Dean Burnett: Like warnings about roast potatoes, a lot of things are attributed to science. This is often unfair, and potentially damaging.
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This October, I told a thousand Viennese intellectuals about the time I was haunted.
I was speaking at TEDxVienna, an event affiliated with the TED talks. TEDxVienna, of all the TEDx events, seems especially well-attended and respected, with about 1,200 people a year, and this year the conference focused on the theme, Out There, with speakers expounding on concepts with mind-bending implications, from the gene-defying CRISPR technology, to a new way to honor the dead.
I was honored to be asked to speak about fringe science and the paranormal, with a special focus on my podcast, Oh No Ross and Carrie!, which I host with the inimitable knowledge-sponge, Ross Blocher. In Oh No, Ross and Carrie, Ross and I undergo fringe science treatments, examine paranormal claims and (most germane to my talk), join fringe groups undercover. And by undercover, I mean we tell them our real names and basically dare them to Google us. Surprisingly, very few groups do, and we are often embedded for months before anyone realizes that we are a couple of die-hard rationalists with a popular podcast.
I have often spoken about my adventures embedded in Mormonism, Raëlianism, 9/11 Trutherism, The Ordo Templi Orientis, Tony Alamo Christian Ministries, and even Scientology. But this time, I was there to make an argument. The TED format is specific, and winkingly bossy: tell the audience to do something. The organizers don’t want the audience to leave simply saying, “that was interesting,” but feeling inspired to actually behave and think in new ways. I’m up to just about any challenge (ask my boyfriend about the time he dared me to call a local pie shop and list all thirty of their pies), so I had come prepared. My call was to think of Truth in a new way, and to not be afraid to ask people for evidence.
In the talk, I speak about my own experience coming to understand truth in a new way. It starts when I was about 25, and had recently moved to Los Angeles, where I lived in a small guest house behind a larger property. Through a series of events, including auditory hallucinations and a strange foreboding pressure on my chest, I came to believe the guest house was haunted. But as you’ll learn if you watch the talk, the explanation turned to be a much more worldly, and perhaps frightening, one. Yet I only discovered this alternate (and correct) explanation for my “haunting” because someone dared to challenge me.
From this premise, I explored how important it is to challenge other people’s beliefs. The “skeptic” who told me that my haunting was probably carbon monoxide poisoning may have saved my life. I go on to discuss the difference between metaphorical truths we hold dear and meaningful, and outer, objective truth.
Everything changed, though, when I got to another story. It’s about a man who approached the Independent Investigations Group (IIG) in Los Angeles. The group investigates claims of the paranormal under controlled, scientific conditions, and offers a $100,000 reward to anyone who can prove that they have such a talent. (I got this wrong in the talk; I thought their reward was still $50,000, but it has been upgraded.) My co-host, Ross, is in the IIG, and the work they do is admirable. Even when I worked at the James Randi Educational Foundation, considered the gold standard of paranormal testing, I envied the IIG’s resourcefulness and dedication. This particular time, the IIG tested a man who believed he could hear voices in his head, and that these voices represented the actual thoughts of other people nearby. The IIG tested the claim (with conditions he had agreed to), and he failed.
As I told this story, I got a great shock.
“He believed he could hear voices in his head,” I said, and the audience burst into a roar of laughter. Perplexed, I coughed, “That wasn’t a laugh line!” and smiled. They laughed, uncomfortably.
As the anecdote went on, the laughter continued, even as I told about how the man almost certainly had a mental illness and needed psychiatric testing. I couldn’t believe my European attendees could be so mean-spirited, but trudged on. The talk finished with a flourish, and a huge round of applause.
As I left the stage, I received a text message from my boyfriend: “You know they were laughing because of the mentalist, right?”
Of course, the mentalist! Earlier in the day, mentalist Harry Lucas had given a delicious presentation of his powers, guessing people’s most innermost and obscure thoughts. Harry had not just guessed things like, “You are a Gemini,” which he wrote off as “a one out of twelve chance,” to an astonished crowd, but seemingly impossible-to-guess things like, “you are wondering when your garden will be the most beautiful. Well, it will be most beautiful in ten years,” which sent the recipient of the reading thunking to his seat with shock.
The mentalist. The camera operator had found him in the audience, as I told my story about the “man who heard voices in his head,” and cleverly landed on him, beaming out his rosy cheeks as he laughed and laughed at the inside joke everyone was in on but me. To be fair, there were monitors on stage for me, but I was looking out at the audience and didn’t notice.
Soon, person after person ran into the green room to say, “It was fantastic! And you know about the mentalist, right?” What had been a tense moment became a jolly one. I had been the butt of the joke, not the clairaudient man, and that was fine with me.
That night, I contacted Harry Lucas and asked him if he would like to hang out and discuss magic, paranormal claims, and skeptical activism. After all, the day before the big event, we had bonded over our mutual respect for James Randi, noted activist and magician. Harry not only took me up on my invitation, but gave me a day-long tour of Vienna, ushering me back to my hotel only when the sun went down.
