Sunday, April 04, 2010

derren brown: i call bullshit!

This is a complicated story about how I was duped by a clever con man, Derren Brown. He didn't take my money or enlist me in a cult. But he took a bite out of my pride. I have a grudging respect for him, although I would have respected him more had he refrained from some over-the-top showmanship that eventually led me to say, "Oh, come ON!" He really had me going for a while. Now I call "bullshit!" Bullshit, Derren Brown!

But Brown is not as bad as those who support him: I'm talking about the high-profile skeptics and atheists -- people like Richard Dawkins, James Randi and Penn and Teller. If I'm onto Brown's tricks, with my minimal knowledge about illusionists and science, then surely those folks know exactly what Brown is doing. But they don't denounce him, because Brown is spreading their gospel. Shame on them! Skeptics and atheists should be above such base, political tactics. They should be knights of truth.

Derren Brown is a magician from the U.K. He does two sorts of tricks: mind-reading and mind-control. He styles himself as an enemy of charlatans and fully admits that he uses trickery. His basic message is "I'm doing the same thing that the 'psychics' and 'faith-healers' do, and I'm admitting to you that I'm shamming. In fact, I'm even going to tell you how I'm doing my tricks. Now that you know it's all fake when I do it, why would you believe someone who claims to be doing the same thing via supernatural powers?"

As an atheist who doesn't believe in ESP, etc., I like that message. For a few months, Brown was my hero. But as I started listening to Brown's "scientific" explanations about how he did his tricks, I started to feel... funny. I suppressed the feeling, because it was so cool that he was promoting my views -- and in an entertaining way. But as there's only so long I can kid myself, and with each TV special, Brown piled the shit on thicker and thicker, until the whole shit tower came tumbling down on my head.

Brown claims he uses a variety of techniques, but the main one he (supposedly) uses to read minds is "cold reading." Cold reading is an age-old technique used by "psychics." You can see a parody of it in "The Wizard of Oz," when Dorothy visits Professor Marvel. The cold reader will throw something out there like, "I'm seeing a G... or maybe a J... someone's name. Is there someone here who knows a G or a J...?" And, of course, a few people say that they do. "It's someone who once gave something precious to you... Or maybe you gave something precious to them..." The cold reader keeps sending out vague feelers that sound like they're coming from a supernatural source. By reading nods and tears and surprised looks, he gradually narrows in on what seems like a miraculous reading.

But Brown guesses really specific things, like a stranger's social-security number and then claims he's using cold reading to do it. Impossible. There are two ways to guess someone's social-security number. (1) spy on it somehow (steal someone's wallet or do research, which you can do in advance, assuming you know the person is coming to your show); (2) plant a stooge in the audience who pretends to be surprised when you guess his social-security number. There is no sort of "tell" or clue a person can inadvertently let slip that will help you guess a unique nine-digit number that only he knows. If you can make guesses like this, you are either genuinely psychic (which Brown denies), you cheated by spying or research (which Brown denies) or the "stranger" is a stooge (which Brown vehemently denies). There are no other possibilities. Whenever you see a magician doing a "psychic" reading, one of these possibilities is true. (Like Brown, I deny the possibility that the magician is genuinely psychic.) Cold reading for very specific, complex details (license plate numbers, back balances, etc.) is not possible.

But we skeptics like hearing things like "cold reading," because we know that most fake psychics (who don't need to guess anything as specific as an SSN in order to impress their clients) DO use such techniques, and we're so happy that Brown is exposing these shams to the public at large.

Brown's most impressive tricks are his mind-control ones. He walks up to "strangers," asks them for directions, and then, while the strangers are talking, he quickly and quietly mumbles, "give me your money and your watch." And the strangers, as if in a trance, do just that. He convinces honest people to steal. He makes artists draw specific pictures without explicitly telling them what to draw. He makes people forget their names. The techniques he "uses" to do these things -- so he claims -- are subliminal messages and Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP), both of which are tools that are loosely based on scientific principles but riddled with pseudo-scientific nonsense. Subliminal messages and NLP are great explanations for Brown to use, because most people -- even some scientists -- who haven't studied them deeply assume (based on pop-culture references) that they are rigorous fields of study and research. They're not.

