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4Q & 4A

Four Q & Four A asks three faculty members—Stanley A. Corngold, Professor of German and Comparative Literature; David S. Wilcove, Professor of Ecology, Evolutionary Biology and Public Affairs; and Rena Lederman, Professor of Anthropology—to answer four short questions that aim to incite, intrigue, surprise and inform. Respondents are free to interpret or willfully mis-read the questions to suit their interest and viewpoint.

– The Editors


Stanley A. Corngold

1. Where does the magic happen?

Three places.  In an old wooden egg carton hanging from the porch, where a brood of wrens thrives on grubs brought them by their parents, who persist despite—better: on account of--being unable to read The New York Times. In the region of the lower back when suddenly, soon after waking, it becomes possible for its owner to walk downstairs, otherwise than sitting down, one step at a time.  Once in the pitching elbow of Sandy Koufax, at Lafayette High School in south Brooklyn.  Let’s hear it for once-magical Lafayette, my alma mater, now worse than a jail:  According to the same New York Times (May 7, 2008), “The principal appointed in 2005 to improve the school shut down its program for gifted students and, in front of the assembled faculty, likened Lafayette to a Nazi death camp.”

2. Is economic forecasting a science?

Ach, you know the old saw.  Einstein was greeted in heaven by a crowd of admirers.  After the clamor subsided, Einstein asked a devoté, “What is your IQ?” “Around 160,” said Richard Feynman, whereupon Einstein nodded and said, “Good.  We’ll be able to discuss the unified field theory.”  “And you, sir?”  “It’s ca. 150,” said Dag Hammarskjöld, a little apologetically, whereupon Einstein replied,  “No matter.  We’ll discuss prospects for world peace.”  Finally, he directed his question to a third.  “I’m sorry, sir,” said this ghost, “in my last IQ test I scored 105.”  “No reason to be dejected, dear sir,” said Einstein. “Together we will discuss the direction of the stock market.”  Nuff said.

3. Can you still shock students?

I do not know if I can, since, obedient to the university’s Compliance manuals, I do not try.  Hence, in the spirit of that great German adage, “What is prohibited by law cannot actually be the case,” I evidently cannot.

4. Do you communicate by text, and do you use "text" as a verb?

I do neither.  I avoid both the thing (communication by text) and the word (“text”) on the principle that prompted Michelle Obama to wear a purple dress.  Since half my addressees are likely to be delighted by text and “text” (red persons) and half, appalled (blue persons), I await the purple form of address that will unify my twin constituencies.   


David S. Wilcove

1. Where does the magic happen?

For an ecologist like me, outside, in the forests, grasslands, marshes, and mountains— wherever there are plants and animals.  

2. Is economic forecasting a science?

Not the way I practice it.  

3. Can you still shock students?

I don't aspire to shock students for the sake of shocking them, but if the environmental issues I typically discuss in class don't shock them—if they are not amazed at the rate at which tropical forests are
disappearing or the extent to which fisheries are being over-harvested—then I have clearly failed.  More often than not, what shocks them are the environmental consequences of their everyday activities, when those activities are replicated by millions of like-minded individuals: the foods they eat, the cars they drive, the amount of water they waste, etc.

4. Do you communicate by text, and do you use "text" as a verb?

I detest verbing.  I won't even use "impact" as a verb.


Rena Lederman

1. Where does the magic happen?

When it comes to Euro-American conjuring, magic is a relationship; it happens in the willing collusion of audiences with performers in entertaining deceptions.  Of course, there are other kinds of magic, differently located.

2. Is economic forecasting a science?

No.  Really, as an anthropologist with a prediction phobia, what else can I say?  If economic forecasting isn’t a science, then maybe it’s “magic” (although not exactly in the sense given above: economic forecasts are rarely entertaining, although they may involve self-deceptions all around).  

3. Can you still shock students?

Absolutely.  Really, as an anthropologist loaded with the usual commonsense-busting, cross-cultural fact ammo, what else can I say?  Maybe that makes whatever I’m doing “magic”: after all, in the movement between cultures, appearances are often deceiving; and the reordering of categories and relations that happens in deep cultural translation shares some of the qualities of a good illusion:  scarves into flowers? 

Putting this together:  #2 implies science ≠ magic; #3 implies magic = shock; so can we conclude science ≠ shock?  We know that that’s not true: something is clearly wrong here…  The problem may be that, historically, science and magic—of a certain sort—have been mutually entwined and supportive, not opposed. This point shocked students in a course I began to teach last year on “The Uses of Deception in Science and Magic.” My students were shocked in part because they took for granted that Western science is all about Enlightenment rationality and “disenchantment”, and therefore in necessary tension with “superstitious” beliefs and practices (the usual sense of “magic”).

However, there is little tension between science and performance magic (i.e., conjuring, illusionism). Despite its pervasiveness in popular culture as metaphor and practice, illusionism is nearly invisible as a social science topic; anthropologists certainly haven’t written much about it, our “magic” typically referring to ritual performances and, particularly in Euro-American cultures, to irrationality (e.g., “magical thinking”).  

In any case, stage magic (of the sort associated with Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin and other 19th century inventors and performers) was science’s ally.  In the late 19th and early 20th centuries Harry Houdini and others were energetic debunkers of Spiritualist mediums and psychics: performers who allowed or encouraged audiences to believe that paranormal appearances could be taken at face value and that the observed effects had occult causes. In contrast, conjurers introduced their own performances by asserting that magical effects have explicable physical causes; to this day, performance magicians emphasize that their effects are a function of technical and performance skills, not supernatural forces; and present-day stage magicians (e.g., Penn and Teller, James Randy) continue to stage performances aimed at undermining the credibility of “pseudoscience.” During the late 19th century, stage magic and science demonstrations were performed in the same exhibition halls and often employed similar optical and electrical principles and devices. Apart from physics and chemistry, late 19th century psychology took an interest in the stage magician’s art: is the hand actually faster than the eye? (Alfred Binet’s 1896 lab tests of three famous performers concluded that, in fact, the hand is rather slow.)  Some present day psychologists even use stage magic in teaching about perception.  

4. Do you communicate by text, and do you use “text” as a verb?

I mostly text my kids (and deaf friends). What’s puzzling to me about extensive teenage texting is that it employs a medium designed for speech, and is both more expensive (at least on my current Verizon contract) and slower (even for my dexterous offspring) than speech.  Trained to treat apparent irrationality in others as evidence of my own ignorance, I suspect that things aren’t what they seem. “What’s with texting as a social practice?” might work as a field project for students in my undergraduate methods course…