Is Derren Brown a Skeptic?

Derren Brown

Derren Brown is a magician of the mentalist variety. Mentalists use a variety of techniques to create the illusion that they can read minds and have other amazing mental powers.

Recently Derren Brown created a storm of controversy when he claimed that he was able to predict the lottery numbers and then appeared to do just that on a live TV show filmed as the lottery numbers were announced. He claimed that he would reveal the technique used to make the prediction a few days later on a subsequent show however, when the show aired the explanations he provided were not convincing and created a substantial amount of uproar among both his fans and his detractors.

Various sites have provided detailed examinations of the problems with his explanations along with more plausible alternatives (which you can see examples of here and here) so I’ll just provide a brief summary.

The majority of the show was spent suggesting that he had used a group of 24 volunteers, various psychological experiments/complex mathematics and automatic writing to arrive at the numbers. This is a non-explanation as group psychology has absolutely no way of impacting a machine randomly selecting numbered balls nor can automatic writing give you insight into the future.

The second explanation, offered alongside immediate denials, intended to arouse suspicion of the ‘methinks, the lady doth protest too much’ variety, was that the lottery balls could have been tampered with. This is illegal and would also be practically impossible given the amount of security and safety systems that are in place to prevent such things from happening.

The much simpler explanation, as discussed by a significant amount of newspapers and commentators, was that it was a trick achieved by some clever camera effects, projecting the numbers onto the balls or some other form of trickery. This is the simplest explanation and is strongly supported by the fact that Derren did not reveal the numbers until the lottery draw was completed, has not yet won the national lottery and says himself that it was a trick (albeit with a nudge and a wink to suggest that maybe it wasn’t).

In essence Derren is simply a magician performing a trick on TV and as such there should be no real surprise that he would provide false explanations for how his trick was performed. Yet there was surprise, or at least there was a significant sense of irritation, which stems from the fact that Derren does not package what he does as magic or as involving traditional illusionist techniques. And without invoking those it seems that he did something impossible.