John Walker's Electronic House

Very Many Words On The End Of Derren Brown

by on Oct.04, 2009, under Television

Derren Brown’s The Events comes to an end, and without the much-predicted redaction of his stupid and ignorance-promoting claims in previous episodes. There’s thoughts on the series over all below.

But first Friday’s idiocyfest. Derren Brown was going to beat a roulette wheel. Well, let’s just point out a few things before we get started:

- Any casino in the world would be delighted to be identified and filmed because the publicity and advertising would be superb.

- You can’t make a man give you money and then make him forget he did.

- You can’t guess the speed for a roulette ball and predict where it will fall more accurately than a computer.

- You can’t predict where a ball will land after bouncing off many walls in the first seconds of its being thrown.

- You can’t use triangulation of three fixed objects to calculate the speed of a car.

- You can’t guarantee that a man will not notice that he’s £5,000 short in the bank, and therefore you couldn’t set the trick up the way he claimed to.

So Derren claims that he stole £5,000 from an unwitting stranger, on a programme that begins saying there’s no actors or stooges used. (Which rather raises the question: what is a stooge? As Brown said when he met dear Ben last week on film, he volunteered to be on the show. Are volunteers stooges?) He did this by somehow hypnotising him in about three seconds and then instructing him to visit his bank, withdraw the money, then hand it over. Then erases this from the man’s brain. Because apparently Derren Brown is an evil wizard from space, and we’re supposed to just accept this – surely the most extraordinary feat in the whole episode – as something that just happens every day. He’ll now gamble that money “live” (for some reason he can’t talk directly to Ben when he’s in the casino – which seems strange since it would go some way to proving it wasn’t pre-recorded footage and somewhat undermining the purpose of a live event), and potentially win Ben £180,000.

Once again the episode was a mixture of various nice-enough tricks that had nothing whatsoever to do with the final effect, and Brown bullshitting his face off. Oh, apart from one trick – the ball in the squash court. Where he achieved something equally as impressive as the roulette trick – somehow predicting the path of a spherical object being thrown by someone else by making impossible calculations in split seconds and knowing where on the floor it will come to rest – and threw this away midway through the show as a minor step on the way to his final plan. Which was an odd choice.

But of course he doesn’t manage the final trick! What a way to end the series, eh? The man doesn’t win £180,000, and Brown ends his series on a fail. Except of course nothing of the sort happens.

Brown’s ludicrous claim is to be able to predict where a roulette ball will land while it’s still spinning. This is clearly impossible, not just because, as someone in the episode points out, a human brain can’t make the calculations fast enough, but also because it’s a sphere bouncing on a spinning platform covered in curved ridges. (He must be incredible at Peggle!) So we get the preceding nonsense: he successfully achieves essentially the same trick on a squash court, and he is able to tell the speeds of passing cars. As usual Brown can’t resist overplaying his hand in this latter trick. Standing on a bridge he stares at a car chosen for him, for some inexplicable reason by Tim Westwood, and accurately announces its speed as proven by a policeman’s speed gun. 50mph! (They could at least have chosen a more interesting speed than the speed limit of the road with a super-obvious speed trap – it does slightly spoil the potentially impressive nature of the trick to have a car going at the speed you’d expect it to be, but presumably showing a clip of a car exceeding the speed limit would have required the police to take action, etc.) Then, because he has no ability to display moderation, he repeats the trick with his back turned and his eyes shut, needing to know the manufacturer of the car to announce its speed, 49mph. This somewhat undoes his hilariously animated and idiotic explanation of using triangulation to calculate speed. And then because that wasn’t stupid enough he declares the year the car was made, just in case anyone was left in any doubt that someone was telling him the details.

But back to the casino. Brown laboriously explains to us that he can’t identify the casino, nor even the country he’s in. He keeps telling us this, over and over, ensuring we’re aware that it would be just awful if anyone were able to work out which casino he was in. Of course, he never gives a sensible reason why, because there is no possible explanation. He does make the extremely spurious suggestion that someone could ruin the trick if they were to know where he is. This fictional audience member being someone outside of the country in which it’s being shown somehow reaching the casino ahead of him to… do what? Perhaps he’s hoping we’ll think that were the casino to know he was there they could accuse him of cheating and prevent his winning the money. But any casino that had someone win £180,000 (in Euro, clearly) on 8 Black at a roulette table that evening would simply check their security footage. So that makes no sense either. So for what possible reason would he want to neither reveal where he was nor show any footage of anything other than a terribly filmed roulette table (apparently Channel 4 could only provide Brown with hidden cameras made in 1976 for this broadcast)? Pick your obvious answer.

