I know, I know, I witter on about Derren Brown far too much. And I’m going to repeat myself here. But I feel as though I’m circling around the plughole into which I’ll finally plop down with exactly what I want to say about the man.
I’ve gone on before (but a long time ago) about the difference between a magician tricking you, and lying to you. But to quickly reiterate: Magicians aren’t telling the truth, clearly. If I tell you I’ve written a prediction in an envelope, or that I’m producing a ball from your ear, I’m tricking you. It’s not true. But you know that. You know that I’m not psychic, hopefully you don’t believe that anyone is psychic. In fact, the very worst outcome imaginable would be for my trick to legitimise the conmen and charlatans who will steal your money. So instead we enter into this contract. You know I’m not going to tell you the truth, and you’re going to be okay with that. However, this opens an interesting door. How big a lie can I tell?
Say my trick is to know the word someone in the audience is thinking of. If I tell you that I’m not using a stooge in the audience, and I’m using a stooge in the audience, is that okay? The effect is very impressive if I can appear to somehow know the word an unwitting audience member is thinking of. It’s rather extraordinarily less impressive if I can know the word my friend and I agreed on before the show. So we seem to have a rule in this contract that says that while I’ll deceive you, trick you, I won’t openly lie to you about the conditions of the trick.
Now, clearly magicians do. Lazy, tedious magicians do this all the time. But I think most people agree that if they learn this is how a magician achieves his effects – says he doesn’t use camera tricks but does use camera tricks – they lose all interest in them. So we have this muddled set of rules. They’re impossible to pin down, but crudely it’s, 1) the audience agrees to be deceived, and 2) the magician agrees to not tell specific sorts of lies.
Derren Brown has made his career out of exploiting the ambiguity of this. He spins these patters about influencing people’s minds, conditioning, and suggestion. It’s all patter to disguise doing what I think is a perfectly ordinary magic trick. Which is fine, whatever, who cares? It’s a neat way of achieving a great effect.
But is it? I think he’s doing something worse. By using explanations (and he sells these as explanations, the purported method by which he achieves his effects) it seems to me he reinforces uncritical and dangerous thinking. By saying he can make someone choose a card with silliness like “the power of suggestion” or whatever else, and then going on to “show you how I did this” with montages of these claimed suggestions, he gives people enormous reasons to believe in the paranormal, or the grossly and demonstrably unscientific. Derren Brown, through his act, in my opinion reinforces the very people he keeps claiming to wish to expose, the mediums and the psychics who rob from the grieving and the frightened.
So the last time I went through all this I concluded with my despair that after spending most of a programme demonstrating how easily people can be tricked by simple statistics, he couldn’t resist pretending to have genuine powers at the very end, undoing all his work.
The lottery predicting “explanation” show made this look like nothing. He appears to have fully entered this position of neo-medium. It’s devastating.
On Wednesday Derren Brown achieved the remarkable by saying the lottery numbers after the lottery numbers had been announced. He had his prediction made on some ping pong balls, he assures us, but after a meeting with Camelot he was told he could not reveal them before the draw because the BBC has the rights to be the first place to show the winning numbers. If that doesn’t make you laugh out loud, you need to read it again. He asks that we believe it would be against the rules to show any six numbers he chooses, in case they’re the winning numbers on that night’s draw. Er, no. In fact, the closest you could get to breaking the rule of the BBC’s right to broadcast the results first would be to stream that live feed on another channel, which is exactly what he did. He has, of course, every right to show whichever numbers on ping pong balls he desires at any time he chooses. So there’s your first rather enormous problem.
But fine, whatever, if you’re doing a sealed envelope trick you tell the audience that you’ve placed your prediction in a sealed envelope. The reason you do this is obvious – you don’t already know what word/picture/number is going to be picked. Because you aren’t psychic. Brown, and any number of other mentalists, of course attempt to get around this by swapping “psychic” for “able to influence”. It’s the same thing, neither is possible, and by swapping a word you’re of course still doing the same trick. If you weren’t you’d have no reason to hide the prediction in the envelope. And Brown, of course, had no reason to hide the winning numbers before they fell from the lottery machine. He didn’t know them. Because it’s impossible to know the random numbers that emerge from a machine, and your chance of guessing them is 1 in 13,983,816. To put this in perspective, that means if you were able to play the lottery once an hour every hour, all day every day, you’d have to do this for over 1,596 years before you’d match these odds. He didn’t guess the lottery results.
Which means what he did on Wednesday was a very clever trick that gave the impression he did.
What he did on Friday was a horrible exercise in preying on people’s ignorance and poor understanding of maths and science to trick them into believing in things that aren’t true.
It begins with his pooh-poohing the LUDICROUS suggestions people have put forward, scoffing at the madness that he might have the technology to imprint ping pong balls remotely, or use LED projection, or many other methods that would clearly work very easily. You think THAT! You idiot! No no, it’s none of those boring ordinary and practical ways that I, a mere television magician, couldn’t possibly know how to do! (It’s a small wonder he didn’t reinforce this scoffing by explaining that he can’t even set the VCR.) It’s by this far more believable method he’s going to tell us over the next hour.
