John Walker's Electronic House

Derren Brown: System

by on Feb.05, 2008, under Rants, Television

Ooh, three of my favourite things combined: bemoaning Derren Brown, tricksy mathematics, and slagging off homeopathy!

I hadn’t even heard that Derren Brown had a new show, until Tim IMd me to let me know it was great. I read the summary – Derren Brown reveals he has a system for winning horse races, and proves it – and sighed. Same old trick from him – do a crappy magic trick and dress it up as paranormal powers, while saying how he doesn’t believe in paranormal powers. I bemoaned to Tim that it would just be a trick, wah wah. Tim clearly smiles to himself, and lets me know that might be the point of the programme.

(You can get hold of it via Channel 4’s abysmal 4oD service. Assume I’m going to ruin any surprises below.)

As soon as it begins, I know the scam. And I’m delighted. The tale is, he’s been anonymously emailing this woman, giving her tips for betting on horses, assuring her that there is a system that cannot fail. She has won five in a row based on his tips, and has now been asked to gather as much money as she can for one final bet. He, having revealed himself to her on the fifth bet, has told her this will be the last tip she will be given. It’s now or never, and she’s rather impossibly won five times in a row, sometimes by remarkable circumstances (the rest of the horses falling, to let a back runner come through and win, for example). She’s convinced. She borrows money from her father, she puts savings into it.

Brown begins by explaining that he first got in contact with his mark via anonymous email. And it was this that triggered the memory of a scam I’d read about in a fantastic book with a terrible title, Coincidences, Chaos and All That Math Jazz: Making Light of Weighty Ideas. Either that, or it was told to me after discussing those examples that are in the book. Either way, the book’s worth reading.

The scam is, and it’s a lovely one, that you begin by emailing many hundreds of people. In Brown’s case, 7776 people. They are divided into six groups, each group told the name of one horse in a six horse race. Of those receiving the email, very few are likely to place a bet, but most will check if they would have won. Of course, 1296 of them will have. Those that have won are then sent a second email, again split into six groups, again with a guarenteed 216 winners. These people are impressed – they’ve won two in a row. Maybe they’ve bet, but they’ll very likely bet the third tip. 36 of them will be delighted with the results, the other 180 dismissing it as a coincidence that the previous two worked. So the 36 are now asked to film themselves making the bet, still not knowing who is asking, but certainly on board with the rather extraordinary success these predictions have made. From their perspective the chances of the predictions being correct would be 0.46%. Incredibly unlikely! But phrase that as a fraction and you’ve got, rather obviously, 36/7776.

Six of them make the phenomenal 0.077% win. They have to be convinced by now. As far as they know, they’re either the only one receiving the emails, or they’re assuming if there are others, they’ll be receiving the same tips. These six are then invited to attend a horse race live, on camera. Of course, each thinks they’re the only one. Each is given a one of the six running horses. Five lose, but we don’t know they even exist yet. We’ve only been following one of the marks, and she’s the one who wins. Of course they’ve got equal footage of any of these five, indeed any of the previous 36, to make a programme about them. For Brown and Channel 4, they get their show whoever wins. The winning mark is then told who is behind it all, and meets Brown. He tells her his nonsensical story about how he discovered the system, and promises her that if she places one more bet, on her last tip, he will reveal the secret to her so she could continue the system herself. He encourages her to gather as much money as she could. (It appears they sourced the original 7776 based on the knowledge that they wouldn’t be able to get a significant amount of money by this point, or Channel 4 could have been in a lot of trouble).

So she borrows £1000 from her dad, and combines it with £3000 of her own money – she’s a single mother, and cannot afford to lose a penny of this, but she’s convinced. She meets Brown at the race, he gives his tip and they place the bet. After this, he then explains the full scam to her. She knows she’s been duped. And she’s just risked £4k on a horse that has, as far as Brown is aware, a 1 in 6 chance of winning. Good drama.

