YouTube, Edutainment and Novelty Bias

There are many parallels between magic and other fields such as music or even cookery. For example you can think of a card trick as a recipe and a sleight as an ingredient in that recipe. If the trick is ‘Twisting the Aces’ then the integral ingredient is of course the E—— Count. There are almost as many ways of executing the EC as there are magicians attempting to do it. By that I mean that my own idiosyncratic handling will be different from yours; and this is without those aspects that are technically and quantifiably different.

Level playing field

Many magic students these days attempt to learn their sleights online, mainly from YouTube. Let’s imagine we live in a world where no one executes or teaches the EC badly. There are many quantifiable factors that will make people’s ECs technically different:

  • Some magicians count from left hand to right hand or vice versa, sometimes corresponding with their handedness (which itself is not a clear-cut ‘thing’) and sometimes not. There are good technical reasons for counting into one’s dealing-grip hand, even if it feels more natural to count into the other hand.
  • Some count from Pinch Grip into Dealing Grip while others count Pinch Grip to Pinch Grip; others go from Dealing Grip into Pinch Grip (or rarely, Dealing Grip to Dealing Grip). All have their advantages and disadvantages.
  • Some move one hand back and forth more than the other; some do the count fast, some slow; some use a sliding action, some a downward counting action.

So someone learning online will be confronted with many possible variables regarding the EC. To compound the issue, a personal magic coach may not even teach the same technique to two individual students. A student who masters things quickly may be given a more advanced technique while someone who struggles may be given a simpler, easier technique; so even two students of the same instructor comparing notes might end up confused.

When we factor back in not only the above variables but that many so-called instructors on YouTube do the EC badly and teach it badly, and are a mixture of left- and right-handed, we can see how easy and common it is that people will learn the wrong technique with the wrong hands in the wrong way.

A book is like a mirror: if an ape peers in, you can’t expect an apostle to peer out.
– Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

Observation skills

Indeed, the other major factor is that newcomers are almost as qualified to study and learn sleight of hand from instruction videos as they are to analyse works of art. In everyday life we use our fingers, hands, arms and so on; but how often is it necessary to use and be consciously aware of the precise position of the outer phalanx of your left index finger, the amount of pressure it is using and so on?

So before one can learn one has to learn how to observe and analyse physical anatomy and props such as playing-cards. I once published a list of 52 individual characteristics of a single playing-card; admittedly I was pushing it a bit towards the end of the list, but you get the idea.

Notwithstanding comments about apes and books (which applies these days to any form of media, particularly video), reading books has the beneficial effect of causing the reader to slow down, analyse, go back and read again and so on. By the time one has finished a paragraph, if it hasn’t properly sunk in you go back and read it again, and keep attacking it until you know what is meant.

Video is useful to back up what you have already learnt from a book. You can take something as simple and innocent as the Swing Cut – one of the many beautiful moves in card magic – and through the addition of one incorrect finger placement (inserting the left index finger directly under the top half) remove all its beauty and half its utility. Learning a Swing Cut from a book will cause one to go slowly, analysing text and photos, and thus reduce the likelihood of doing it incorrectly.

Ending up with nothing

I once taught someone the Rubaway Van—. He could do it slowly and carefully but technically perfect. All the pieces were in place for him to master the move. What could go wrong?

The next time we met he said he had found a video of Jay Sankey doing the move ‘like this’. What he then showed was a sort of amalgam of the one I had taught him and Jay Sankey’s. This in itself may not be an issue; there are many hybrid techniques in card magic. But this handling just didn’t look right; it was neither natural nor deceptive, neither one thing nor another.

After a lot of work trying to get the old move back we eventually gave up, as he had become conditioned to doing the move unnaturally. It was like trying to unmix paint or unstretch a sock. The only possible option in a situation like this is to leave the move alone for a few months and then try to come back to it.

Novelty bias

People have a bias towards anything new or different. It’s why people switch fashions, religions and political affiliations. Believing they are getting closer to something (truth, or the essential meaning or purpose of something) they may in fact be going round in circles; and even getting further away. If you are halfway up a mountain and someone texts to say ‘come back down, we’ve found another route’, you should at least ask why.

