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What’s the difference between a scientist on TV and a magician?

Posted by c. wagner on October 27, 2009

In Voodoo Science, Robert Park makes an interesting point about science reports on TV:

If a stage magician pulls a rabbit from a hat, those in the audience may not know where the rabbit came from, but unless they’re hopelessly naive they know it isn’t magic. It’s a trick. And not a terribly difficult trick either, according to professional magicians. But how much easier it is to fool an audience with a complicated scientific apparatus. The television audience must accept on faith that the experiment is what the scientist says it is. It is as if, instead of pulling the rabbit out of the hat, the magician simply looks into the hat and assures the audience that the rabbit is there. [page 116]

Most viewers don’t have the background knowledge needed to sort fact from exaggeration (or outright impossibilities) in science reporting. They don’t even realize they should be looking in the hat for the rabbit.

What we should be doing is mentally strip-searching the magician and tearing apart the stage to find the rabbit.

With science on TV, sometimes there is a rabbit, sometimes it just looks like a rabbit, and sometimes there’s no rabbit at all.

Of course, the same is true with rabbits and stage magicians:

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