Topic Recommends: Ricky Jay, Skeptics, and a Magic Box

Bianca Jagger and Sterling St. Jacques at Studio 54, circa 1978 in New York City. Studio 54 first opened this week in 1977. Sonia Moskowitz / Images Press via Getty Images

Topic Recommends: Ricky Jay, Skeptics, and a Magic Box

A curated list of the best stories on the internet about belief—and the absence thereof.

Every other week, Topic Recommends curates the best stories for you to watch, listen to, read, and enjoy. Anything, really, besides the news. It’s all the work of writer Laura Olin.

This month, Laura is suggesting stories linked to our April theme: Belief. Sign up to get this as a newsletter here.

1. Magic Eye. Sandwiches the size of school buses hog all the spaces in a parking lot; a skeleton dances exuberantly; an ornate clock waddles down a sidewalk, an echo of Beauty and the Beast (the Disney version, of course). Vernon James C. Manlapaz makes 3-D animated videos that bring to mind that old carnival-barker phrase: “You won’t believe your eyes.”

2. Religion as Evolution. Why is belief in a higher power so consistent and so ubiquitous across human civilizations, continents, and centuries? Scientists call such a feature a “universal trait” of a species—and a 2007 New York Times Magazine piece by Robin Marantz Henig explores whether biology may play a part in our propensity for believing in supernatural beings. In other words, we may have evolved to be religious. A tiny but telling experiment: starting in the 1980s, anthropologist and professor Scott Atran would bring a wooden box into his classroom and tell his students it was an African relic. “If you have negative sentiments toward religion,” he would say, “the box will destroy whatever you put inside it.” When asked, most students who identified as nonbelievers would place their driver’s licenses in the box, but after Atran asked these same students to put their hands inside, only a few would comply. Why do we act like this? If we don’t believe in God, what exactly are we afraid of?

3. Seeing Is Disbelieving. “Do pictures provide evidence? And if so, evidence of what? And, of course, the underlying question: do they tell the truth?” Filmmaker Errol Morris notes that even if pictures are worth 1,000 words, they also lie to us all the time. Even the un-photoshopped ones.

4. The Way We Were. The question “What do we believe now that future generations will find unthinkable?” as answered by a Reddit thread from nine years ago, and by a Vox piece from last month. There is some overlap, as both discussions arrive at the conclusion that future generations will find the concepts of meat-eating, the drug war, and privacy to be quaint and/or heinous. A notable difference: early-Obama-era Reddit seems to have been a bit more optimistic than we are now about the possibility that nationalism and intolerance might soon become obsolete.

5. Tricks! Not to get all Seinfeld-standing-in-front-of-a-brick-wall, but magic and astrology are weird, right? We’re essentially paying someone to lie to us, and we’re disappointed if they don’t do it convincingly enough. Here are two New Yorker profiles of men with different stances on the business of benevolently fooling people: first, a 2002 story by Burkhard Bilger about Joe Nickell, a “paranormal investigator” and “professional skeptic” who is convincingly labeled the closest equivalent we have to a real-life X-Files agent. Nickell busts frauds, showmen, and liars—but even he seems a bit disappointed that they are not what they claim to be. Then there’s this iconic 1993 article by Mark Singer cataloguing the life and career of the magician Ricky Jay, who was already a legend by the time he hit his mid-40s. Jay, who passed away last year, had a bit of an obsessive nature. He practiced constantly; he was an entertainer, after all, and he wanted audiences to enjoy themselves. This resulted in an execution so uncanny, you might have been too unnerved to laugh.

6. Extraterrestrial. Jill Tarter—an astronomer who cofounded the SETI Institute to search for extraterrestrial intelligence—on why looking for alien life matters.

7. The Great Unknown. “I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers, and possible beliefs, and different degrees of certainty about different things. But I’m not absolutely sure of anything, and there are many things I don’t know anything about. But I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things.” The late American theoretical physicist Richard Feynman wonders aloud whether believing in things might not be a bit overrated, in his beautiful Queens accent.

This article originally published as the Topic Recommends newsletter on April 26, 2019. Like what you see? Sign up here.

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