And to his ‘failure’. Brown promises showmanship, and here it is at its peak. He claimed that he could accurately calculate where the ball would land on the wheel – not that he could psychically predict the correct answer (that was last week, or three weeks ago). Because this was a feat of superhuman maths and physics, not paranormal soothsaying, his being wrong made him seem far more capable than being right. The ball did not land on his predicted number, but in fact the one immediately next to it. He was so close! Had he landed on the 8 the trick would have looked like exactly that: a trick. ‘Sure, whatever’, we might cry, ‘you predicted the lottery at 1 in 14 million – so what if you can predict a 1 in 37 chance?’ But if he can have somehow so very nearly almost known where the ball would stop, just missing by one tiny segment, how much more realistic does it seem? Getting it wrong was by far the more powerful and effective way to end the show.

Oh, and let’s not forget another incredibly good reason why he needed to lose. Since there wasn’t really a casino, and since he wasn’t really gambling £5,000, he’d have had to fork out £180,000 to pay off our friend Ben. Perhaps a little pricey.

It did, however, add to the rather gruesome callousness that permeated the episode. Ben, his, um, unwitting volunteer?, not only had his brain mystically meddled with, but also the promise of vast riches unpleasantly teased and taken away. This added to the astonishingly uncomfortable and spitefully unpleasant matchbox trick, where he appeared to be verbally abusing a sad and timid lady for cruel laughs (let’s hope that she really was a stooge), made for a programme in which Brown seemed to underline his new reputation earned in the first two episodes with also being a colossal prick.

A lot of people were hoping that Brown would use this final episode to undo some of the damage he’s done over the last few weeks. It’s important that people not forget quite how awful this series has been, despite the last couple of episodes being slightly more tame. The first two, and to a smaller degree the second two, have used the vocabulary and techniques employed by psychics and mediums to con the grieving and vulnerable. Anyone tolerant of this must be either sociopathic, sympathetic to the con-artists, or cannot have thought it through.

In defending Brown many have cited both what he wrote in his book, and what he said in the interviews with Dawkins. Both demonstrate a man who is passionate about exposing frauds and snake oil salesmen, and watching those videos is a treat. These now seem to be prophetic of what was to come – in the interviews with Dawkins he explains how eventually the pull of money can divert people into embracing the seediness they previously wished to debunk. He wrote in his book, “I am careful not to cross any moral line that would take me into manipulating people’s real-life decisions or belief systems.” I cannot see that he could make the same claim today.

Many have argued that this entire position is ludicrous because he’s just a magician, and magicians aren’t going to tell you how they do their tricks. But I come back to my sociopath/sympathiser/ignorant position. Brown has, in my view, taken his position as a respected debunker and sceptic and manipulated it. Others have pointed out that he begins each episode stating that he uses misdirection and showmanship, and this opening disclaimer should cover anything that follows. I think this is a preposterous position to take. It’s no more acceptable that an advert for a drug making wild claims but excusing itself with some tiny small print at the bottom saying that maybe something above might not be entirely 100% true perhaps. A magician tells you he will pull a bunny from an empty hat, and when he does this impossible feat he attributes the effect to “magic”. This is hugely different from a man who has spent years engendering a reputation for scepticism and debunking then creating TV shows in which he promotes unscientific gibberish and encourages others to not only believe in these fallacies and lies, but even try them for themselves. This has the potential to create a worldview in which such beliefs are held. To ignore this difference is ridiculous. Because it’s the difference between a stage magician and a con-artist.

In the very first episode of Brown’s Channel 4 series Trick Of The Mind in 2004 Brown narrates, “Performing the magic for me is not about convincing anyone I have amazing abilities.” This doesn’t sound like the man in the last four weeks of programmes. Of course, he was always walking both sides of the line. His series have always made ridiculous claims of parapsychology. In fact, the inestimable Simon Singh was calling Brown out on this over six years ago – an article I’ve only just stumbled upon. I was taking issue with Brown back then (although falling for much of the show I couldn’t immediately recognise as regular card tricks, etc), but had since been won over by his apparent scepticism in the years that followed. Specials like Seance and Messiah, while still muddying his position, showed great potential for exposing the shysters. But it’s all gone now.

