Neil is a science presenter on both stage and screen. He uses demonstrations in his live performances to create, or sometimes re-create moments of mystery. He performs at a variety of events, including festivals, theatres and corporate functions.
Describe something that has recently amazed you and how it made you feel.
Seeing the inside of a beehive. I’d never been near one before and at the point when the hive was opened up I could immediately see a boiling mass of the things on the honeycomb absorbed in their bee business. My mouth did literally, and without any sense of originality, drop open. It was a totally involuntary response; obviously really, since inviting hundreds of stinging insects into your mouth is not something anyone with any sense would do on purpose.
That happened on the same day as your questions came through so it made me reflect a lot on the nature of amazement and wonder. I’ve seen the enough wildlife programmes to know what to expect of a beehive so I think it’s fair to say my reaction was not one of surprise. So what caused that ‘amazement’ response? I don’t know. But I do think it’s more than simply being startled in a non-threatening way. I think descriptions of amazement and wonder sound a lot like descriptions of love. Does that mean amazement, wonder and love are all the same? I think that would be an interesting question to explore.
How would you personally define wonder, awe and curiosity? And how do they relate to each other?
I think I should resist defining something personally when there’s a dictionary within easy reach. Apparently wonder is a feeling of amazement and admiration, awe is reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder, and curiosity is a strong desire to know or learn something. Those sound like good and useful descriptions to me, if a little circular, so I guess well done to the people at the OED.
Actually, if we take those definitions I think there is a valuable lesson here for me as a performer of wonders and curiosities. Wonder is clearly a good thing, just perhaps a state to be indulged in with some moderation. Awe on the other hand strikes me as a wholly negative concept. To be in fear, or to have strictly reverential respect are not feelings that I would like to impart to anyone.
So what would be the relationship to curiosity? Curiosity would be stoked by wonder, but snuffed out by awe.
What inspires you to be creative?
Mostly it’s seeing the high standards that the people around me have reached, whether they’re colleagues or in a different field entirely. A perfect story, a beautifully choreographed routine, a visionary animation – I think there’s something monumentally inspiring about seeing someone produce their best work. But I won’t say awe-inspiring, as it doesn’t fill me with respect that’s reverential; instead I want to create something just as good, or at least as good as I can.
Do you have any ‘rituals’ or an environment that aids your creativity?
I’ve been making a living as a creator for about six years and it’s taken me five years and six months to realise that I need be working on things that I want to create for it to come out at all well. I have experienced some awful bouts of creative impotence. But whilst I’ve always gotten over the finishing lines no combination of time pressure, scented candles or enforced isolation has ever helped me produce something of quality. However, when I’m working on something that I sincerely want to make exist, it happens easily and tinkering with the environment does not matter at all.
What do you love about magic?
What I love most about magic is that it is in-your-face proof that we are not perfect thinking machines. I don’t believe anyone could watch Dai Vernon’s cups and balls routine or Richard Turner’s false deals, and not come away without a profound realisation that their senses are flawed. You can of course stream TED talks on psychology and learn the same thing intellectually but great magic lets you feel that immediate, intuitive doubt that your brains and eyeballs are not really co-operating with each other.
What do you think hinders an audience from experiencing wonder when watching a magician?
It’s partly the player and it’s partly the game. It’s a shame to say it, but the emotions of an audience are not often at the front of a magician’s mind. And even for those magicians that do consider this, I think the deck is stacked against them: I don’t believe magic itself can naturally inspire wonder. If we go by those definitions earlier, wonder inspires curiosity – but a magic trick is specifically designed to shut down curiosity. It’s about cutting off any reasonable avenue of explanation to leave the audience literally thinking “no way!”. That’s not my own idea, it’s the very sound advice of Darwin Ortiz and is a wonderful method of creating powerful effects. But it doesn’t create wonder – if it did the result would be to inspire curiosity and that’s the last thing you want as the deeper your audience looks into a magic trick the less wonder there is to be found. Some people do enjoy picking apart a trick, but usually because they think the method will be cleverer than it ever really is. The feeling a magician elicits from a trick is not wonder, it’s awe.
I think it’s valuable here to borrow a definition from James Randi about magic – in that a magician is someone who has real magical powers, whereas what we typically call a magician is really a conjuror, that is, an actor who pretends to be a magician for entertainment.
Conjuring can produce some incredible moments but if a conjuror wants to create an experience of wonder specifically, then I think it can’t be achieved with tricks. It has to be done with magic.
Where do you think our sense of wonder comes from and what can we do to cultivate it?
If wonder is what drives our curiosity and leads to us finding new knowledge then surely it’s fundamental to our thinking and everyone can do it equally? Wonder would be something that happens in the background of our minds, like assessing the distance of a door handle or the automatic process of breathing, direct from the medulla oblongata, driving us forward to new thoughts whether conscious or not. In that case, it’s more helpful to think of wonder as something we do rather than a feeling we experience.
Personally, wonder is something that I enjoy doing immensely and I think everyone should but I don’t think it’s helpful to think of it as a skill that needs developing. Developing a conscious sense of wonder would not necessarily be positive. Those moments when we have an acute sense of our breathing, or our heart moving to its own beat, can be thrilling. But if I thought about and talked about it all the time I’d quickly become insufferable.
Magicians and science performers both talk about a child-like sense of wonder with the implication that you could, in theory, partition off a section of your brain from adulthood. But for a child, so much experience is felt with wonder because so much is simply new, unknown and mysterious. So I think if you enjoy wonder, don’t dwell too much on the feeling itself, just put yourself in situations where wonder is the appropriate response.
A lot of your work involves the interface between knowing and not knowing. Why is mystery so important to you?
