The Conjuror's Conundrum by Jamy Ian Swiss
Review by Michael Close
Whether it is public speaking, the performance of magic, writing, the preparation of fine Italian cuisine, or expert mixology, Jamy Ian Swiss embraces his interests with a passion I find enviable. If you’ve been in magic any length of time, I’m sure his name is familiar. For many years, Jamy was the book reviewer for Genii magazine. He is the author of four superb books on magic: Shattering Illusions, Devious Standards, Preserving Mystery, and Light and Heat. He co-authored The Magic of Johnny Thompson. And for thirty-five years he has been an active member of the organized skeptic community.
Jamy co-founded the National Capital Area Skeptics and the New York City Skeptics. He has been an annual presenter at the TAM conference, served as a member of the Million Dollar Challenge subcommittee, and has spoken and performed across the U.S. on behalf of the Center for Inquiry. He currently serves as vice-president of the San Diego Skeptic Society. His latest book, The Conjurer’s Conundrum, is a chronicle of his life in skepticism.
If you are unfamiliar with the term, skepticism can be easily summed up with this statement: extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence. Jamy explains: “I am a skeptical activist because I believe that science, critical thinking, and rational inquiry provide the best path toward finding solutions to problems. In their absence, we cling to foolish and often self-defeating beliefs—which in turn can lead us into disaster...as a skeptical activist, first and foremost, I consider myself a consumer advocate for the scientific method. I am not a scientist, but I do my best, using my particular vantage and platform, to promote science as a way to think about the world and to solve its problems, both for individuals and for society.”
Generally, when skeptics make news, they do so in the debunking of those who claim supernatural powers (psychics, Tarot card readers, metal-benders, and spirit mediums). Because the malarkey these frauds are peddling are simply magic tricks disguised as “truth,” those who have experience in theatrical deception are often the best qualified to do the debunking. And who has that expertise? Magicians.
This, then, is the core question of The Conjurer’s Conundrum. Why would one group of deceivers spend time, energy, and money exposing the secrets of another group of deceivers? Jamy explains this clearly:
“[James] Randi opened my eyes to the harm that psychics and other con artists can do, whether it is by sidetracking the legitimate pursuit of science down rabbit holes of confusion and anti-science, or by setting the public up with toxic misinformation that can readily lead to their victimization. An army of con men and women are ever ready to use their armamentarium of techniques to rob people of their time, money, self-respect, and sometimes their very lives. By altering people’s worldviews under false pretenses, by promising the moon and stars and then delivering pebbles, they open the door for their credulous customers to become more at risk of other predators making inflated, misbegotten, unvalidated claims. Con artists thrive by misinforming the public about scientific thinking, and how to determine what is and is not true.
“Randi instilled in me the righteous indignation that fuels so many of us involved in the work of skepticism. And thus I found myself set on the path that has connected magicians with the cause of critical thinking and rationality for centuries.”
The first part of The Conjurer’s Conundrum provides a historical background, including Jamy’s introduction to magic as a hobby and his first experience as a “mark.” (He was scammed out of a dollar by a “handwriting-analysis” machine at the 1964 World’s Fair.) The reader is next introduced to Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft, the Fox Sisters (whose mysterious “raps” jumpstarted the Spiritualist movement), Dr. Henry Slade, Eusapia Paladino, Anna Eva Fay, the Davenport Brothers, and a host of other colorful con men and women. And, of course, there’s a chapter devoted to Harry Houdini, whose exploits inspired many, including Mr. Swiss. Jamy writes, “As a boy fascinated as much by science as by magic, I loved that Harry Houdini was an ‘honest liar’—a professional deceiver who fought a passionate and principled battle in his search for truth.”
The second part of the book covers Jamy’s life as a skeptic. It includes information on James Randi, Jamy’s work with the James Randi Educational Foundation’s Million Dollar Challenge (the prize would be awarded to anyone who could demonstrate a paranormal ability under mutually agreed test conditions), shuteyes, Israeli spoon-bender Ronnie Marcus, cold reading, hot reading, universal reading, and encounters with several practitioners, Jamy’s work with the U.S. Attorney’s office to help take down a “talk-to-the-dead” medium, and his meeting with Indian children who claimed to have x-ray vision. All of it is fascinating.
Jamy concludes with this cogent paragraph: “One of the elements that appealed to me about becoming a professional magician, after having had pursued two careers in the business world, was that it was the most honest form of living to which I had ever devoted myself. That is why I am offended, and care deeply, when psychics and their ilk use the tools of my legitimate profession to take unfair advantage of people, and mislead people about how the world works, manipulating their worldview for prestige, profit, or power. The social contract I adhere to is clear the moment I take the stage: I’m going to lie to you for the next little while, but for the purpose of giving you an experience—and then I will return you safely whence you began, and even perhaps a little bit better for having had that experience.”
The Conjurer’s Conundrum is an entertaining explanation of the skeptical mindset, with a world populated by a colorful array of good guys and bad guys. I enjoyed it very much, and I think you will, too.