Harry is A Big Deal ® in Vienna, and he should be. He is an impressive mentalist with a unique stage presence. Rather than being domineering and stern on stage, he is affable and sweet, the kind of person you’d like to hug (and I did!). Yet he still says that people are scared of him. No one offers him phone numbers after his act, he says. Mentalism, I guess, isn’t as sexy as some might think. Harry’s act is mostly seen in Europe so far, but he hopes to come to the United States in the future, so we can watch his star rise.
When I returned to the United States, I emailed Harry and asked him a few more questions about how our talks dovetailed, which he was happy to answer. In typical mystery-man fashion, he is brief and to-the-point.
Carrie: In case anyone isn’t clear, can you define what a mentalist is and how it is different from a medium, psychic, or the more general term “magician”?
Harry: A medium or psychic usually claims to have supernatural abilities, whereas a magician in the modern day sense is seen as a performer who entertains people. The term “mentalist” is quite young and is only about 150 years old. I like to use it because people like labels, and thanks to the TV series it became a common expression. I don’t have any supernatural powers. I’m very interested in people and like to connect with my audience and entertain them in an—what I hope to be—interesting way.
Carrie: I got to watch your magnificent performance live at TEDxVienna. What a show! One of the things that struck me is how you have such a warm, friendly personality, almost at odds with the typical stage mentalist (in a good way!). Was that a conscious decision? Did you ever try to play the harsher, more “mysterious” stage magician? Or have you always just stuck with your own, natural personality?
Harry: Thank you very much. It’s interesting that you mention that, because when I started many years ago I thought that in order to be taken seriously you have to act seriously. Playing that Svengali=like character isn’t me and it took so much energy that I soon stopped trying to be someone I’m not. I like to have fun and found that people appreciate that.
Carrie: When we met up for lunch a couple of days later, I said, “Hey, great hot readings!” And you said, “maybe.” I know a magician never reveals his tricks, but can you at least give us a hint about what kind of techniques, generally, are involved? Aaaaaaany hints?
Harry: I use a lot of techniques from different areas. Magic, hypnosis, psychology, games, entertainment, and various others that I won’t talk about. Some of them are hundreds of years old.
Carrie: I tried to look up some of the people you called on in the audience, to see if they had posted about going to TEDx in advance. I could only find one: Wolfgang, the gardener. And even him, I still don’t know exactly how you got the very precise reading you did. When we’re watching you on stage giving that fifteen-minute reading, how much work are we really looking at? Hours? Days?
Harry: Honestly, years. It literally took me eight years being able to present what you saw me do at TEDxVienna. There are many different ideas coming together. I love that it is complex and has so many layers. It is interactive, so anything can happen, as you saw during the performance. It is one of the highlights of my full evening theater show and I’m very proud of it.
Carrie: When we met backstage, we bonded over a mutual respect for magician and activist James Randi. Has Randi’s reputation spread to Europe? Or are you just that good at knowing your magicians?
Harry: James Randi’s name has spread over Europe, of course. I saw Randi in 1995 live in Salzburg, and only recently, at the end of November 2016, he visited Vienna to accept the Heinz Oberhummer award for outstanding scientific communication. He gave a performance as well.
Carrie: Do you ever worry that someone in the audience won’t know that “mentalists” are magicians? Do you fear that someone will think you are really claiming to have a psychic ability? Has anyone ever accused you of hiding real psychic abilities?
Harry: I consider my audience to be intelligent enough to know that I’m not here to convince anyone of anything, I’m not promoting a religion or a belief system. I’m not a guru. I am here to entertain people in an, hopefully, interesting and personal way.
Carrie: What did you think of the camera operator’s clever pan to you when I was telling my anecdote about the man who heard voices in his head?
Harry: I thought it was brilliant and I absolutely loved it. It was such a great call back for the live theatre audience. They loved it too. At the same time I felt so sorry for you because you were irritated why they were laughing. You didn’t see what was going on on the big screen behind you, did you?
Carrie: What do you think people can take from watching our two talks together: mine on looking at paranormal claims with a skeptical eye; and yours demonstrating the same abilities that psychics and mediums often use (but they claim are paranormal)?
Harry: I think it’s a very clever idea by TEDxVienna to have both of us at the same event. I love that your talk is coming from a scientific point of view, actually trying to get behind things that seem to be inexplicable and me as a performer.
Carrie: It seems like magic (and especially mentalism) is dominated by men. Is that mistaken on my part? Are there any female mentalists I should be paying attention to?
Harry: I don’t know if there are many women mentalists around performing as such, but I guess you would find woman working as tarot readers, palm readers, or astrologers.
Carrie: Where can people in the United States find your stuff? And will you be touring here at any point?
Harry: The easiest way to find me is to visit my website www.harrylucas.com. No plans to tour the United States at the moment, but if anyone is interested, I’ll be very happy to perform there too.
Carrie: Are there any other paranormal/spiritual tricks that you’ve seen someone claim are paranormal and thought, “Hey! I can do that!”?
Harry: Yes, lots of them.
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Unbalanced minerals, contraceptive pills, tech-savvy kids, and more of your questions. This special episode of Skeptics with a K was recorded live at QED 2016!