Every practical concept has partial elements of truth or desirable qualities, and when we get used to them or take them for granted, suddenly a new truth or concept that shows up on our radar seems better because it makes a fresh impact on our psyche. It makes us see things differently and therefore seems better. This syndrome has been referred to as novelty bias.

Even when something has been completely mastered there is a danger (even for advanced students) that a newly-adopted technique will somehow distort the original technique. Even for experts, learning two methods for the same trick can lead to confusion between those methods if they have not rehearsed them regularly.

A further factor is what you might call the ‘as seen on TV syndrome’, which is that if someone has gone to the (actually minimal) effort of starting a YouTube channel and uploading lots of videos, they must be worth watching especially if the videos are professionally produced (multiple non sequiturs piled on top of each other here).

The online teacher may even seem more competent or knowledgeable than a live magic teacher because the latter’s knowledge and skill only unfolds over many lessons whereas the online teacher’s skills are laid out for all to see in an instant.

Just add ketchup

But not all chefs and recipes are born equal. People online will, for example, teach ‘authentic bolognese recipes’ which list among the ingredients tomato ketchup! They will also say ‘you can add anything else you like’. (According to the Daily Mirror website it’s also ok to add – presumably not all at once – instant coffee, chocolate, mayonnaise, Guinness, marmite, anchovies, raisins, and cinnamon sticks.)

Of course nowadays we are all free to do as we like (so we think) and so if ‘the rules’ say we can’t add ketchup then to heck with the rules. Any 12-year-old can go on YouTube and call themselves ‘Card Trick Teacher’, ‘Magic Master’ or any other name that implies they know what they are talking about and earn themselves tens of thousands of viewers. What they are teaching in many cases will have come from other, similar YouTube teachers.

[T]he fame of [art forger] de Hory’s fakes was such that fakes of his fakes started appearing on the market. – Dmitry Gavrilov

The issue is that some magicians have done the equivalent of travelling to Italy and living with traditional cultures, learning how to grow and select the best and most authentic ingredients, how to prepare them, how to cook, how to serve and how to eat them.

Many recipes are born equal (apparently you can use either red or white wine in authentic bolognese), but mixing them or swapping bits around is where problems arise especially for those who don’t know how to swap the right bits in the right way.

Most sleight of hand is based on definite mechanics; relatively few moves involve indescribable, pancake-tossing or landing-a-ping-pong-ball-on-your-nose type knacks. An expert will nearly always be able to explain why a certain finger position is necessary or unnecessary. If someone’s general approach to magic is ‘it doesn’t matter’ or ‘do what you like’ then you’re probably dealing with a ketchup-with-instant-coffee kind of magician, of which there are thousands.

It boils down to a very basic level of comprehension and looking at the world. In web forums you will see people post definite questions requiring official, established, authentic or even legal answers, only to be met with ‘I’ve always thought’, ‘I’ve been told’, ‘you could try’ and so on.

Look at your own field

Many of us are good at something and may even be experts in our own field. Many magic enthusiasts are successful professionals: chefs, dentists, lawyers, therapists, CEOs, nurses, IT people, you name it. If they want to look for information in their own field on YouTube (which immediately seems unlikely in many cases) they would know how to, and how to sift out the 90% of unreliable information.

More importantly they have an understanding of how to learn. They will think back and recall the long hours spent mastering their subject. Just because magic may seem frivolous doesn’t mean the technical skill and understanding are any easier.

Many professions can be considered more serious in their impact on the world than magic, but imagine a brain surgeon or student of brain surgery looking up tips on brain surgery on YouTube! You really hope they wouldn’t do such a thing. But because magic is a leisure pursuit and a harmless one at that, somehow rules that apply in more serious fields don’t apply here.

The thing that people forget is that learning principles and techniques usually involves similar approaches, whether sewing people together or sewing trousers together. They just seem different because of the implications (life and death versus fashion); but it’s the implications and applications of mastery that are different, not the technical approaches behind the mastery. (Obviously different fields have different technical levels of mastery, but that’s not the point.)

