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.”
“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.