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?

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.

  • SPP

    Maybe The Events series is an elaborate way to highlight the brainwashing power of groupthink and he will debunk the whole lot at the end.
    If so I think he is brave, if mad, to risk the wrath of the believing masses (religious, new age, psycho-cults et al) who won’t appreciate being conned on a massive scale.
    The maths just doesn’t make sense.
    I am concerned about the ethics rules that may have been broken if he has mislead the people involved.
    I have always been very impressed with Derren Brown, however this is one very big and contraversial can of worms.

  • Daniel Fincke

    On reflection I’ve been wondering too, SPP, whether he’s trying on some meta-level to create a discussion that creates more math awareness through stimulating people to run out and debunk his nonsense. In a way that would probably force people to educating conversations about math and about how to reason through frauds and maybe wind up with many people being far more aware in the final analysis.

    But every crazy idea floated will stick with at least some subset of a population. Being an American and quite aware of how crazy ideas never seem to go away once they hit a certain number of people (vaccines creating the autism epidemic, Obama being born in Kenya, the US government blowing up the Twin Towers itself, etc.), it’s driving me nuts he ever put this falsehood out as plausible in the first place.

    And, like you said, even if he makes some larger point about how he showed people’s susceptibility when they believed him, last night he stood up for those people who had that experience he led them through in a way that stood up for them, like he was with his using his credibility to validate them and their subjective interpretations. I can’t see that as not a rather insensitive betrayal.

  • Charlie

    Educate? Expose? Ethics? You’re way way off base and can only thank God – yes! that the 3 million people watching that show aren’t as in need of protecting as you make out. Just to make a point and I hope you don’t take it personally, but I am more irritated by your irritation than that intelligent piece of theatre under discussion.

  • Daniel Fincke

    No offense whatsoever—I myself am not so much in need of protection either :)

    I inferred some people need, not “protection” but not to be fed falsehoods under the guise of mathematics because, if you watch that video, the whole room full of people he used should have—if they were so shrewd and above falling for pseudoscience—simply called him on the absurdity of the whole notion that their “group subconscious” could pick random balls spit from a machine. But they didn’t just laugh at him and they were elated at their magic powers, how their “belief” was decisive in making it happen.

    I have no desire to be patronizing or paternalistic but simply to recognize that all of us educated and uneducated are susceptible to certain errors and it’s a shame to see someone pumping up their belief in their natural errors under the guise of bringing them in on his secrets.

    Maybe it is no big deal but it was creepy to me to see how much they believed him since I worry about the widespread superstition to which humans endlessly seem to prove susceptible. (Myself included on any matter in which I did not have my head properly straightened out!)