The awesome Chris French said to Singh in that piece all those years ago:

“If Derren Brown really has successfully developed techniques to discern the contents of people’s minds in the way that he claims, he has single-handedly achieved more than the collective attempts of psychologists over many decades. It may be of some relevance that Brown already had a successful career as a conjurer before he started claiming that he was producing his effects in a different way.”

Singh adds,

“Brown annoys me because he so often presents false explanations for his magic tricks, thereby misleading the public and making a joke of serious psychology. And the television executives annoy me because they willingly provide a forum for his stunts, not seeming to care that factual television is a precious commodity.”

I believe Brown has gone far beyond this now. He has taken his pseudo-psychology into a far more dark place. His effects rely on ignorance and gullibility, promoting unscientific thinking on a mass scale, and most of all, (unwittingly or otherwise) endorsing the actions and techniques used by those who wish to con the grieving and vulnerable. And for those who believe he’s not attempting to simultaneously cultivate an image as a debunking sceptic, but simply be a figure of pure entertainment, you might want to take a look at this from five days ago. The hypocrisy is genuinely unpleasant.

When asked by Dawkins for examples of why someone might pretend to be psychic by using conjuring tricks, but pretend that they’re not, he says.

“[There's] the magician who crosses over to the dark side. Who knows what he’s doing but realises there’s more money to be made in psychic readings than there is in doing tricks.”

“We all know examples of that,” replies Dawkins.

:,

29 Comments for this entry

  • Jazmeister

    That Simon Singh thing is great. It really is just a case of Brown needing a good seeing to by a very sharp audience member – although they’ll be actively avoiding them. What do you think about David Blaine? Does he fall under the harmless magician type?

    Derren Brown could totally redeem himself by actually selling snake oil on his site.

  • John Walker

    David Blaine falls so far outside of harmless magician.

    His original Street Magic shows are very entertaining displays of other people’s tricks, but interspersed with scummy crap. For instance his levitation where he does the Balducci effect, but then films a second version where he’s raised on wires, then cuts in the audience reaction to the original – basically a camera trick. A lame, crappy camera trick.

    He also went far further. In one of those original shows there’s an interview with Leonardo DiCaprio in which Blaine lies about having always been able to psychically predict which card people are thinking of since he was a child, attributing his success to paranormal powers rather than simply magic tricks. He crossed the line immediately.

    Then of course Blaine went off the deep end, befriending Uri Geller and pretending to perform the most tedious feats of endurance. (My favourite is definitely being entombed in ice – I’m sure there’s someone else who used to do that and not die… oh yes, the entire Inuit race.)

  • ScalyWg

    mayhap mr brown will suffer the consequence of ignoring that sagistic missive:
    if you play with okham’s razor you will cut your fingers

  • madhaha

    It’s Occam’s razor (or Ockham’s razor)

    Lighten up John. It’s entertainment for those in the know and “an event” for those that aren’t. It was an experiment with live TV and it was far from perfect but there’s actually a fair amount of subtlety involved in the script. The matchbox trick, the “guess the change in your wallet” and the roulette trick are all linked: there is a winner and a loser and my interpretation is that they’re explore people’s reactions to perceived wins and losses even when rationality or probability dictates that everything is rigged. Shortly before the show, one of the production team posted up an anecdote/shaggy dog tale on his official blog about how infallible Derren is in the casino which further underlines the outcome. Perhaps it’s not the best presentation on the theme but ladyfriend and I found it entertaining to watch and muse on how it was actually setup. The obviously flimsy explanations about the workings seem to be a deliberate effort to draw attention to the fact that he is an unreliable narrator by necessity and it helps to highlight the credulous and line them up for a quick put down.

    Finally he’s already in the process of doing a mini-series on debunking for children via the medium of YouTube: http://derrenbrown.co.uk/blog/science-scams/

    So to me it seems like he’s simply continuing a line of experimentation on relatively new mediums and trying to use his celebrity status to create talking points rather than misleading da stoopid masses in a careless gung ho manner. Hence the 3D thing coming in November and the ARG that’s tied with the posters and nonsense about UV writing being subliminal in the “control the nation” event.