Magic as an art

All art forms are expressions of experience, inner and outer. Magic simulates the miraculous, whether one’s belief in actual miracles or simply an appreciation of the ‘miracle’ of science and life.

Don’t be misled by the lack of official teaching bodies in magic. In spite (or maybe even because) of this there are expert magicians all around the world, equal in technical accomplishment to any top pianist, chef, dancer, painter, weaver, comedian, clown or juggler, or brain surgeon.

In a similar way that people like to level all art as equally artistic – streaks of paint thrown randomly at a canvas is equal to the Sistine Chapel, say – all magic is somehow equal. We intuitively know that a book written in the 1890s on physics won’t be as reliable as one written in 1990, but in magic that intuition somehow doesn’t arise. Magic is just magic, and lay people are always surprised to learn that new tricks are not only ‘still being invented’ but in fact invented all the time.

The purpose of teaching

When a teacher teaches something and the student tries to augment or ‘back up’ their knowledge with random information from here and there, they may well be destroying what they already know, taking half of one recipe and half of another and wondering why the soufflé doesn’t rise.

Does this mean that newcomers or intermediate students shouldn’t shop around for more or different information or venture out on their own?

The ultimate aim of any teaching programme is to render itself redundant by producing a self-sustaining organism, if that’s the right phrase. The greatest hope of any physics teacher is that the student will build a rocket ship and land on Mars or at least become an academic of equal merit. (They will probably go and work for a hedge fund.) Only cult leaders hope to create dependency rather than independency in their adherents.

What if we were able to do the “hard stuff” in class and use the homework time for [students] to get the basic knowledge and understanding? This is exactly what happens in a flipped classroom. – Jonathan Bergmann


If a student who isn’t making much progress suddenly starts looking online for solutions it can be a good thing; it may mean they are starting to take charge of their own progress and developing an enquiring mind.

There are advocates of the concept of classwork and homework being switched around: that is, learning basic information at home and then analysing it in class instead of the other (traditional) way around. This can work but there must be strict ‘rules’ in the case of physical-activity subjects such as magic: to only read about and familiarise oneself with concepts and to leave well alone when it comes to actual hands-on practice.

Magic students having access to an authorised database of relevant videos and authentic information will still not resolve the basic problems faced by learners, requiring remedial work in lessons which would practically nullify any advantages of such a system. Magic lessons therefore still tend to be a mix of both basic learning and analysis.

If one does feel the need to look at a move or effect on YouTube, try and look at as many videos as you can. Compare them and see which ones look good and which don’t; and of the former, try to decipher why they look good. Try and whittle it down and compare it to what you already know. Ask yourself if it really is better or just different.

A key approach is to look at your own field of expertise (assuming you have one, and if you haven’t then magic might well become it) and apply the same rules:

  • Do as much research as you can
  • Understand your motives for research – for fun and stimulation (novelty) or to find relevant information?
  • Research your sources – are they a ‘random’ or are they a qualified teacher? Does the way they teach resemble in any way, the way that teachers in other fields teach?
  • If you wouldn’t cheat or cut corners in becoming, say, a lawyer, don’t do so in magic

Illusion or reality?

The wonderful variety of effects and methods in magic is due to people doing things their own way or in new ways. But one has to understand basic rules (principles) before switching to other techniques, amalgamating pieces of different techniques or creating new ones.

By learning and digesting basic rules of any discipline, one will have a far greater freedom to choose, modify or create than if one is given free reign from the get-go. It’s one of the seeming paradoxes but really it isn’t; just think of how, in cookery, you learn to distinguish boiling from frying. Someone who doesn’t know the difference has only an illusion of freedom, not the reality.

One thought on “YouTube, Edutainment and Novelty Bias

  1. rationaldebt

    The greatest hope of any physics teacher is that the student will build a rocket ship and land on Mars or at least become an academic of equal merit. (They will probably go and work for a hedge fund.

    This is amazing – great writing!
    The magical advice is very useful:)

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