for their apparent misunderstanding of science, thanks especially to the line “Fucking magnets, how do they work?” Continue reading

Our Inner Puritans

The Puritans often serve as a punch line—the kind of people who would outlaw dancing—but their history is complex, and as Americans we may carry their candle to a larger degree than you think. In Sunday’s New York Times I wrote about their influence on our modern culture and morality, but there’s more to the story than could fit in the final article: Continue reading