So with the discussion of “suspension of disbelief” behind us, it should become clear that mentalism does carry a particular problem…
When David Copperfield flies on stage, the audience rationally knows that he can’t really be flying. People can’t fly, and what we know about physics (even on an intuitive level) clearly states that what we’re seeing is impossible. It works for him because he’s set up an entire show to get you to such an emotional place that the fact that he’s flying is no longer a puzzle, or even laughable, it seems awesome in the original meaning of the word. But after the show, your emotional state returns to normal and very few people go home thinking that people can fly. (For the larger argument it’s important to point out that there are always a few that do believe it.)
However, “psychic” phenomena hold a special place in the human experience. The idea that certain people have, through various avenues, special abilities that give them access to arcane abilities (mind-reading, precognition, etc) coupled with common myths like “we only use 10% of our brain” lead to a public that is ready or able to accept the possibility that the person on stage could be “doing it for real” and if it’s presented in a way that encourages that belief, or even states outright that it’s all REAL, a much larger portion of the audience may go home believing that they witnessed real psychic events.
However, as a skeptic and a lover of science, I can’t do that. It is hard enough to discover the truth, I can’t be one of those muddying the waters by giving “proof” that these things can happen. On the other hand, coming out and directly saying “This is all fake!”, both insults the intelligence of the audience and ruins the suspension of disbelief that is so important to a successful emotional engagement of the audience. Finall, there is the further magical ethical issue of exposure. Where is the line between exposure, education and entertainment?
Or am I just worrying about this way too much?