Is Derren Brown a Skeptic?

Derren Brown

Derren Brown is a magician of the mentalist variety. Mentalists use a variety of techniques to create the illusion that they can read minds and have other amazing mental powers.

Recently Derren Brown created a storm of controversy when he claimed that he was able to predict the lottery numbers and then appeared to do just that on a live TV show filmed as the lottery numbers were announced. He claimed that he would reveal the technique used to make the prediction a few days later on a subsequent show however, when the show aired the explanations he provided were not convincing and created a substantial amount of uproar among both his fans and his detractors.

Various sites have provided detailed examinations of the problems with his explanations along with more plausible alternatives (which you can see examples of here and here) so I’ll just provide a brief summary.

The majority of the show was spent suggesting that he had used a group of 24 volunteers, various psychological experiments/complex mathematics and automatic writing to arrive at the numbers. This is a non-explanation as group psychology has absolutely no way of impacting a machine randomly selecting numbered balls nor can automatic writing give you insight into the future.

The second explanation, offered alongside immediate denials, intended to arouse suspicion of the ‘methinks, the lady doth protest too much’ variety, was that the lottery balls could have been tampered with. This is illegal and would also be practically impossible given the amount of security and safety systems that are in place to prevent such things from happening.

The much simpler explanation, as discussed by a significant amount of newspapers and commentators, was that it was a trick achieved by some clever camera effects, projecting the numbers onto the balls or some other form of trickery. This is the simplest explanation and is strongly supported by the fact that Derren did not reveal the numbers until the lottery draw was completed, has not yet won the national lottery and says himself that it was a trick (albeit with a nudge and a wink to suggest that maybe it wasn’t).

In essence Derren is simply a magician performing a trick on TV and as such there should be no real surprise that he would provide false explanations for how his trick was performed. Yet there was surprise, or at least there was a significant sense of irritation, which stems from the fact that Derren does not package what he does as magic or as involving traditional illusionist techniques. And without invoking those it seems that he did something impossible.

Sitting uncomfortably alongside this situation is the well documented fact that Derren is a quite outspoken supporter of skepticism and rational thinking as illustrated in his long treatment of new age therapies and alternative medicine in his book ‘Trick of the Mind’, various interviews (see this lengthy one with Richard Dawkins for an example) and his feature length show ‘Messiah’ in which he demonstrated how it was possible to fake a whole variety of supposed supernatural and religious powers.

As such it seems somewhat incongruous that Derren would happily contribute to the ever growing public misunderstanding of what is possible or likely to be true. Unfortunately it seems that with his lottery stunt he has clearly done this and one could also add that by invoking things like group psychology and automatic writing as plausible explanations he has actually promoted pseudo-science and mysticism. These were exactly the kind of problems that lead Simon Singh to write an article critical of Derren Brown’s performances for the Telegraph a number of years ago.

Derren has responded to such criticism by pointing out that he is ‘honest about his dishonesty’, noting that he does not claim to possess any psychic or supernatural powers and that he usually states in his shows that he achieves his results using a combination of “magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship”. His position was further clarified by his response to the criticism he received for the ‘Russian Roulette’ stunt. This stunt involved a gun that he claimed contained live ammo but which was subsequently discovered to have most likely contained blanks. He stated,

It probably sounds odd. But as a magic-related performer, to have that even being asked: Was it real? Was it not real? That lifts it to a level that I’m very comfortable with. What’s left is the fact that it was a terrific piece of television.

This is very likely exactly the same position Derren has on his lottery prediction performance. It’s a ‘magic-related’ performance that created a great deal of interest and debate and was “a terrific piece of television”, so what’s the problem?

Well… the problem I think is not with the performance itself or with Derren’s false explanations as they are offered with a bit of a wink and a nudge.  The problem lies with the fact that he seems more concerned with creating entertaining television than whether or not he contributes to the public misunderstanding of topics like psychology, mathematics and automatic writing. The defence that ‘it’s just entertainment’ is also one that has been frequently employed by the psychic charlatan Uri Geller- who has come close to admitting, in recent years, that he has been using tricks to achieve the feats he long explained as being the result of his psychic powers.

I am certain that Derren would not like to have himself associated with the likes of Uri Geller yet claiming that he achieved his trick via automatic writing and group psychology is just as much of a deception as Geller’s psychic claims. His usual disclaimers also don’t quite make up for the deception because, in this case, the clear premise of the stunt was that the true method would be revealed.

I remain a fan of Derren Brown, I’ve been to see two of his live shows and I always watch his programmes but I can’t quite shake the feeling that his recent shows veered a little too far into the world of pseudo-science; with little concern for just how far he is misrepresenting psychology and maths in the process. A further worrying aspect is that Derren added to his explanation of how to predict the lottery that it would work for anyone who wanted to try but only if they did so without the intention of profiting. This is the kind of pointless ‘proof’ (a proof that is completely impossible to falsify) that one finds all the time in pseudo-science, alternative medicine and new age circles and I’m not quite comfortable that aping their methods is a good direction for Derren to take his work.

One thing that is undeniable is that the stunt raised Derren’s profile significantly- which, for him, is certainly a good thing. However, if you look at the responses in detail what you tend to see is that people who were very impressed by the trick and very disappointed and unimpressed by the explanations. As a result, I can’t help thinking that the trick without the pseudo-explanations would have been a more compelling stunt and would have resulted in Derren raising his profile and increasing his mystique without any need to further promote nonsense to the general public.

Derren is certainly a skeptical chap and his very profession as a mentalist somewhat demands that he has to sit on the uncomfortable knife edge of acknowledging that what he is doing is trickery and keeping up his mystique. In this case however I feel that a bit more ‘honesty about his dishonesty’ would have helped…

What separates magicians from charlatans is that with magicians we know we are being tricked, where as with charlatans we are tricked while they maintain that they are telling the truth. It’s the difference between James Randi and Uri Geller and I know which one I would want to be associated with!

ADDITIONAL NOTE: There is a very long but fascinating interview with Derren were he goes into great detail about his views on a whole range of topics including how honest a mentalist needs to be and what he thought of the Simon Singh article. Here is a link but be warned it really is very long!

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16 comments

  1. Are you a skeptic?

    As a skeptic your first question is ‘Is what he says he is going to do possible. If it is not what is he really saying?’

    DB could just as well have said “I’m going to saw a women in half” and for you complain about explanations as to ‘why there was no blood’ is to miss the whole point.

    As a skeptic I see DB’s job is to make money as an entertainer, to use any and all rational methods, which includes the deliberate misrepresentation of any and all fields, to make others believe that he is using non-rational methods. There are plenty of people who want to believe so why not make make a penny or two out of them.

    Personally, I prefer up-close magic: the dexterity involved, the hours of practice, the research that has gone into them.

    Ricky Jay

    Now that is magic.

  2. I hear what your saying Mike but have you watched Messiah? Derren makes the point in that that he sees an issue with those who use trickery in order to take advantage of other people. So I don’t think he would agree that it’s fine for him to make people believe nonsense purely to make money. Especially when he can make his money perfectly well without doing that.

    Similarly, in Trick of the Mind he also makes it clear that his position on whether magicians should be honest about using trickery is that they should be clear. He has an issue with people pretending to be psychics when they know they are doing magic tricks. As such I would have imagined he would have an issue with lots of people believing that you can predict the lottery via clever psychology and ‘deep maths’ but apparently not.

    I don’t have any issue with Derren as a performer. I just find his recent stunt to conflict with the notion that performers shouldn’t be contributing to the spread of nonsense just to make themselves more money/famous.

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