The Champions of Magic is an excellent five-person act currently touring the UK that features mentalist, Alex McAleer, Kayla Drescher, Fernando Velasco and illusionists, Young & Strange. The Sussex Newspaper managed to snag interviews with Velasco and McAleer, with the latter interview veering into some dark territory. To wit:   

The Sussex Newspaper:What is the difference between someone who is creating an illusion and someone who is pretending to create an illusion?” 

Alex McAleer: “Ooh, that’s a very good question. I think it’s the intention, it’s the reason behind the lie. There is a ‘lie’ when you saw a woman in half because, quite obviously, after the illusion she is fine and no one goes away thinking that someone actually died, but with things like some ‘psychic mediums’ who pretend to talk to the dead, well their lies are a bit more unsavoury because, if it’s not true, you could sully someone’s memory and it also calls into question the existence of ‘another realm’ with all the implications there.”

TSN: And it’s not good entertainment when you’re playing with people’s feelings.

AMA: “Exactly, and that’s all it is because, in too many cases, the entertainment comes from someone crying about something terrible that happened to them, or to a loved one. I use a lot of the same techniques, but not in a fraudulent way, and the worst thing for me is when the so-called medium isn’t actually very good at using those techniques.”

McAleer is continuing a long tradition of magicians showing disdain for mediums, psychics, faith-healers and the like. 

Mexican-born Fernando Velasco got his start in magic when his father took a job as a busboy at the Magic Castle in Hollywood. Now, at just twenty-years-old, he’s the Champions’ most physical performer. His interview was a bit lighter. After achieving success in his field at such a young age, what remains for the young performer?

“I wanna take my magic all over the world,” he said. “My big dream is to take my magic to South America, to Mexico, and all those Latin countries and, obviously, after I do that, my vision is to have my own show in Las Vegas and then a world tour. Magic makes people forget about their problems, wherever they are in the world. You’re in a fantasy world for 30 minutes, or an hour, or two hours and it totally surrounds you.”  

Born in 1892, mentalist Joseph Dunninger was an early example of the magician turned skeptic. He used his skills to debunk mediums and spiritualists who profited from their trickery. He even offered a reward to any medium who could accomplish a feat that he couldn’t duplicate or explain; nobody ever cashed in. He was James Randi before James Randi was James Randi.

In addition to his active and successful efforts taking down phony spiritualists, Dunninger was also a prolific performer on television and radio. You can see him in action above, and check out a recording of his radio program below. Or if you’re a less visual person interested in either mentalism or mediums, Dunninger also authored many books on the subjects, including Popular Magic (1926), Inside the Medium’s Cabinet (1935), and The Art of Thought Reading (1956).

James Randi is still the world’s ultimate skeptic; a magician who has spent his career debunking supernatural and psychic claims all over the world. He’s appeared on the Tonight Show, where he exposed faith healer Peter Popoff, he’s worked with Penn & Teller on their skeptic-based documentary show Bullshit!, and even founded the James Randi Educational Fund, which hosts a challenge that will award anyone who can demonstrate supernatural ability under scientific criteria $1 million (no one has won the award).

Back in 1993, Randi helped to produce an hour-long special called Secrets of the Psychics for PBS documentary show Nova. The documentary explores his relationship with psychic claims as a magician, his own methods for debunking fraud, as well as his famous battles with Uri Geller and Peter Popoff. Take an hour out of your lazy Sunday to watch reason prevail against fraud in the video embedded above.

Today, for the files of “weird crossovers in science and superstition,” we have an item from the UK. Sally Le Page, an evolutionary biologist with the University of Oxford, penned a blog post revealing that ten out of the UK’s 12 water companies still use divining rods to find underground pipes and identify leaks.

This practice, also known as dowsing, involves a person holding two bent rods. When they walk over underground water, the rods will twitch to cross each other of their own volition. About 450 years ago when dowsing was invented, the phenomenon was credited to magic and witchcraft. Today, it’s widely regarded as the result of the ideomotor effect, which is the same reason Ouija boards just happen to spell out the name of your secret crush.

How reliable are divining rods? Let’s just say that famed skeptic James Randi pops up in the Wikipedia entry for dowsing.

To the (slight) credit of the UK’s water utilities, several of them told Le Page that divining rods were not standard-issue equipment. Most of them explained that they do primarily use contemporary and scientifically-tested processes for finding water below ground. But still. Yikes.

We adore magic for its ability to boggle our minds with seemingly impossible feats. Usually it’s all in the name of entertainment and good fun, but there are less conscientious performers who use their skills in deception for more dubious purposes. For those charlatans and quacks, James Randi is your worst nightmare.

Born Randall James Hamilton Zwinge in Toronto on August 7, 1928, he’s spent many decades working in magic. He renamed himself James Randi, or sometimes The Amazing Randi, for his performances as a magician and escape artist. As a child, he was interested in mathematics as well as magic, and that translated into an act that was always firmly grounded in reality. He never credited his accomplishments to supernatural powers, but insisted that there was a logical solution to every trick.

That focus on reality led him to discredit several popular performers over the years who did claim to have a more mystical or divine power at their control. One famous example was his takedown of Peter Popoff in the 1980s. Popoff claimed that he could eliminate diseases and ailments from devout believers, who were willing to pony up vast sums of money for the privilege. Randi was able to tap into the radio transmissions between Popoff and his wife that allowed the phony faith healer to claim psychic insights. With a little help from fellow magician Johnny Carson, better known for his career as a Tonight Show host, Randi was able to gain a wide audience for his exposés. 

In addition to his work in magic and uncovering frauds, Randi is also a prolific author and the subject of the 2014 documentary An Honest Liar. And at 89, he’s still active and working.