(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘conjuring

“The things right in front of us are often the hardest to see”*…

Fake news, like conjuring, plays on our weaknesses — but, as Tim Harford explains, with a little attention, we can fight back…

Why do people — and by “people” I mean “you and I” — accept and spread misinformation? The two obvious explanations are both disheartening. The first is that we are incapable of telling the difference between truth and lies. In this view, politicians and other opinion-formers are such skilled deceivers that we are helpless, or the issues are so complex that they defy understanding, or we lack basic numeracy and critical-thinking skills. The second explanation is that we know the difference and we don’t care. In order to stick close to our political tribe, we reach the conclusions we want to reach.

There is truth in both these explanations. But is there a third account of how we think about the claims we see in the news and on social media — an account that, ironically, has received far too little attention? That account centres on attention itself: it suggests that we fail to distinguish truth from lies not because we can’t and not because we won’t, but because — as with Robbins’s waistcoat — we are simply not giving the matter our focus.

What makes the problem worse is our intuitive overconfidence that we will notice what matters, even if we don’t focus closely. If so, the most insidious and underrated problem in our information ecosystem is that we do not give the right kind of attention to the right things at the right time. We are not paying enough attention to what holds our attention.

The art of stage magic allows us to approach this idea from an unusual angle: Gustav Kuhn’s recent book, Experiencing the Impossible, discusses the psychology of magic tricks.

“All magic can be explained through misdirection alone,” writes Kuhn, a psychologist who runs the Magic Lab at Goldsmiths, University of London. Such a strong claim is debatable, but what is beyond debate is that the control and manipulation of attention are central to stage magic. They are also central to understanding misinformation. The Venn diagram of misinformation, misdirection and magic has overlaps with which to conjure.

[There follows a fascinating unpacking of the relevance of misdirection to to misinformation…]

We retweet misinformation because we don’t think for long enough to see that it is misinformation. We obsess over bold lies, not realising that their entire purpose is to obsess us. We see one thing and assume it is another, even though we are only deceiving ourselves. We will argue in favour of policies that we opposed seconds ago, as long as we can be distracted long enough to flip our political identities in a mirror.

And behind all this is the grand meta-error: we have no intuitive sense that our minds work like this. We fondly imagine ourselves to be sharper, more attentive and more consistent than we truly are. Our own brains conspire in the illusion, filling the vast blind spots with plausible images.

But if you decide to think carefully about the headlines, or the data visualisations that adorn news websites, or the eye-catching statistics that circulate on social media, you may be surprised: statistics aren’t actually stage magic. Many of them are telling us important truths about the world, and those that are lies are usually lies that we can spot without too much trouble.

Pay attention; get some context; ask questions; stop and think. Misinformation doesn’t thrive because we can’t spot the tricks. It thrives because, all too often, we don’t try. We don’t try, because we are confident that we already did…

Simple, but profoundly important, wisdom: “What magic teaches us about misinformation,” from @TimHarford. eminently worth reading in full. (Originally appeared in the Financial Times Magazine, from whence the illustration above.)

Related: the Barnum (or Forer) Effect

Apollo Robbins, world-famous pickpocket and illusionist

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As we dissect disinformation, we might spare a thought for Oscar Hammerstein; he died on this date in 1919.  As a newly-arrived immigrant to the U.S., Hammerstein worked in a cigar factory, where he discovered ways to automate the rolling process.  He patented his innovation and made a fortune– which he promptly reinvested in his true passions, music and the arts.  Possessed of a sharp sense of design and an equally good acoustical sense, he built and ran theaters and concert halls, becoming one of Americas first great impressarios…  a fact worth honoring, as history tends to overlook “Oscar the First” in favor of his grandson, Oscar Hammerstein II, the gifted librettist/lyricist and partner of Richard Rodgers.

Hammerstein (on left, with cigar) and conductor Cleofonte Campagnini

 source

“The magician and the politician have much in common: they both have to draw our attention away from what they are really doing”*…

magic

Across his work as a designer and the publisher of CentreCentre books, London-based Patrick Fry is always looking for a stone unturned. This fascination with niche nuggets of cultural history has led to a unique selection of books, from a deep dive into Great British Rubbish, or forgotten postcards from South Yorkshire. His most recent venture, however, is into a subject a little more familiar – magic!

A long-time fan of traditional magic posters for their “lavish illustrations with magicians performing the impossible and their outrageous names written in fancy lettering,” surprisingly publishing a book on magic ephemera was something Patrick had never considered. This was largely due to it being “a world that has been recorded plenty” and against the criteria he would usually look for in a book, until he came across the vast magic collection of Philip David Treece.

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Found during a scroll through Twitter, Patrick came across Philip’s magic history blog, Collecting Magic, where he writes about his collection of ephemera and apparatus spanning the past 25 years. Thankfully for Patrick too, “Philip isn’t primarily concerned with the monetary value of the pieces, and as such has amassed a fascinating array that speaks more of the social history surrounding everyday working magicians.” Presented with a huge collection of gems “away from the large-scale stage magicians… it quickly became clear that the less famous and smaller-run design pieces would create a brilliant book.”…

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For fans of conjuring or design or (like your correspondent) both: “Magic Papers dives deep into the flamboyant design of magic ephemera.”

* Ben Okri

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As we say “abracadabra,” we might recall that it was on this date that Universal released “Trolley Trouble” from Walt Disney Studios.  The first Disney cartoon to spawn a series, it featured Oswald the Lucky Rabbit (the creation of Walt’s long-time collaborator Ub Iwerks).  Oswald featured in 27 successful animated shorts– but Disney lost the rights to Universal.  So, he and Iwerks created a new featured character, Mickey Mouse.

On this date three years later, Pluto made his debut (with Mickey) in the short, “The Chain Gang.”

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