    Cut him some slack. There’s some interesting things happening beneath the surface.

  • John Walker

    No I will not “lighten up” for the extremely good reasons I’ve given, over and over.

    These apologetics are getting increasingly ridiculous. His idiotic and unscientific explanations in the episode/s were a deliberate attempt to create a subtle subtext? Really? So can I presume the same is true of psychics and mediums? Their poor explanations are really their super-clever way of winking to those in their audience they’re not fleecing and abusing?

    I already link to the so-called debunking web series in the article above (did you read it?). I link to it as an example of the grotesque hypocrisy on display in these four episodes of The Event. There’s no greater agenda here. There’s no master plan. What you credit him with is utterly ridiculous. If he had any motivation beyond simply preying on the credulous and unscientific then he would have used episode four to reveal what he had been doing and educate. He did the precise opposite. That he then has the gall to go on to produce web videos claiming to be about debunking is revolting. He only further underlines that people should trust what he said in the preceding programmes, and I am bewildered that you cannot see how serious and inappropriate that is.

    I will not cut him slack. I will hold him up to the standards he lied about having in the past. To pretend that this programming didn’t set out to promote unscientific thinking is irrational. Rationalise the content of the lottery episode for me. And I have absolutely zero time for this idea that there aren’t vulnerable people being taken advantage of. If there were not, there would not be a booming alternative therapy industry fleecing millions and millions for their money and trust. Brown has become a part of this now, no matter how many YouTube videos he creates explaining how a pub trick works.

  • Jon

    FWIW, the casino footage was neither live nor genuine. As Derren approaches and watches the roulette wheel, the croupier announces (and places the marker on) red 16. Derren moves slightly forward to the table, and you can see the wheel coming to rest with the ball in black 13.

  • James T

    The apparent hypocrisy in Brown’s position is probably intended more as an exercise in ‘offsetting a Carbon footprint’. Ideally, I think he’d like to be able to perform his shows, with all his usual ‘power of the mind’ patter, but for no one to take it too seriously — at least to the extent that it doesn’t lead people to do something stupid.

    Whether the occasional interview or youtube video is really sufficient to offset the ‘footprint’ left by his shows, is somewhat doubtful however, particularly when you look at the responses on his main website!

    How much responsibility he should take for such a failiure is part of a wider question about the arts in general. The film ‘A Clockwork Orange’ was clearly not intended to promote gang violence, and yet its maker felt sufficient responsibility over the copycat crimes to withdraw it. Personally, I’m always torn over Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Harry Potter, which I love but can’t wholly deny the claims that they are dangerous in their promotion of the occult.

  • John Walker

    Since there is no such thing as the occult, I shouldn’t put too much effort into worrying about that.

  • James T

    But John, I thought the whole thrust of your argument was that it was inherently dangerous to believe in things that weren’t real (psychic ability, mediums, wisdom of the crowd etc)?

  • Apollo

    It is always reassuring to read one’s own thoughts expressed better than one could (and I couldn’t bear to waste another hour of my life getting annoyed watching the roulette one, not after the remote viewing bs)

    Actually, I think he isn’t that bad, but he’s certainly not good (now he’s doing all this BS) but it’s the automatic unthinking defending of him by those who you would expect more from that really irks.

  • John Walker

    Because they’re stories, not someone telling a grieving mother they spoke to their son.

  • SuperNashwan

    I read all that, thinking as I did on several interviews Derren has given over the years where he has specifically disavowed any notion he has a platform or authority in scepticism or debunking, stating he did not care what people believed if it gave them comfort (notice how he refuses to be drawn on the morality angle in Dawkins’ interview). And so I thought that your argument didn’t even get off the ground… until I saw that scienceofscams link right at the end. F*cking hell. So I doff my cap to you John, you were right after all. He’s having his cake and eating it, in an unpleasant sort of way.

  • James T

    It may be significant that the explanations offered in this series have been scientific rather than paranormal. For example, Brown supposedly knew the destination of the roulette ball because he’d used physics to calculate its path, not because of telekenesis or because a spirit told him or something.

    The shows have therefore encouraged bogus science rather than belief in the paranormal. In Brown’s own mind, this may be more justifiable as it’s not telling people they can talk to the dead, for example.

