I’ve often been a bit amused by Derren Brown’s upstanding reputation in the skeptical movement, given that he sometimes seems to step over the line somewhat in representing his own performances. In the past few weeks I’ve noticed this issue starting to get more play in various circles, so thought it might be worth sharing the links. The first is this interesting criticism of Brown’s recent “The Experiments” television feature (embedded below) by two social psychologists:
We would like to dispute in the strongest possible terms the theoretical underpinnings and proposed implications from Derren Brown’s ‘crowd experiment’ – The Gameshow – aired on Channel 4 on 28/10/11…
…Why is all this important? Does it really matter to anyone other than social psychologists that outdated theory is portrayed as factual on prime-time television? The point is that an understanding of crowd psychology has important consequences for society. Regarding crowds as anti-social entities acting without identity or reason can legitimate their violent repression by security forces, prevent intragroup helping in emergencies, and facilitate the dismissal of popular protest as irrational by those in positions of power.
Along with the criticism of psychologists, Derren Brown’s shtick also seems to be starting to concern some skeptics, as evidenced in this thread at the JREF forum. Perhaps reacting to these online whispers, last month Brown posted a new blog entry titled “To claim or not to claim“, which he wrote to “clarify a few points regarding my own work for anyone in any doubt”. Nevertheless, I still came across yet another article yesterday which is fairly comprehensive on the issues at hand:
On one side, through his activities blogs and writing, Brown promotes scepticism: he challenges mediums and spiritualists, just as Houdini did; he promotes a scientific approach; he embraces Dawkins and writes about his own lapsed Christian beliefs. He encourages the asking of questions and disapproves of blind belief.
On the other hand, the Derren Brown that countless TV viewers and theatre audiences encounter does not simply create mystifying effects, his explicatory rhetoric in performance is steeped in a belief; not in a god or an afterlife but in a fuzzy set of behavioural dynamics that we non-experts call ‘psychology’. Something which, we may need to remember; just because it is an ‘ology’, doesn’t make it any more scientific than ‘astr’, ‘graph’ or ‘crani’.
Brown often explains his ability to predict words or behaviours, to duplicate drawings or influence people to act in certain ways, as achieved through a mastery of the understanding and exploitation of ‘psychological techniques’.
I must here state my own belief that, though some of his effects may have a loose psychological component, these explanations, as you might expect of any conjurer, are mainly bogus; misdirecting attention from his real methodology.
The truth is, no matter how hard you studied psychology, no matter how expert you became in understanding human motivations and frailties you still could not possibly repeat Brown’s effects without the use of age-old conjuring smoke and mirrors.
For myself, I just like the guy. He’s an excellent magician, but an even better artist (in more ways than one), and he brings the trickster mentality back into an area that sorely needs it. It’s just a shame that he then plops himself down into the uber-rationalist camp with James Randi etc when he could be having a lot of fun just running rampant with the rest of us…