Methodology of Magic

Pagans tend to be terrible record keepers; at least about keeping records about being pagan. Terrible record keepers do not make good scientists. You need to be able to take comprehensive notes about an experiment if you want to collect data. Thus, pagans have a terrible track record of collecting reliable data about their own magical experiments. We make claims, and we believe in possibilities, but we have little corroborative evidence to prove our magical prowess. This isn’t terribly surprising either, since magical skills range widely within the community and are made manifest in varied, unusual and often unexpected ways. These are not traits desired in a scientific experiment hungry for reliability.

There’s been a number of attempts to prove magic’s efficacy. From individuals to government agencies, many have sought convincing evidence of real magic: the ability to predict the future, a sixth sense, powers over mind and matter, anything. And people have conducted research to disprove magic. Admittedly, it’s certainly a lot easier to explain away a purported supernatural phenomenon with science than it is to prove the supernatural. As explained, magical anything isn’t reliable. Science seeks reliable and when it fails to find it will resort to classifying phenomenon as a hoax, fluke, wishful thinking, etc. Just because something is rare doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

But I’m less interested in finding out whether people have answered the “Is it real?” question (mostly because I don’t know whether we can, yet), and more interested in seeing how and why people approach the question. The why is usually rooted in a desire to validate one’s own beliefs or to undermine beliefs held by others believed to be considered ridiculous. Every research has bias, but studies revolving around magic harbor particularly strong bias.

As for how the question is approached the methodology tends to be sketchy, from both parties. Methodology is about formulating a question about a perceived problem, and then devising a plan of attack to best approach the problem. The biggest issue with developing a methodology to study magic is determining what you consider magic and limiting what elements you think you can test. You can’t very well test ALL magic with a single experiment. Fortune telling is not the same like spirit possession. House blessings are not the same like alchemical transmutations. For the same reason that a single experiment can’t test ALL of science, a single test can’t be applied to everything people have every considered magic.

Which is really the problem I had with the conclusions mentioned in the article: “‘Sixth Sense’ Can Be Explained by Science”. I have no problem with skeptics working to disprove something. I’m not offended by lack of belief in what I believe. I am annoyed when evidence is used that has little bearing on the question asked.

The experiment summarized in the article was published in PLOS, and explains how people can be aware of visual changes in the environment without knowing what the exact changes were. This is because our brain is cued to measure visual metrics: “such as darkness, color, verticality or contrast”. The brain registers changes in the environment but doesn’t always consciously know what changed. The article states that it is this division between the brain registering change and our inability to articulate the change that encourages people to harbor the idea that they possess a sixth sense. The study included a variety of tests that flashed images to participants, then the same image with modifications. People felt they knew something had changed but couldn’t pinpoint the changes.

I’m not sure how flashing discs of red and green translates to experiences with supernatural phenomenon, especially when the article’s interview with the lead researcher said he was inspired by rather unrelated phenomenon: a previous student of his claiming she could sense when events occurred that she didn’t witness, such as her friend getting into an accident. Now I understand the ethical dilemma in devising an experiment that tests whether a person can sense whether a friend of hers is being hurt, but how do you test the idea that a person can sense things she can not see with an experiment that targets your sense of sight? This is a poor methodology for the question asked, once we’ve narrowed the focus from “sixth sense” to asking whether something like precognition exists.

Visual metrics might be (emphasis on might) an explanation for a different question in the broad field of “sixth sense” phenomenon: why do people see auras? The experiment found that people were good at recognizing changes in the environment, but less stellar at identifying them. It’s possible when an aura reader claims to see a shift in another person’s aura, that the reader has simply been unable to consciously register subtle changes in the other person. The reader then interprets subconscious cues as changes in a supposed energy field surrounding the other person.

Let me be clear, I’m not making a statement about whether or not auras or reading auras is a real, doable, or testable ability. I’m just positing a potential question that could be explained with the methodology developed in the experiment concerning visual metrics. A crime drama television series on a few years back called “Lie to Me” dealt with the application of identifying microexpressions in people. Microexpressions are expressions made by people so briefly that most people do not observe the occurrence, but can be a clue on the true feelings of the person making these expressions. According to Wikipedia the show is inspired by a professor at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine who assists police and anti-terrorist groups, so this isn’t research whose application is centered on the paranormal but on immediate, observable issues.

Experiments on microexpressions and visual metrics might (emphasis on might) provide answers to questions concerning aura reading. Visual metrics would not suitably answer a question regarding precognition, spirit possession, and alchemical transmutations. The methodology of magic is certainly a difficult horse to tame since the spiritual overtones encourage strong reactionary bias, but if we really want answers to questions about the “sixth sense” pairing the right methods to the right questions is the first step. Let bias remain where it should be, behind the rigors of experimental reliability. With good methodology, personal opinion about magic can be set aside. It wouldn’t hurt if journalists would stop misrepresenting the results of these kinds of testing, regardless where their own bias lies.

And it wouldn’t hurt if each magic user took some time to jot down more complete notes concerning his or her own results. While devising an experimental methodology isn’t for everyone, plain observation is still useful data.