  • John Walker

    The paranormal is routinely justified and explained using bogus science. A practise which his programmes have so thoroughly endorsed. There’s no gap. This is my point. He explained paranormal abilities using bogus science.

    (Although if you can point to any scientific content in the remote viewing episode I’ll be impressed, and the subliminal episode was entirely using the language of the woo-woos, including subliminals itself.)

    The severity of his using faux science and pseudo-science is enormous. This was at its worst in the lottery episode, obviously, where he pretended to be providing scientific information while teaching utter gibberish. He equates automatic writing with statistical chance, psychology with paranormal powers, and so on, therefore blurring the line between the half-science and the half-flimflam.

    Most appallingly, he claims that simple maths is too hard for his audience to understand, re-enforcing people’s fear of simple rational explanations for his own gain. Anyone who does that is such utter scum in my mind.

  • Paul Taylor

    You’re very eloquent on Brown’s hypocrisy and I completely agree with you on most points. I think it’s been clear that he’s struggled for material and gone down a pretty awkward path in the last few series he’s done; as a viewer, I’ve almost completely lost interest.

    “- You can’t make a man give you money and then make him forget he did.”

    I’ve always found the hypnosis aspect of what Brown does genuinely more interesting than any of the tarted-up old magic trick nonsense. The Trick of the Mind segment where he made people forget their tube stop always mystified me, and actually prompted a lot of reading and eventually part of a dissertation at university.

    It certainly would be possible to do this effect with a prepared subject – someone who had probably been “hypnotised” by Brown before and was used to being compliant. The amnesia afterwards is a pretty known quantity: I think a lot of stage hypnotists would be able to replicate this and induce a similar belief in the subject that they couldn’t remember.

    This is, overwhelmingly, the most likely scenario: the guy has volunteered to be on the show, he’s been prepped by Brown and then just surprised a little bit on the day. He’s going through a pattern that he’s experienced before – “relaxing”, getting instructions, carrying them out, forgetting.

    The problem is that Brown uses his “showmanship” umbrella to cover something potentially really interesting – can he do “instant inductions” and create this “hypnotic” effect much, much faster than other hypnotists? Could he rapidly induce trust in a complete stranger?

    Various people have claimed to be able to do this in the past, and it is a genuinely debatable subject: there’s no logical reason why it would be impossible to exploit a momentary panic or confusion to give someone a strong suggestion that they then follow. Attention and compliance are still not very well understood.

    Unfortunately, Brown rides his stupid “LOOK AT ME I’M SO CLEVER” tricycle over the entire issue, obfuscates it and then leaves it impossible to answer the question, or know if he’s even contributing anything interesting to it. He even fudges this stuff completely in his book, saying something like “I have learned to do all this hypnosis stuff very quickly, but you’re better off finding out about that on your own”. Great – really informative.

    Nice one, Derren.

  • Blissett

    Taken a while to get here. Hope I haven’t missed the chance to join in.

    For what it’s worth, I have to fully support your arguments John. After the first program, I said that I honestly believed that DB was building to a big payoff at the end where he essentially told all those who’d believed his previous bullshit that they were idiots and prove why.

    Sadly, it seems I credited him with more integrity than he apparently has. In reality he is actually quite comfortable with letting some people believe that you can predict the lottery through the wisdom of crowds. I can’t be bothered to get angry, I’m just cripplingly disapointed.

  • John Walker

    Good for you, Blissett. I am disappointed (if not surprised) by quite how many of the fervent contributors to the first couple of posts haven’t come back to offer their revised opinions now the prophecies of building up to a big reveal proved to be quite so incorrect.

  • John Walker

    Paul – I’m still waiting to read any concrete evidence for hypnosis at all, beyond being about someone feeling relaxed. If there has been any academic research into being able to cause someone to forget actions, I would be very excited to see it. I think the reason Brown fudges this in his book is simply because it’s utterly false.

  • BlackBandit

    I’ve read all these and enjoyed them tremendously, John, and agree with you entirely about the amount of poppycock Brown’s been spouting. I do, I really do, like Derren Brown, and it saddens me when he’s like this.

    Just out of interest, and interested in what you’re going to make of it, have you heard of the Erickson Handshake Induction? Look it up.

    I can’t say whether or not it works, or whether or not the whole system is a scam, I just wondered if you’d come across it.

