John Walker's Electronic House

A Few Words About Derren Brown About Remote Viewing

by on Sep.26, 2009, under The Rest

I realise I’m wasting energy dissecting the third episode of Derren Brown’s The Events to any great depth.

They show a close up of this woman’s eyes and ask people to draw a shape, and then the letter “O” draw itself on the screen as a slowly appearing circle, etc etc. And then, astonishingly, Brown even instructs people who drew concentric circles to text in, as if after doing this people texting this is some sort of useful evidence.

Once again Brown muddles half truths and glimmers of things we’ve experienced with ludicrous over-played nonsense. So we’re expected to believe he can make a man fall asleep and then steal a TV by drinking his tea at the same time, while insultingly claiming the remarkable, verified ability of some blind people to use echolocation to be in any way related. Of course, most of it, were it not in a programme in which the presenter psychotically flipflopped back and forth between declaring his disbelief in psychic powers and announcing things are happening because of psychic powers, would have been fantastic magic tricks. Here it all feels like part of the propaganda that contributes to his crazed misinformation campaign.

So much is so much rubbish. But what’s most peculiar about this third episode in what we can only desperately hope is a four-part set-up is how ridiculously he overreached on the final reveal. The most idiotic claim Brown makes is that somehow the tricks in the show in any way relate to his claims of “remote viewing”, something he debunks and confirms with every other breath. This ranges from simply confusing – how does the light bulb trick possibly relate to anything? – to disgustingly insulting – the aforementioned echolocation. None of it relates in any meaningful way, other than his mealy-mouthed semi-debunking of the ridiculous fraud. (It made me so sad he stopped so far short of denouncing him.) Instead, it explodes into a trick too huge to make any sense.

The problem we have is Brown’s claim to not know what was drawn. Now, he’s of course done a thousand other tricks where he claims to be able to influence what someone draws – this time we’re asked to forget that. His mark is asked to draw anything she likes, but it must be a simple pattern or shape. There’s fairly limited options at this point (all the people who merrily agreed to draw a train seemed to forget that bit), but still too many for Brown to guess. But while he claims to not know what’s drawn, and denies the ability to remote view, he also has her placed in Stone Henge which we’re told she sort of saw her image representing (this was strange too – she added it on to the end of her description in a way that didn’t relate, and made no sense). Then we also get shown the persistent close-up of her eyes representing the pattern she drew – again requiring knowledge of what was on the canvas to be successful. So obviously it’s impossible without either knowing what’s on the canvas or causing what’s on the canvas. Too many things, too much going on, all of it relying on absolute prior knowledge of the drawing, and none of it having anything to do with the gibberish of choosing to display some texts from people who drew a circle.

Again, had he not bothered with the anti-scientific bedlam of this bipolar presentation of “remote viewing” and simply done a magic show, it would have been a splendid trick with a superb punchline. Instead it’s an embarrassing mess of bullshit. This evening became reduced to “Here’s some concentric circles. Draw a shape.”

So sure, I hope next week he confesses to all this. Because this is not the man from the Dawkins interviews, nor the guy who wrote a book debunking the sort of idiocy he’s been advocating for three weeks. But it’s too late, isn’t it? Millions have already seen him take his position as a respected debunker and use to it promote unscientific gibberish, and saying, “Ha ha, I was just kidding!” at the end of it won’t undo that.

Oh, and a PS of something brilliant my sister said last week. “Someone who thinks Brown’s explanations for how he does his tricks are at all true is like someone believing Paul Daniels was really sawing Debbie McGee in half.”


14 Comments for this entry

  • SuperNashwan

    It was rubbish no doubt, but I’m really not convinced it was ‘anti-scientific’ when it starts, as does all his tv work, with a disclaimer attributing everything to magic, showmanship etc. While still retaining the essence of his act, how far would you have Derren go with IT’S MAGIC YOU MORONS, OF COURSE I’M LYING before you’d be satisfied?
    I’m not sure how much fairer and scientific he could’ve been about the remote viewer experiment than revealing the breadth of words and drawings and their ambiguous nature; did it really need Derren himself to assume a position of authority and state it was bollocks? Why? After all, we were in essence given the result itself, rather than an interpretation of the result and it’s not often you’ll see that on any show.

  • Joe

    Too harsh, John. The lottery trick was execrable, the couch trick patronising, but this, as you seem to acknowledge anyway, is merely overwrought. He was much more forthright with his debunking here, claiming very clearly at the start his non-belief in psychic power and stating that his trick has nothing to do with it.

    Honestly, watching it I never once caught him claiming that the trick involved actual psychic remote viewing. Only that he would approximate the effect. Perhaps I’ve missed something, or perhaps you’re hearing stuff you want to hear!

    If the main trick was overcooked (I’m still not entirely sure what he actually claims to have achieved!) the rest of the show was fairly well done. The lightbulb trick had charming delivery and patter with a skeptical twist. I think Derren’s best when he keeps it simple and that’s a great example.

    I was too busy being awed by the impressive echolocation skills to wonder if it was being used cynically. And on reflection, it’s really not. “Daniel’s skills are real, remarkable, and appear to be magic,” is the given explanation. The link to “remote viewing” seems tenuous, but surely the message is, again, skepticism – demonstrating that powers which seem to be psychic are actually mundane. In any case, I question your grounds for being so deeply insulted.

    Anyway: this isn’t as good as his old stuff, but it’s a step up from the boring nonsense of the first two episodes. I suspect the issue is that the Derren Brown Brand is getting old now, and there are only so many tricks in the mentalism book. I certainly agree that the writers crossed the line with “deep maths” and the eye-rolling subliminal stuff but this one, taken on it’s own, is mostly harmless.

