Writing, life, politics

On The Difference Between Conjuring And Lying

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.

Derren Brown Lottery Prediction – REAL EXPLANATION EXPOSED – How did he do it? All revealed!!!!

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).


  1. Steven

    Interesting post. I initially thought it was split screen, however then a friend (who is reallllllly good with split screen) said that it wasn’t split screen. I did explain to him every detail why I thought it was but he said it definitely wasn’t.

    Anyway, as a magician, I kind of agree with you. It’s cheating if its not what you would see if you were standing there.

    The bottom line is, this was a VERY good publicity stunt. Controversy makes careers. Uri Geller became famous because people spent so long arguing about whether or not its real. Derren has done the same thing here, he’s creating controversy, controversy creates discussion, discussion gets your name known. Everyone who sees Derren live KNOWS he’s a genius, which is why not that many people actually get annoyed if he cheated this time.

    What you think?


    • Jonny Nexus

      It was a very good publicity stunt, but I don’t hold to the principle/cliche that all publicity is good publicity (something I’m sure Gary Glitter, for example, would agree with). And in this case, I think it could rebound on him. When you’re watching a magician, you want to be thinking: “How’s he doing that?” not “He probably isn’t actually doing that.”

      I think perhaps one thing I didn’t mention in the post is that I think he crossed another line, which is that while it’s probably best for a whole number of reasons for magicians to stay silent as to how they did a trick, if they say they are going to explain how they did it, then they should do just that.

      Saying you’re going to explain how you did it, getting paid to explain how you did it, getting people to watch for an entire hour waiting for you to explain how you did it… and then not explaining how you did it.

      I think that just a bit crap.

      Unless he really did fix the balls… in which case, he is indeed the man. 🙂

  2. Steven

    I see what you mean. You’ve made some really good points! I think the lottery thing has made a lot of people lose respect for him but I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a big twist coming sometime towards the end of the events.

    I hope he did fix the balls. That would have been awesome 😛

    Steven 😉

  3. Becky

    As I recall from the publicity of the explanation show (note – I saw neither the prediction nor the explanation) What was advertised was how he COULD have done it, not how he DID do it (emphasis mine).

    Fixing the balls via an insider will not have happened. The legal issues alone make it a no go. Channel 4’s legal team would have had collective appoplexy at even the possibility of exposing the station to that degree of grief. Remember ITV and the phone in scandals?

    Like the Russian Roulette stunt he pulled a few years ago, this is a well engineered trick. Not having watched either of the two shows, I can’t say whether it made for entertaining viewing, the way that one did. It would be interesting to find out what his aim was – whether it is still just self publicity, or whether it’s part of the whole ‘encouraging scepticism and thinking for yourself’ thing he sometimes pushes.

  4. Ian

    If I wanted to do it, I’d have fixed ‘my’ balls to be something that could be ‘written on’ after knowing the results.

    A surface that blackens if exposed to a laser, say. Or lit from within in a pattern. All you see are six white things which are on something which is later rotated.

    But writing on something (‘predicting’) that is in full view of the audience is a basic trick.

    The alternative is filming 55k-ish times to be sure of getting five numbers right. He said it took a year… Getting six would be a bonus.

    If I could predict lottery numbers, a) I’d be rich and b) I’d do so in a way that was clear it was done before. If – and it’s a big ‘if’, you can’t opine what the numbers are going to be prior to the draw (even after sales stop? come off it!) then you could, for example, announce what their sum / product / difference between pairs of numbers is going to be.

  5. Ian

    As well as probably being illegal (must check the recent-ish Gambling Act) fixing the balls would put Camelot out of business and thus present someone with a very, very large bill.

  6. Jonathan Drain | D20 Source

    Man, I watched that whole show and he didn’t even give the real explanation.

    My guess is camera trickery. White spheres with numbers on are fantastically easy to render with CG. These are then spliced in digitally, or projected. It’s possible that the studio audience was too far away to see the actual set of balls, which could have shown any set of numbers or other ambiguous symbols. I also like the hypothesis that they were drawn on using a clever system involving photosensitive balls and UV light.

    On the mouse game, I imagine that he had four blank cards, bent slightly convex, over mouse symbols drawn in black ink on the black table. Thus, any card will have a mouse on it as long as he pushes down before picking it up.

    On the knife game, it’s likely that he palmed both the mouse and the cheque with the numbers written on it.

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