Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Genuine magic, supernatural powers or something else??

Last semester I was given the exciting, albeit at times challenging, responsibility of tutoring statistics to a class of first year psychology students. While a large slice of the course, believe it or not, was dedicated to teaching various statistical techniques and their theoretical underpinnings a small and as I see invaluable component of the course was assigned to beating the scientific method into the students.

Having not studied first year stats myself in over four years and possessing only an average knowledge of statistics at best, teaching this class was a daunting task: thrust upon me was the responsibility of spiking the students’ interest in science and psychology and equipping them with the critical thinking skills necessary to battle the tidal wave of misinformation and pseudo-science that threatens to consume society.

A key principle taught to the students in this course is “Occam’s razor”. Occam’s razor simply means that the simplest explanation or strategy is more often than not the best one. This probably seems intuitive to a lot, if not most of you, but we humans appear to have an unprecedented tendency to construct wild and complex explanations to account for the simplest of phenomena. Are unexplained lights in the sky inhabitants of an extra-solar planet scanning our planet for intelligent life, as this "reputable" news source would suggest or is there a simpler, more plausible explanation? I’ll let you be the judge of that.

Below is a short video of what I think to be a cool “magic” trick. Any ideas on how they do it? There was no camera cutting or special effects. Stop for a second and ask yourself, is there a simpler explanation to the illusion other than “magical powers beyond the realm of reality”? If, like me, you prefer to apply logic and reason, resist the temptation to go here (scroll down for the answer of how this is done) until you have had a fair attempt at working it out yourself.

With great knowledge comes great responsibility (something like that) and I was determined not to fail in transforming my cohort of psychology students into agents of science. I can only hope that I succeeded to some extent, and my now ex-students are at this very moment employing their new found critical reasoning skills (aided by a healthy dose of scepticism) to make an impact as young scientists.

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  1. We've updated this post to include a link to the original YouTube video that includes a discussion of how the trick was performed.

  2. I can't find discussion of how the trick was performed.. Help, my brain is about to asplode!!

  3. that's insane. and I am no longer a psyc student at UQ, so i'm cheating. I'm going to go find the answer now. Otherwise, like Ryan, my brain with explode.