Most people have heard of movie theatres flashing "Buy Popcorn" during the previews. That story has been around for so long, people think such practices are tried, true and continually in use. In fact, "scientific research ... has been unable to replicate most of these marketing claims beyond a mere placebo effect." (See Subliminal messages have been shown to exert small amounts of influence in certain cases, but there's no evidence that you can, say, drive past an artist in a red van and have three guys walk by him wearing red t-shirts and then successfully predict that he will use a lot of red in his painting. It's absurd to say, "that's what I'm doing, and, as you can see, I'm not claiming I use pseudo-scientific, unproven techniques like the psychics claim they use." But the average skeptic, who has not looked deeply into subliminal messages, thinks psychic powers are bunk and subliminal messages are "science."

NLP is, roughly, the study of body language and how it reveals the inner workings of the mind. NLP practitioners not only believe that they can read minds using the techniques of NLP -- they also believe that they can influence minds via the techniques. For instance, Brown claims certain kinds of handshakes can cause people do do things they wouldn't normally do. Or "mirroring" people (leaning the same way they lean, tilting your head the same way they tilt their heads, etc) can actually (and predictably) alter the way people behave.

But in the sciences, "NLP has been largely ignored ... because of issues of professional credibility ... and insufficient empirical evidence to substantiate its models and claimed effectiveness." (See As with subliminal messages, there are are probably speckles of truth mixed in with all the NLP bullshit, but to claim that you can make someone steal (or agree to hand over his wallet and watch to a stranger) via the way you shake his hand or the way you tilt your head is ... I don't know what to say. Let me know if you believe it and I'll show you a shiny new bridge that I can get you for a really low price!

I can excuse non-experts for believing a lot of Brown's lies. I've always been interested in con games and pseudo-science, so I've made a study of these things. But I don't expect everyone else to have done so, and if you haven't, a lot of this stuff will seem plausible, which is, of course, why Brown uses it as his explanations. Smart.

But I just watched a show called "Messiah," in which Brown claims to be taking down false profits. He travels around America, debunking psychics and faith healers. He does this by doing the same things they do, assuring us -- as usual -- that he's using trickery. If we know he's faking it (by his own admission), then we're stupid if we believe Jean Dixon or Billy Graham. James Randi has been doing the same thing for decades. The difference is that Randi shows you how he does his tricks. Brown doesn't. He just says, "It's a trick" without explaining the mechanism. Or he goes into his usual spiel about cold readings, NLP and subliminal messages.

In "Messiah," he states that he doesn't use actors or stooges. In his book, "Tricks of the Mind," Brown insists that magicians who do so are "artistically repugnant" and that the use of stooges is "simply unnecessary." Yet, in "Messiah," to prove that faith-healers (who pretend to cure people by touching them) are con artists, Brown converts atheists to believers by touching them. I am not exaggerating. He fills a room with atheists, asks them to state their beliefs ("I don't believe in God"), touches them on the head and then asks them their beliefs in God again. ("I believe!")


He is "up front" in stating that this is "just a trick," but he also loudly claims that he doesn't use actors or stooges. So that means that h must be using scientifically verifiable principles (that have never been verified) which are extremely powerful and would, I'm guessing, be of great interest to the military, advertisers and politicians. We'd better home Brown never decides to use his powers for evil!

Shame on him. But more shame on people like Randi, Dawkins and Penn and Teller for not exposing him. Brown is not "just an entertainer." He and his producers bill his shows as "science shows," and at the same time he helps topple nonsense beliefs in things like psychic powers and faith healing, he buttresses beliefs in equally quackish notions such as NLP and subliminal messages. Randi and company must know he is doing this. Presumably, they don't say anything, because Brown is helping them fight their enemies. That is no excuse. That's the worst kind of excuse.