On Wednesday evening Derren Brown did a show where he apparently predicted the results of the national lottery. Yesterday evening, he promised to reveal how he did it.
Now it was always going to be a trick, and those people who are apparently now upset that it wasn’t done by some kind of mystical means or that it’s not something they could use to win the lottery frankly need to get some sort of grip on reality, because they’re currently in orbit around planet Loopsville.
But there’s tricks, and then there’s tricks. When a magican tricks me, I want it to be because he outwitted my eyes’ ability to observe and my brain’s ability to analyse. Not because he plain damn lied. And when it comes to TV magicans this basically amounts to:
What the TV camera shows me must be exactly what I would see if I were sitting there.
Otherwise, you’re not fooling me. You’re just lying. It’s like the difference between beating a man in fair combat and jumping him from behind.
So what was the explanation? Well there were two.
The first, which took about 55 minutes of the show to outline, was that it involved the “wisdom of crowds”: that if you get enough people to take a guess at something, then their average will be very close to the true answer. This is obviously bullshit in this case for two reasons:
a) As an excellent blog post by John Walker says, “the wisdom of crowds” doesn’t apply when there’s no wisdom involved in their selection”. (i.e. When you’re guessing entirely random numbers).
b) As several people on YouTube pointed out, if you ask people to come up with guesses between 1 and 49, and then add them up, the numbers will trend towards the middle, just as if you roll two six sided dice and add them up, the numbers will trend towards seven. So for 24 people to come up with an average of “1”, every single one of them would have had to guess 1. Apparently, on this occasion they came up with a 2. Right…
So that was bullshit.
Then right at the end, when I was very disappointed at him putting out an explanation that was clearly false, he came up with one that was both possible and perhaps even halfway plausible. The explanation was that he’d got an insider into the lottery organisation who’d enabled him to swap six of the balls with a near identical set that were 20 grams heavier. Of course, the explanation was couched in terms of, “I didn’t do this, because that would be illegal, but I had have done it…”
Now unlike the previous explanation, this is at least possible, and I’ll confess it had me going for a while. Yes, it seems unlikely that someone could penetrate National Lottery security, but fifteen years of success does breed complacency. And whilst it would be illegal, journalists often do things that are, strictly speaking illegal, but get away with it because they can claim it’s in the public interest. (Such as when they use fake qualifications to first get and then do a job to expose the fact that a company isn’t properly vetting its workers).
But… this would really be a quite serious fraud. So it’s possible, but very, very unlikely.
And then I saw this.
It has two bits of evidence, one very clear, one much harder to see. I had to replay it several times before spotting it. It’s made much harder by the way the camera is bouncing about, but ask yourself this: why did he use a shaky hand-held camera rather than just putting it on a tripod? But I think it makes it very clear that it was simply a split screen camera trick.
Which I think is lame.
(Unless, of course, the YouTube video’s a fake. Which I guess is part of the problem here. Once people start lying, we end up in X-Files “trust no-one” territory).