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The Row Boat
"Had we but world enough, and time..." *
Want to See How I Did It?2/06/2008 10:28:52
A week ago, at the tail end of my interview for a research job at the New York Times, there was a stir in the office, on the 22nd floor of the newspaper's new building. We all got up to see what was happening. A tall, mild-mannered fellow, who turned out to be the magician David Blaine, had a small crowd gathered around him. One of the Times executives, we learned, had been sitting next to him on an airplane a few days before and arranged for him a meeting that day with the science desk. But for the moment, for maybe half an hour, he treated a dozen of us from the education department to a magic show.
He kept us amazed the whole time with just a deck of cards. The tricks were of a classic kind, picking out this card or that, making cards rise to the top of the deck. Familiar things, but made marvelous by his graceful deadpan. What seemed to me especially masterful, though, were the times when he turned to us after a trick and asked, Want to see how I did it?
We all answered Yes of course. He went on to walk through the trick just done, step by step. First I did this, then I did this. But before long there would come a catch. It's simple, you see, the card just rises up through the deck, he says as something unexplainable goes before our eyes. The explanation became a new trick, even more amazing than the trick it was meant to explain, further on down the rabbit hole. In this intimate session on the 22nd floor it was easy to feel drawn into his confidence. Here, perhaps, we special people at the New York Times can see behind what the masses miss. But he played this sensation for great effect, turning our expectations into magic.
I was reminded of this today while listening to "Making Radio Lab", a podcast about WYNC's phenomenal Radio Lab show. In it the hosts Jad and Robert, like Blaine, bring listeners into their confidence, only to lead us through a tour of new aural mysteries. Whether intentionally or not, the explanation turns into just another trick.
A pattern seems to be arising, one that may be universal. People generally believe in the possibility of explanations—of course—but what if every explanation is really a trick in disguise, leading from one mystery to another while toying with the hearer's confidence? I think, for instance, of how what counts as an explanation changes with the passing fashions. Once, theological explanations could satisfy serious researchers about the natural world: fish are fish because God created them that way. Now, scientists recognize this as an obfuscation. Explanations work because of the cultural circumstances that make them seem plausible, seem final, seem empowering.
I think of shamans and I think of teachers. Can shamans in tribal societies "really" explain the feats they accomplish? In our terms, no—they have no access to the physiology of the placebo effect (and such faith-based mechanisms) that even we are only beginning to comprehend. They can explain them in certain terms, but the explanation, we suspect, is its own trick of faith. The shaman, in outside terms, is tricked by his own trick. Is the scientist so different?
A similar process is part of any teaching. In my first experiences as a teaching assistant, what amazed me was the palpable authority that I would have to carry and maintain as I stood in front of a class. On the one hand, I would be trying to explain a phenomenon or a concept to the students. On the other, at the same time, I would be keeping some of my cards hidden. As I spoke, a strange confidence and coherence would overcome me and the ideas I tried to express, something absent when I was among my peers and fellow teachers. In teaching, one does not lay the material out there, bare and plain to see; one carries it through a performance of authority, which must be veiled in mysteries of its own to be effective. The students learn (and the audience is amazed) because of this combination of raw material and human authority, which is undoubtedly magic, something neither teacher or student, nor magician or audience, seems to comprehend fully.