And also, great, valuable television. With the exception of a very impressive, and utterly irrelevant, standard Brown trick with a meaningless percentages-based patter, it was all about education. Earlier in the episode he demonstrates that with his system, he can determine that a coin with land on heads, ten times in a row. They show the film footage of this. Later on, in the build-up to the reveal of the scam, they show how Brown had spent nine miserable hours tossing the coin, until they managed a string of ten. He explained the statistical likelihood over enough time, enough coin tosses. There’s nothing magical or unusual about ten heads in a row, given enough time. Even better, he then begins his final explanation with a wonderful dig at alternative therapies, specifically calling out homeopathy. He explains that if you have an alternative remedy that has worked for you, you have absolute conviction of its efficacy. But then points out that these treatments, in proper, accurate studies across thousands of people, demonstrate that they have no effect at all. He observes that our problem is we only see the world from our own perspective, and fail to consider those of others. And then how this applies to his marks – they could only believe in the scam because they only saw it from their own isolation. Given enough people, six wins in a row isn’t only likely, it’s literally impossible for it to not happen.

So there’s the maths, and the dig at homeopathy. But so far, no bemoaning of Derren Brown. In fact, cheering for him. Don’t worry.

You know they’d never let her lose the money. So when the horse comes in fourth, she’s devastated, but we’re sure Brown will reach into his pocket and give her the £4000, revealing the money was never bet. But something else happens. Something that, frankly, undoes every bloody thing this excellent programme had achieved. And I fear it’s a result of Brown’s ego not being able to completely let go of his desperate desire to proclaim paranormal powers that aren’t paranormal but are paranormal but aren’t.

Rather than what I believe would have been a pleasingly dramatic and point-demonstrating finish, he does a bloody trick. Instead of revealing he’d given her a fake betting slip, and handing over the cash (or perhaps betting and just giving her back another £4k, since it would have been a bit off had her horse won to not give her the winnings she expected), he instead reveals that she hadn’t checked her betting slip carefully enough. Because, Brown explains, as he walked to place the bet he became convinced that the horse tipped would not win, and changed the choice. And if she checks her ticket carefully she’ll see it’s for another horse… the horse that won! She’s won £13,000! Hooray! Terror turns to joy!

So what was that? Despite spending 55 minutes teaching us that systems are bullshit, and explaining that we need to increase our perspective, and that you’d done a clever con based on people’s individualist instincts, you’re now going to announce you do in fact have psychic powers, and can magically predict the winning horse? So why didn’t you just pick her alone at the beginning and use this incredible ability to predict the previous five races, eh? The reason you didn’t was because you wanted to make a very valuable and important point, demonstrated on a scale impossible without the backing of a production budget. A point you just utterly undermined for no reason other than your crazed need to pretend to be magic.

It’s fairly spectacularly obvious that the original tip would have been for a horse that was unlikely to win – had it, the entire vast experiment would have been something of a spectacular failure, as people would be too stupid to accept it was a con unless it ended with a loss. And then, of course, £4000 would be bet on each of the six horses – a pittance for the budget of the show, but a vast amount to the carefully selected marks. The winning slip is then switched for when she checks it. (To address an obvious question about this: The idea that she would be betting £4k, a thousand from her dad who can’t afford it either, and not check the betting slip at any point during the race, is ridiculous. But one of the rather useful aspects of magic is that the participant is usually very willing to forget what they previously knew in order to know what the magician wants them to know now. A lot of tricks rely upon this. Our mark here is hardly likely to protest that she’d checked the ticket shortly before the race began, and the name had changed. She’s won £13,000! Screw what it might have said before – it says the right thing now.)

Why couldn’t Brown have explained this at the end? Just say, “We of course bet on all six horses…” That’s a lovely punchline for a show about disguising odds. He gets to say, “That is, of course, the quicker way to guarentee a win,” and smirk knowingly to camera. And there’s no pointless, point-defeating, point-engorging ego-boosting idiocy to destroy an hour’s fine work.

Brown has spent a decade getting himself to a place where people assume he has these supernatural abilities that aren’t supernatural but they are but they aren’t. It’s a powerful place from which he can wield great responsibility. This programme was a demonstration of how effective this can be to achieve the aims he keeps claiming he cares about: debunking frauds and charlatans. But he just can’t help himself. He has to be that fraud, that charlatan, if only for a moment. Surely doing the somewhat daft super-sealed envelope trick midway through gives him his spotlight moment. He made his impossible predictions that we cannot fathom, and deserves vast credit for not only doing a decent trick (although a very, very standard trick – so much so that someone did it on that awful NBC Uri Geller vehicle last year) but doing it really, really well. So why must he constantly ruin his significant and important points?

Bah, I say. Bah.

