Derren Brown - Showman or Charlatan?

Submitted by nigel on Saturday 31st October 2009

I used to like Derren Brown. Really, I did. In the late 90s and early 00s he would bedazzle with his cunning, showmanship and sleight of hand. His shows were infrequent, tucked away on an obscure channel during the graveyard shift. His quirky, spooky and mystical look, replete with pruned goatee and bedecked in black garb cut quite a swathe. He was something new and exciting; his unbeatable rock-scissors-paper routine was awe-inspiring. His memory tricks baffling and intriguing and by his own admission achieved though "magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship".

Once such routine involved Brown being given a weighty tome (500 pages plus) and told to memorise every word in 30 minutes. After 30 minutes a stooge asks him for the word printed on page xxx, paragraph y, line z and n words in from the margin. Brown dutifully trots out the correct answer with a flourish of showmanship. So how did he do it? Well obviously he didn't memorise the contents of the book - utterly impossible. So we can only be left with the assumption that the trick was dishonest. This is something Brown is at pains to refute - I am often dishonest in my techniques, but always honest about my dishonesty. As I say in each show, 'I mix magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship'. I happily admit cheating, as it's all part of the game. I hope some of the fun for the viewer comes from not knowing what's real and what isn't. I am an entertainer first and foremost, and I am careful not to cross any moral line that would take me into manipulating people's real-life decisions or belief systems.. Hmmm. A paragraph itself short on honesty yet long on duplicity and chicanery.

Over the years Brown has courted controversy. His theatrical self-imperilment in his Russian Roulette show achieved a record amount of complaints against the show's broadcaster. His subliminal and neuro-linguistic programming of a Tote teller forced her to pay out on a losing dog wager. Some of his stunts, barely rising above Victorian Conjurer and Children's Party Entertainer have been lambasted and ridiculed on the Internet.

One of his (appropriately enough) Music Hall shows is a case in point. He picked a victim in the audience - lets call him the 'mark' to use a Grifter's parlance. The mark is questioned initially to gauge his susceptibility - Brown is needing a brash confident lad out to impress his girlfriend. The mark is then presented with a purported 50/50 question - there's a box on the stage which may contain either £500 or £5000 and if the mark guesses correctly, he gets to keep the money. The mark, with a unfounded swagger, immediately proffers £5000 in the mistaken belief that he's outwitted Brown, the assertion being that Brown thinks "everyone will play safe and guess £500 so I'll put £5000 in the box". If the mark had been more considered, more thoughtful, less confident, less man-about-town, in fact less of exactly what Brown identified when selecting him, he would have picked the opposite. Just think about it for a minute. Why would Brown jeapardise £5000? He would have to be wrong 10 times more with £500 to be out of pocket! Add to that Brown's nifty psychological profiling of the mark and you suddenly realise he can't be beaten - or worse, the mark's own personality lost him £500.

Fast forward a few years and Brown's shows have escalated to grand extravaganzas with equally portentous claims and promises. "Tune in on Wednesday and I'll predict the Lotto numbers live just before they are drawn, and furthermore I'll tell you how to do it yourself". Well, that's some claim Mr Brown so lets see whether the show lived up to its billing.

Sure enough, Brown did have the Lotto balls lined up on a rack, and there was a live feed to the BBC's Lotto draw. But hold on a minute, the balls are facing the wrong way so it is impossible for the viewers to actually see the 'predicted' numbers. Brown dismisses this trifle with a breezy "We don't have rights to broadcast the winning numbers before the BBC". SAY WHAT??? You are not doing that buster - you are merely showing a prediction on air which may or may not be correct!! Here we go, this smells worse than a sack full of kippers in the midday sun. The Lotto numbers are drawn on the adjacent TV, and then with great fanfare and the usual lashings of Brown bluster, he swivels the balls around to reveal - to reveal - to reveal - SIX CORRECT BALLS!! A JACKPOT!!

What a letdown. Well done Mr Brown - you have succeeded in nothing more difficult than a cheap conjuring trick. What a phony. To paraphrase veteran magician Paul Daniels' quote 24 hours later, that trick could be accomplished 1000 different ways by any magician worth his salt. So we're off to an inauspicious start, but there's more. The main thrust of the show is used to explain how those six Lotto numbers were 'correctly' predicted.

Brown took a bunch of 20-somethings (hardly a cross-section, but hey, they looked good on TV and who wants to look at grey-haired wrinklies?) and trotted out a cod theory whereby if a group of individuals guess a sequence of Lotto numbers, should those numbers be averaged out, they will represent the actual numbers which will be drawn.

Now this is totally unrelated to a published popular science book The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and NationsImage removed. by James Surowiecki but Brown peppers his rhetoric with references. Core to this book is a wonderful anecdote in its first chapter concerning Edwardian mathematician Francis Galton. Galton wandered to a livestock fair in 1906 and noticed there was a 'Guess the weight of an ox' competition. 800 people attempted to guess the weight, and rather unsurprisingly no-one got the weight spot on at 1198 pounds . But what was surprising was the mean weight of all those guesses was 1197 pounds! Absolutely incredible! Evidence such as this lead James Surowiecki to consider the aggregation of information in groups, resulting in decisions that, he argues, are often better than could have been made by any single member of the group.

So what does Galton's and later Surowiecki's brilliance have in common with Brown's Lotto number guesswork? It doesn't have anything. Nothing at all. Not one iota. There is no connection between the crowd's collective wisdom of guessing the weight of an ox with Brown's bunch of sycophantic pinheads guessing non-tangible random numbers. Brown posits that anyone, should they assemble a few friends for the purpose, be able to replicate Galton's work, only for ox replace random number somewhere between 1 and 49.

This is complete tosh, and Brown knows it. He has been commissioned to deliver a grand wheeze on television and, to maintain public interest, has promised wealth through Lotto wins to all those willing to sit through such nonsense.

Harping back to Brown's assertions, he says I am often dishonest in my techniques, but always honest about my dishonesty. Sorry Derren, you are a busted flush. You are patently dishonest with your claims.
Did you predict the Lotto numbers? No, you did not.
Did you show the public how to replicate for themselves? No, you did not.
Did I believe beforehand you would deliver on either of these promises?No, I did not.

Sorry Derren, but you have tumbled in my estimations. Please go back to performing rock-scissors-paper - I have spent hours trying to figure that out and not succeeded yet.

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