  • John Walker

    I don’t know a great deal about it, beyond the loose theory it’s based on. However, it, much as with most of the NLP nonsense, is completely unsubstantiated. There’s absolutely zero evidence for any of the claims made by Erickson or those in the NLP la-la brigade that came after, and when I see no evidence I suspect bullshit.

    Taken at face value – does my brain suspend itself and go into a trance when a handshake doesn’t plan out as I expected – no, somehow I think not.

  • BlackBandit

    It just seems a little odd to me. It’s described as a ‘rabbit in the headlights’ effect on humans. Which sounds cool, until you look at all the stuff that’s different between those loveable lagomorphs and us. I suppose the shock could induce a moment of ‘what the…?!’ which could be exploited into a ‘feel really relaxed’, but falling asleep? And forgetting things? Hmph.

    (In terms of magic, I learnt Tagged, by Rich Ferguson this week, which is both a very clever trick, and an example of beautiful mentalism.)

  • Paul Taylor

    Personally, I don’t believe that hypnosis exists as a “state” i.e. you don’t put someone in a magical trance : you simply convince them to believe that certain things are true. You’re inducing a powerful psychosomatic effect. So, yes, a lot of the *literal* Ericksonian / NLP stuff is complete cobblers.

    However, using “hypnotic” methods, it is possible to convince someone utterly that they can’t remember something, and this can be observed in a lab. I was under the impression that was basically a given. Let’s try and find something to back that up [rummages in the internet]. Try this…

    http://socrates.berkeley.edu/~kihlstrm/hypnosis_memory.htm

    Contains this:

    “Upon termination of hypnosis, some subjects find themselves unable to remember the events and experiences which transpired while they were hypnotized (for a review, see Kihlstrom, 1985b; Kihlstrom & Barnhardt, 1993)”

    So there has been research in that area for quite a long time, and a couple of literature reviews done to that effect.

    The problem is that, as it’s obviously a psychosomatic effect (the subjects are just convinced that they can’t remember), it’s pretty hard to tell what the brain is doing and why it works.

    That’s why researchers are poking around with MRI to figure it out…

    http://www.mindhacks.com/blog/2008/01/the_resistence_of_me.html

    Links to Neuron, which is a reputable journal.

    Some more evidence in this review – http://bit.ly/B3a8H. Ability to forget things under hypnosis seems to correlate to how suggestible someone is…big surprise!

    So, I do believe it is possible to create these effects, but also not that hypnosis is a special state of consciousness…if that makes any sense at all!

  • John Walker

    Thanks for those links. I think the problem with these tests, as others have pointed out elsewhere, is that there’s no way to run a double-blind test with a placebo group, since hypnosis appears to be pretty much placebo.

    So in tests where subjects claim not to be able to remember, we’ve no way of knowing if they’re simply lying, saying it because they think they should (which is 99% of hypnosis, so far as I can tell), or genuinely experiencing memory loss. Were such results to continue to manifest in a theoretical placebo group it would help to clear that up.

    So we’re left with even the most scientific tests being completely unscientific. I have such a huge problem with the acceptance of people being “highly hypnotisable”, as if such a scale has ever been demonstrated or proven. People are certainly more gullible than others. I’m not sure we should be taking the most gullible and using them as our star subjects when testing scientific neurological theory.

  • Paul

    “Hypnosis appears to be pretty much placebo.”

    Yes, absolutely – I’d say it’s a form of placebo. I don’t think that precludes any of the possible effects we’ve discussed, though.

    The placebo effect itself isn’t very well understood – as you point out, it’s hard to test.

    But…

    “There’s no way to run a double-blind test with a placebo group…”

    If the only way to prove anything scientifically is to do a double-blind with placebo, then you can’t prove the existence of the placebo effect itself.

    Clearly there are other acceptable methods of gathering valid evidence which can be applied in this context. Yes, it’s difficult, and yes a lot of research into hypnosis seems to fall foul of confirmation bias.

    I think that, in the case of “hypnotic” amnesia, “successful” subjects fall into three categories:

    1.) People who are lying about the effect

    2.) People who are “saying things because they think they should”

    You’ve pointed those out already. These work perfectly well in a lot of contexts for performance purposes – stage hypnosis relies especially on 2.)

    But these aren’t acceptable for proving my point that a hypnotist could make someone forget something.