18 Comments for this entry

  • Rev. S Campbell

    You curmudgeon. He’s a showman! It wasn’t an episode of Dispatches, obviously he was going to do something Derren Browny at the end to cheer the unfortunate victim up – putting her through all that misery and making her look like a sap, and then just giving her her own money back, would have seemed very mean to non-curmudgeon viewers. (More than mean, even – smug and nasty, having had a rich magician dangle the prospect of making money at someone who really needed it, only to then dump her back in the same poverty she’d been in at the start, having merely failed to make it worse.)

  • John

    Then explain that they bet on every horse. But don’t waste an entire hour of excellent work.

  • Iain "DDude" Dawson

    Thanks you for writing this up. It really doesn’t get said enough.

  • John

    Commentary on last weekend’s Derren Brown programme doesn’t get said enough? I wholeheartedly agree.

  • Steve

    Isn’t it more a case of leaving it up to the viewers to realise that they bet on all the horses at the end, on the basis of the logic that was laid down by rest of the episode? I actually think that’s more interesting.

  • John

    No, because anyone with any sense didn’t need to be told that statistics work this way. If the idea was to educate people, then educate them. Leaving room for doubt is leaving room for people to declare it was mystical magics, and Brown is a guru, and their homeopathic remedy really did make the horse win the race. You cannot leave that room if you want to make a difference. It’s the tiny gaps through which all this idiocy sneaks.

  • Tim E

    Actually, I think the final bet was the best bit. It’s the comprehension test at the end of a reading passage. Of course he’s tricked her, and everyone knows that. Knowledge is reinforced when tested.

  • Rev. S Campbell

    “Then explain that they bet on every horse. But don’t waste an entire hour of excellent work.”

    Yes, you’re right. They should also have a bit at the end of every episode of EastEnders where a newsreader in a sensible suit and tie tells viewers that what we’ve just seen was only pretending, and none of the characters really exist.

  • John

    When Eastenders spends its half hour explaining to camera that it’s a documentary, evidencing this, and only existing because of this purpose, then containing a scene of pure fiction, your moronic comment will become relevant!

  • Rev. S Campbell

    That’s exactly the sort of humourless hairsplitting thing a curmudgeon would say.

  • John

    It’s interesting how people are considering this final moment of the episode in exactly the way Brown was pointing out people think about situations. “I knew it was a trick, and therefore everyone knows it was a trick.”

    There was a lesson to be learned from that programme, and everyone’s avoiding it.

  • Rev. S Campbell

    Is it that you’re a big curmudgeon?

  • John

    Clearly this joke isn’t going anywhere, but I find it peculiar that I can spend hundreds of words enthusing about a programme, celebrating all the good it did, and be a curmudgeon because I was let down by the end. But hey ho.

  • Willem100

    “slag of”?

    Something smells fishy, methinks.

  • ImperialCreed

    “Clearly this joke isn’t going anywhere, but I find it peculiar that I can spend hundreds of words enthusing about a programme, celebrating all the good it did, and be a curmudgeon because I was let down by the end. But hey ho.”

    Truly, Mr. Walker, your cross is a terrible one to bear.

  • always_black

    Why go to all that trouble and expense if you can just use actors, fake the whole thing and proclaim statistics as the new magic?

    The problem with double-double-double-bluffing is eventually people will just tell you to fuck off.

  • colinr

    I gave up on Derren Brown long ago but was interested to read your summary of the show (It saved me a the extra fifty minutes it would have taken to watch and be pissed off by it!)

    I can see why you would be upset by that ending – it does undo all the good work as it still ends up rewarding someone for their blind following instinct. I would have no objections to giving the person back the £4000 she bet as a kind gesture to go along with the cautionary tale (and maybe even give her a few hundred quid on top as payment for participating in their TV show!) but to let her win the top prize is only rewarding her for her stupidity in getting conned in the first place!

  • Dave

    I don’t believe they bet on every horse.
    Seems unlikely.

    Far more likely is that Derren bet on her horse, hoping that by some fluke it would win (and thus have an amazing end to the show)
    But as an “out”, in the more likely chance that her horse wouldn’t win,
    He paid a booky to accept whatever slip he was given, and hand over some prize money that the production company had set aside.

    If her horse HAD one, production company looses no money whatsoever.
    If not, then production company simply pays out a decent prize.

    The alternative of betting on each horse would ALWAYS be more expensive regardless of the outcome. And producers being what they are, will of course choose the cheaper option.