This begins with a claim that by causing people to be in a state of fear he can increase their suggestibility. Which might be true if you’re frightening someone into agreeing with you, but it doesn’t in any way allow someone to cause you to choose box 4 instead of 3. Again, I’m not interested in spoiling tricks. But there’s a very simple way of having the mouse card be in front of the last empty box which doesn’t involve controlling her decisions in a meaningless way.
This is then repeated with a pre-taped sequence in which he does a familiar trick on a larger scale. He has a man stamp on cups, one of which is supposed to conceal a knife. It’s an old trick done in a new way. It doesn’t rely on inducing fear or any other nonsense. Brown does it very well, blends it with another prediction trick, and then has a nice reveal at the end with a mouse. It’s great stuff.
Then we come back to the studio and we’re told that this works on humans, but can it work on a machine? Well, no. It can’t. Because, firstly, it doesn’t work on humans. And even if it did, machines don’t have emotional responses. So why did we go through all that? For no reason at all. He moves on.
It becomes about coin tossing. He tricks a room of gullible people into believing that a crowd supporting a coin toss can change the result. But aha! He was tricking them and us, it’s not really true! It is, instead, “deep maths”. (Google this term and you’ll get a lot of results about Derren Brown, and not a lot else.) But he can’t explain it now, there’s no time, far better to simply scare the audience with a technical term after muddling them about coins who enjoying cheering. So of course this must have something to do with how he, and we, can predict the lottery? Except, um, no. The lottery isn’t decided by two people’s independent choices, one mathematically supposed to outdo the other. It’s a machine randomly spitting out ping pong balls. We’re moving on again.
And finally, over half way through, we’re onto the explanation he’s going to stick with. He keeps implying the earlier tricks are relevant, but never saying how. But it’s now about “the wisdom of crowds”. This, states Brown, is the genuine real proven definitely true thing where the shared opinion of a crowd is more likely to be correct than that of a single expert. (Oh no, please no, please don’t be attempting to reinforce the death of the expert!) So ignoring anything that appears to be in James Surowiecki’s book (I’ve not read it, but this extract appears to entirely contradict what followed), he gathered together 24 people and had them guess at the lottery results.
This process is then drawn out multiple times, with the group taking part in exercises like “automatic writing”. Brown again plays his clever card here. Rather than using this in the traditional way mediums and psychics do – claiming it’s a spirit controlling what you write – he tells a half-truth about the way it ‘works’, and then claims that it has access to some special magical part of people’s subconscious, or whatever rubbish it was, that leads them to make better… what? Guesses of numbers they clearly can’t know? This angle on automatic writing is nothing novel – despite there being not a shred of evidence that it has therapeutic value or gains access to people’s inner thoughts, many use it in this faux-legitimate way for supposedly reputable reasons. Read about that here. By using this method his group manages to guess four of the six numbers, which is proof! Proof that a pre-recorded videotape of footage can show people appear to do this. Maybe they even did! They had roughly 1 in a 1000 chance. It’s not improbable. It’s unlikely, of course. So armed with this, and this crowd whose averaged predictions can’t possibly fail, he repeats it and rushes to his live studio to show their predictions match the lottery results.
Although for some mysterious reason Brown was unable to tell them what their predictions were! He had to write them in secret and conceal them immediately. And since he’d got a group of 24 people to guess six random numbers each and then taken an average of their results, they could have no way of knowing what they were themselves.
So we’re back to where we started. He hid the balls from the viewer, and indeed he hid them from those he claims predicted them. Why? Because it’s impossible to predict the lottery, and “the wisdom of crowds” doesn’t apply when there’s no wisdom involved in their selection. The wisdom of crowds, should it be true at all, depends on people being able to make informed guesses. Not pick random numbers out the air. Because you cannot be informed on which balls will win the lottery, because it’s random. We already know this, but we had to sit through an hour of a man lying about ways in which it might be possible. A man using the half-truths, the slivers of science we think we know, and those gut feelings we wish were true (we all believed it together, so it happened!), to reinforce people in their non-rational, non-scientific thinking. He endorsed the things he has purported he wishes to expose. He has previously made claims about wanting to reveal the evils of those who prey on the grieving and vulnerable, and then made an hour of TV that reinforces the lies they use to achieve this. He seems to be becoming one of them. In fact, it’s worse than becoming one of them. He’s one of them pretending to be one of us.
He then delivers his routine about how he could have fixed the national lottery, which begins well enough but then descends into mad absurdity as he says so matter-of-factly that he’d have to “hypnotise the security guards” as if that’s the thing that of course one can do. But it’s funny, and he’s a scamp. And then he says the first true thing of the whole hour. “Or maybe it’s just a trick.” And the programme ends.
And of course it’s just a trick. BECAUSE YOU CAN’T PREDICT THE LOTTERY. You can’t predict it by inducing fear, or cheering it on, or taking the average of guesses from people closing their eyes when they write numbers down. And why not? Because it’s random. It’s random. It’s random.
Derren Brown went to grotesque lengths to make people more stupid tonight. He celebrated the vulnerability of his audience, revelling in the ambiguous zone in which his work exists. He reinforced beliefs in things that are demonstrably untrue.