Judge This: Derren Brown False Lesson In Mathematics For Britain

I was really irritated last night by Derren Brown’s choice to use his lottery trick on national TV in Britain to propagate fundamentally bogus mathematical thinking and to convince a group of people that their belief in their abilities to reach into the subconscious was able to generate knowledge of winning lottery ticket numbers.  It’s one thing to perform illusions and to highlight thereby our susceptibility to sleight of hand.  Illusionists do us an invaluable service by showing how possible it is for charlatans to dupe the average person into believing supernatural falsehoods.  And magicians like James Randi and Penn & Teller famously use their podiums as magicians to speak up for skepticism and to expose charlatans everywhere.

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Randi has his famous $1,000,000 challenge where he offers to pay $1,000,000 to anyone who can demonstrate paranormal abilities under empirically verifiable conditions.  Penn & Teller have their own myth-debunking show called “Bullshit”.  And even Derren Brown himself has shown how one can pass for having psychic powers and divine gifts bestowed only by the Holy Spirit well enough to even fool those who believe themselves to have such things.

So in light of that I was supremely disappointed when Brown explained his impressive lottery trick by using an utterly nonsensical mathematical theory that could confuse the gullible who are already not only naturally bad at counter-intuitive probability calculi like most of us but who are also uneducated or undisciplined in training their minds against such errors.

I was also appalled at the rather cruel joke he played on the rubes he convinced were helping him do something astonishing. The joy and sense of being something powerful that he gave the people in that room, all as a public exercise in exploiting their astonishing gullibility and mathematical stupidity, just setting them up to believe in something false of which they will be persistently disabused from now on—is just cruel if you ask me. Each one of them was ecstatic. Not one of them had an appropriately skeptical demeanor while on national TV. All of them exploited for their susceptibility.

It’s one thing to perform an illusion under the honest pretense of performing an illusion but it’s an educationally reckless thing to play with people’s knowledge by tricking them into thinking you’re giving them the secret of your trick when all you are doing is lying to them about how mathematics works.  In my opinion this crosses the line into being just as immoral as perpetuating irrationalistic faith-based thinking of any other kind.  It’s setting yourself on the side of human ignorance and tendency towards fallacy and against those of us who labor our whole careers to reverse those natural errors.

So, I was inspired to recommend to my readers some Qualia Soup videos on probability.  And while I was selecting those, I realized that over just three months of blogging I’ve discovered a full 10 youtube channels that positively excite me.  There are exactly 10 channels I know of providing high quality, clever, creatively presented, vigorously reasoned defenses of rationality against faith-based reasoning.  And countering Derren Brown’s careless misinformation stunt from last night would be a fine context for offering this resource of videos for my readers.  SO, simultaneous with this post I am also posting my Top 10 Favorite Rationalist/Atheist You Tube video channels and I recommend all my readers to catch up on their best videos as part of sharpening their own reason and learning effective strategy for helping others shape and correct their own.

In the meantime, on the question of Derren Brown—Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.