  • Joe

    “Someone who thinks Brown’s explanations for how he does his tricks are at all true is like someone believing Paul Daniels was really sawing Debbie McGee in half.”

    Hmm… that’s rather easy, isn’t it? I think the difference between Brown and Daniels is that the former works the “explanations” into the act, and the clever bit is that they’re often halfway true. Of course, the bits he doesn’t tell us about are rather more mundane and pauldanielsy. But if he didn’t include this element of falsehood, he’d just be a nice perceptive man with a goatee. Personally, I like Brown’s stuff because he can induce a genuine state of flummox in even the most hardened, savvy rationalists. So yes, the explanations are misdirection, but in a different way from the cups-and-balls stuff of yore.

    Incidentally, I’m just approaching this as a general purpose geek instead of a magic buff. Is this the case for you? Some of what you said indicates otherwise, and I’m curious to know, if only to shed some light on why you’re so… very… angry! ;)

  • John Walker

    I’m angry because a man who has previously claimed to wish to debunk mediums and psychics and unscientific thinking is now peddling those exact wares to make money.

    It’s not more complicated than that. This week’s being less offensively grotesque than the previous two doesn’t change what they were, and what he is doing. As I wrote above, this week’s bipolar insanity didn’t help anything – one moment debunking, the next using the same vocabulary to endorse his trick.

    If people being encouraged to believe in the methods and practises of those who prey on the grieving and vulnerable isn’t something that angers you, then you will only see my posts on this subject as a man shouting at someone for doing bad magic tricks. What I’ve been most shocked and disappointed by in the last few weeks is quite what a stunningly high number of people don’t care about such things.

  • Joe

    Please. As a rationalist I have no time for people who use superstition to take advantage of the vulnerable and/or credulous, whether religious, political, new age or whatever. And from that angle I’m deeply disappointed in this whole thing. As I think I remarked. Which doesn’t annul my point that this particular episode was not nearly as bad as you say.

    And my interest in the “magic tricks” side of it doesn’t preclude my aforementioned distaste for this whole new turn, nor does it make me some kind of moral ignoramus as you imply.

  • SuperNashwan

    For the record, I would put a bullet through the head of every medium on earth if people agreed to look the other way for a moment.
    Derren Brown is not preying on the weakened or vulnerable, he’s performing to an ordinary audience, some of them undeniably idiotic. I would decry their interpretation of Brown’s act rather than the performer himself; it is after all transparent bullsh*t.

  • mrpowers

    In fairness, can’t we just let a magic trick be a magic trick? Derren Brown puts on a fantastic show, which millions in the country enjoy, which can surely only be good for magic, as, clearly, the days of big illusions and escapes are long gone. The convoluted psychology explanations for each of his tricks are similar to another magician saying “that’s magic” – both are clearly untrue, yet there’s really no point in a trick if you really know how easy it is. If someone does come away believing in subliminal messaging, why tell them there’s no Father Christmas?

  • John Walker

    I’ve spelled out in literally thousands of words why I believe it is NOT just a magic show and why it’s NOT okay for people to come away believing in the tools and techniques used by mediums and psychics to con the grieving and the vulnerable. Have the good grace to read them.

  • Darran

    Just a few points, he deos say that he is NOT using remote viewing as he does not believe in it, and no where does he diverse form that. At the end he also says that teh show was recore 3 WEEKS before it was aired, so he has plenty of time to hint to the viewers what to draw.
    He DOES have a clue what the image is, and even states this in a not so many words way, this is only edited in however for the viewers of the television programme, whele it was being recorded, at the museum its a different story.

  • John Walker

    Darran – I can make little sense of your comment.

    Watch the episode again. He states that he does not believe in remote viewing a number of times, certainly. He then goes on to say what conditions he needs for remote viewing to work. With the Guess Who trick he repeatedly references remote viewing as factual, and credits it all to the artists’ innate ability. As I say in the post he constantly flip-flops back and forth. If I told you that I don’t believe in ghosts, and then spent half an hour telling you about ghosts I’ve seen and how I go about seeing ghosts, does my initial claim mean anything? No – clearly not. Now, obviously Brown doesn’t believe in remote viewing because it’s colossal shit – but he goes out of his way to obfuscate the matter, which is my point of contention.

    Do you really think that Brown used the three weeks to “hint” to viewers? Do you really believe that an ad in a newspaper changes anything at all? Clearly not. He showed a close-up of some circles, drew circles on screen, and asked people to draw a simple pattern – it’s not very complicated, and it’s the same tiresome rubbish idiots like Uri Geller have been shitting out for years. Brown equates himself with Geller in this episode.

    I also cannot think of any occasion in the episode in which Brown suggests he’s cheated and snuck a look at the picture to set the girl up to be in Stone Henge. Please tell me when it occurs.

  • Philip

    NLP, suggestion…. unfortunatlly you dont get to see a full body shot, but at the end he gestures his arms in crircular motion with the brush then strikes the middle as he is giving the woman the intructions on what to do.. at the same time he sugests that she does it several times….. by saying “i suggest you change your mind a few times before you start” (possibly minds eye) as he makes the circular motion with his hands. He also makes the sugestion lock yourself away make sure know one see’s it, (eyes)… anyway listen and watch… i dont think she was a stooge, i think he has simply suggested to her what to paint… NLP suggestion :)

  • Philip

    ps: it’s amazing how many people are conned everyday into believing things are a certain way, when in reality are completely something else… just take a look at advertising and Politics…

  • Philip

    ps: Possibly it is about trying to get people look at the world from a different perspective

  • John Walker

    There’s no such thing as NLP. Muddying his already waste-filled waters with more nonsense doesn’t help anything.