    Both 1 and 2 aren’t components of the placebo effect, though.

    3.) People who genuinely believe that something is happening to them

    This would be traditional placebo. I actually think that 3.) comprises quite a significant number of successful subjects. Placebo subjects aren’t “lying” or conforming to social pressure – they’re experiencing a genuine effect engendered by their own beliefs. This can even be a physiological effect – dopamine release in placebo analgesia, for example.

    Functionally, truly believing you can’t remember something is the same as not being able to remember it.

    So…

    “Saying it because they think they should (which is 99% of hypnosis, so far as I can tell).”

    I don’t agree: I’d say that’s more like 50%, and probably the less interesting 50%!

  • Tom

    This is a great discussion guys. Derren Brown has bothered me for years, ever since I saw the “trick of the mind” episode where he pretends to “implant” suggestions in ad men, and then pretends to know exactly what they’re going to sketch based on those suggestions, complete with a camera trick “reveal” at the end. It was clear to me when I watched it that it was a classic Billet Reading trick, but with a fake explanation that exploits people’s unfounded belief in non-existent “subliminal advertising.” That to me is the problem. He never lets on that his reveal is phony, and there-by reenforces the “subliminal advertising” superstition. And he does this on BBC’s “documentary” time. To me, that lumps him in with the Uri Gellers of the world. He’s using misdirection by exploiting people’s superstitions in order to make money. He’s a charlatan through and through.

    I also honestly believe that his “skepticism” is part of his con-act. They are one in the same. There is no “good derren brown” and “bad derren brown”, and the fact that he’s actually suckered people like Randi and Dawkins is proof at his skill as a con-man. Just look at that “Science of Scams” thing. “Oh he’s promoting skepticism among kids, that’s a great thing” you may say. But watch the whole thing and notice what he says at the end. “Extraordinary things require extraordinary evidence.” An intentional bastardization of Occam’s razor. By introducing the term “extraordinary”, he implies that explanations must be fantastic (like in his mentalist shows), when in reality the explanations are VERY ordinary, and of course, simple. Again, he’s setting people up for his “NLP” mentalist crap, by POSING as a skeptic! Amazing trick, but terribly manipulative (especially when targeted towards kids).

    The guy needs to be very publicly called out and ostracized by REAL skeptics.

  • Tom

    I just reread my post, and I should clarify one thing, as I think it came off wrong. I realize that “Extraordinary things require extraordinary evidence.” is a Carl Sagan quote, but it’s not really applicable here. Sagan used it to mean “show me evidence of god”, not “I can disprove metaphysics with very simple science”. Again, I think it’s intentional, as Occam’s Razor would be MUCH more applicable, and saying “the most likely solution is the simplest” is actually what is on display here, not anything “extraordinary”…

  • John Walker

    Tom, thank you – you put into words a thought I’ve so stupidly not been able to articulate.

    “He never lets on that his reveal is phony.”

    That’s exactly it. That’s what I’ve spent hundreds of words trying to express. Regular magicians and mentalists attribute their effects to deliberately impossible and unrealistic things, such that the audience knows they’re lying. Brown does not do this. That’s what’s so seriously wrong about his magic.

  • Golden_Worm

    If Derren Brown has done anything to influence the gullible masses its through increasing their doubt in what he is really up to. In the already skeptical he looks like bad science, to the credulous he is a witch with superhuman memory and artist skill to-boot. He is playing a part of court jester, distracting the gullible and saving them from more ruthless hucksters who would want to do more than just entertain them.

    Many on this thread claim to be on to Brown’s cunning/blatant/dishonest tricks and that doesn’t means that he has nothing to teach you. The fact is that a lot of people don’t realize that they are being lied to, as highlighted to us throughout his shows. He knows people who think watch his show too. Its like he attracts a responsible adult to the conversation by saying the wrong answers to the right questions.

  • zipdrive

    @golden_worm: huh? how is he “saving the gullible from more ruthless hucksters”?
    He is just reinforcing their beliefs that such crap works, hence guiging them into the hands of such hucksters!

    @John: This is an excellent review and thought provoking piece. Although I do not live in the UK and have never seen Mr. Brown, the points you make still stand. Kudos.
    Have you had a chance to listen to the sk(c)eptic podcast “Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe”? I recommend it.