Because mystery and wonder are wrapped tightly together in a mobius strip of knowledge: at a glance it looks like they are opposite sides to a question but when you trace around the edge, one runs right into the other. Mystery creates wonder, which leads to curiosity, which in turn discovers more mystery.
In the real world, as opposed to the magical one, every discovery will always lead to more mystery. It’s a fundamental consequence of the scientific method. Popular belief, and often poor communication, of science gives the impression that science works by verification, that theories guessed by scientists are proven right when evidence is found, after which everyone gets a pat on the back and the case is closed. However, science is more reasonably based on falsification – when we propose a theory we also explain how it could be proved wrong. If I say all swans are white, you can conclusively prove me wrong by finding a black swan – and presumably slapping me round my smug face with it. If you don’t find a black swan, it doesn’t mean for certain my white swan theory is right, but we’ll accept that it’s right for now.
By contrast, the magical world, in whatever manifestation, is driven by certainty. There is no space for being wrong. Mysteries aren’t treated as the seeds of curiosity, instead magical thinking encourages us to be in awe of them, to have reverential respect, to not look too closely. But that way lies ignorance; certainty kills mystery and so wonder, curiosity and knowledge. Mystery is important but it’s also our response to it that matters.
I should mention that the general technique in science presenting is to show a demonstration, ask a slightly patronising round of questions and then give the explanation. I noticed that after my shows, people would want to know about the tricks I used more often than the demonstrations, so I started delaying or omitting some explanations. How long should you preserve this mystery is up for debate, but I now believe it’s a period of time much longer than the length of one show.
What disturbs you by the proliferation of pseudoscience?
I am rarely worried about any individual pseudoscience, as each incarnation of it is always an ephemeral thing, at some point guaranteed to die off or crawl into an obscure niche – take Kinesio Tape as a good example. What is deeply disturbing is that we live in the scientific age, with open access to knowledge for all and yet the underlying conditions that allow pseudoscience to proliferate still exist. We should view pseudoscience as a tentacle belonging to a much bigger monster – mysticism and anti-science are other appendages – and it’s the whole creature we should be concerned about.
That’s not to say that individual pseudosciences can be ignored. Pseudoscientific distortions of diet and medication have, and continue to, directly cause the deaths of people who’ve done nothing more than place some faith in an idea. Pseudoscience incites hate, pernicious pseudoscience about race has given cause to genocide in the past and the danger is that it will do so again in the future.
However, I think we should be more worried that pseudoscience still exists at all. Amongst the tentacles, pseudoscience has the unique ability to damage the credibility of the scientific method that it crudely mimics and that is our main weapon against it. Twenty years on, we are still suffering the effects of Andrew Wakefield’s pseudoscientific tirade against vaccination. Not because many people actually concur with the anti-vax movement, but because the debate has since mutated healthy skepticism in parents into cynical suspicion. Who knows what to think?
If we tolerate pseudoscience anywhere, it will undermine rational clear thinking. In public life, we are seeing policymakers reaching for science to justify decisions in education, crime and economics and it’s tempting for the community of science to embrace this apparent adoption of scientific thinking and bask in the reflected glory. But compared to natural sciences, these are nascent areas of research and we don’t often know how to fully implement a scientific approach to them, which makes them vulnerable to bias and abuse. You might say ‘better to have some scientific approach than none’ but that is precisely what pseudoscience is. We may well see the general trust in science erode further as more post-hoc political decision-making is hidden behind its own brand of pseudoscience.
In our field, with the very corporate title of ‘science communication’, there has been a marked embrace of pseudoscience in the last ten years. Performers and funders alike needed to justify their effectiveness and impact, and sociology has often been ready to supply the answers. But most scientists are trusting of the label ‘social science’ without knowing much of its methods or anything of its history of outright anti-science in the Strong Programme. I’ve recently heard more than one professional science communicator, influenced by the sociologists they work with, use the nuclear phrase “science is a social construct” without knowing anything of Michel Foucault or the philosophical arguments against his ideas. But in a well-meaning effort to be skeptical, pseudoscience steers us into cynical relativism.
Pseudoscience is the body snatcher, the zombie-bitten friend, that comes at you smiling and then eats your face. We should all be disturbed.
Why do adults need magic?
Magic, whether as conjuring tricks or the demonstrations of nature that I use, both provide a vital chance for us, as an audience, to experience mystery and confront our mistaken thinking in a non-confrontational way.
Magic has long had a sideline in exposing untruth. There’s an epic history of magicians battling against charlatans, pseudoscience and mysticism that I think should be a screenwriting goldmine for someone – but is largely unknown to non-magicians. I was personally switched on to rationalism by the magic of Derren Brown, who is my absolute stage-hero, and I think I’m part of a very large group that would say the same.
However, there are limits to what conjuring magic can do to encourage rational thinking. When the central point of interest is that the conjuror can supposedly do impossible things it can only end in two ways – the audience doesn’t believe it and there’s no feeling of awe, or they do believe it, enjoy themselves but now think the impossible is possible. I think this is actually apparent in Derren Brown’s earlier work, there’s still myriad management trainers who peddle neurolinguistic programming and treat his tricks as examples of this rather than the act debunking that they were.
This is why I think demonstrations are important, they are the carrot rather than the stick. A trick can shock you into seeing your irrationalism, but a natural mystery can pull you in and make you curious to know more. That’s where rational thinking comes from; it’s the only tool available when you really want to know.
It’s currently 2018, so if you’re reading this on a singed print-out in the nuclear afterglow of 2021, you may understand why more rationality and more willingness to be wrong were very necessary things for adults in the present time.
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