Magic Tricks Revealed: Test Your Rationality

In Fake Ex­pla­na­tions, Yud­kowsky offered a story that has stuck in my mind:

Once upon a time, there was an in­struc­tor who taught physics stu­dents. One day she called them into her class, and showed them a wide, square plate of metal, next to a hot ra­di­a­tor. The stu­dents each put their hand on the plate, and found that the side next to the ra­di­a­tor cool, and the dis­tant side warm. And the in­struc­tor said, Why do you think this hap­pens? Some stu­dents guessed con­vec­tion of air cur­rents, and oth­ers guessed strange met­als in the plate. They de­vised many cre­ative ex­pla­na­tions, none stoop­ing so low as to say “I don’t know” or “This seems im­pos­si­ble.

In this story it is also tel­ling that in the many thoughts and ex­pla­na­tions that sur­faced, the idea “the teacher turned the plate around” was never con­sid­ered. The stu­dents failed to see the cor­rect an­swer be­cause they weren’t think­ing cre­atively enough. While the cor­rect ap­proach in this situ­a­tion is in­deed to no­tice your con­fu­sion, a worth­while ap­proach still could be to list all the pos­si­ble solu­tions you think could be the an­swer. (And of course only list real solu­tions that you ac­tu­ally un­der­stand, not fake ones.)

So how can we im­prove this abil­ity to ex­pand our cre­ativity when it comes to con­sid­er­ing ex­pla­na­tions, so things like “the teacher turned the plate around” en­ters our list of con­sid­er­a­tions?

One pos­si­ble an­swer: study magic tricks.

In ad­di­tion to writ­ing and read­ing stuff on the in­ter­net, an­other hobby I like to in­dulge in is do­ing magic tricks with a deck of cards. Many of the tricks I know are very im­pres­sive, such as mak­ing cards switch places or ap­pear­ing to read peo­ple’s minds. How­ever, a lot of the tricks I know are very stun­ningly sim­ple; some of them don’t even in­volve slight of hand, and could be done by ten-year-olds with lit­tle prac­tice. They’re just that that clev­erly crafted.

I learned a lot of these tricks from YouTube—many videos will show you a trick and then teach you how it is done. Per­son­ally, I don’t find the rev­e­la­tion of a trick to take away any of my en­joy­ment, be­cause I find joy in the merely real, and care lit­tle for per­pet­u­at­ing mys­tery.

How­ever, these YouTube videos for how tricks are done also provide a very effec­tive test for your ra­tio­nal­ity: watch the trick on the video, and af­ter it is done, pause the video. Spend a good amount of time think­ing through the trick, and then fi­nally start think­ing through ways you think the trick was done. Only af­ter you have your guesses should you learn how the trick ac­tu­ally was done.

I find that in do­ing this, I would quickly learn how to think cre­atively, and found that this not only al­lowed me to much more effec­tively figure out how card tricks were done be­fore ac­tu­ally hear­ing the solu­tions, but also found that this cre­ativity al­lowed me to be­come bet­ter at sug­gest­ing fur­ther hy­pothe­ses to other pre­vi­ously con­fus­ing situ­a­tions, as well as be­com­ing bet­ter at de­liber­at­ing to solu­tions in pre­vi­ously in­tractable prob­lems.

Not to men­tion that I man­aged to learn some rather im­pres­sive card tricks.

Good YouTube Magic Les­sons:

And in the course of ex­plor­ing the re­lated videos, there are thou­sands of tricks to learn, and thou­sands of op­por­tu­ni­ties to test your ra­tio­nal­ity. Not all of them are great qual­ity, though.