In Defense Of Trust
James Randi 09.25.06, 6:00 PM ET
Trust everyone and youre a fool; trust no one, and youre crippled. Trust is a lubricant to our path through life. By and large, we learn to trust by watching and listening to the world around us. But if we depend only on our senses, we can deceive ourselves.
As a professional magician, I have always been very much aware of that weak point in human thinking. For example, I often appear before my lecture audiences and announce--a few minutes into my talk--that I have already deceived them in two important respects. Although they try to figure out how they have been fooled, I have never yet failed to surprise them. When I show that the podium microphone into which Ive been speaking is switched off--they were hearing me via a small wireless microphone concealed beneath my tie--and that the spectacles I'm wearing are actually empty frames, they suddenly become aware that they have made false assumptions.
They werent talked into it. I didnt say anything like, Ill just speak into this microphone here, or I can see you clearly through these excellent spectacles. No, I allowed them to make assumptions, and I depended on the fact that they trusted me.
Now, this innocent set of deceptions is designed to show my audience that they continually make assumptions, because they trust that the universe isn't trying to deceive them. The basic facts about how the world works dont change, but we--the most intelligent and influential form of life on this planet--certainly can and will change circumstances to our advantage. All forms of life do this, but were the best at it.
The professional magician will never refer to a pack of cards as a regular deck of cards; that would perhaps give the spectator reason to think that maybe those cards are not regular. Removing the pack from its wrapping, breaking open the box and discarding the spare cards, while addressing the audience on other matters, automatically serves to invoke trust.
An empty box on the stage is not described to an audience as empty, but is handled and moved about in the same way that any empty box would be treated--though a tremulous bunny just might be hanging, unnoticed, behind it. The magician invokes confidence by his manners, expressions and authority--a fact that neophytes are often slow to appreciate. Often only after long experience, apprentices to the trade learn that they are in the business of being pleasant and likable; that induces trust and thus success.
Make no mistake--we professional magicians will deceive you, but we do it strictly for purposes of entertainment, not to dishonestly take your money, your security or your emotional stability. This differentiates us from scam artists. When magicians fool people, they do it with consent, in order to entertain. Other forms of deception are much more damaging.
Those who make a living convincing audiences that they speak to the dead are examples of what I call grief trade workers. These people need to draw on their subjects trust of their reputation. Operators such as Sylvia Browne, John Edward and James Van Praagh depend on a technique known in their profession as cold reading--a process of throwing out suggestions, initials, adjectives and simple words as try-ons for the victim to try to fit into his or her scenario. The ploy requires that a trusting--and vulnerable--victim react by filling in details. Its a heartless game, and its very lucrative.
These deceptions don't just hurt grieving relatives--they contribute to an overall decline in trust in our present world. Medicine provides an excellent example of this: Doctors are assailed by ignorant agitators who will throw in their faces such comments as, You people think you know everything! No, they don't. In fact, members of the medical profession are very well aware they know very little of their total subject, but they move ahead constantly, closing in on new facts and discoveries, which they incorporate into their practice.
But the public fails to place enough trust in these learned people. Rather, they are attracted to and charmed by every sort of pseudoscientific quackery that is advertised to them. They clamor to buy useless magnets to apply to their bodies, stroke waxy sticks with no active ingredients on their foreheads or hold printed plastic cards between their hands, trying to bring about magical cures.
The public trusts con artists because they usually dont look like con artists. But think about that. Do you have any idea of what such a person should look like? Do you expect a Quasimodo-like figure, a sneering mustachioed bandit, a straggle-haired witch with a nose wart?
No, a successful scammer looks like anyones brother or aunt, the local barber or an early morning jogger. That said, I urge you not to abandon your acceptance of your fellow humans; they are far, far, more likely not to be your enemies--even that lady over there with the dramatic nose wart, though Id be careful
How much you trust will be dictated by your experience of the world. Personally, my experience over the 78 years that Ive inhabited this planet has generally been very satisfactory. Perhaps Im just fortunate, perhaps Im somewhat naive, but when the chips have been down, my friends, family and others close to me have produced. The bottom line, for me, is that putting faith in people has produced greater bounty than I might have experienced by failing to exhibit that trust.
You say that youd like to borrow my wallet? Umm, no, maybe not today
James "The Amazing" Randi is a magician, lecturer, and president of the James Randi Educational Foundation. He is the author of books including The Truth About Uri Geller and Flim-Flam! The Truth about Unicorns, Parapsychology & Other Delusions.
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