derren brown

post modern C tooling – draft 5

(tags: tools programming C)

‘My ties to England have loosened’: John le Carré on Britain, Boris and Brexit | Books | The Guardian
“At 87, le Carré is publishing his 25th novel. He talks to John Banville about our ‘dismal statesmanship’ and what he learned from his time as a spy”
(tags: spies intelligence MI5 MI6 le-carre politics)
The New Zealand Shootings: The Untold Stories | GQ
A moving account of the shootings and their aftermath. Via Metafilter.
(tags: shooting terrorism racism new-zealand)
How Derren Brown Remade Mind Reading for Skeptics | The New Yorker
Introducing Derren Brown to the Americans. Via Mefi.
(tags: magic derren-brown mentalism)
WSJ, WaPo, NYT Spread False Internet Law Claims | Cato @ Liberty
Rebutting nonsense about the supposed publisher/platform distinction in Section 230 of the US’s Communications Decency Act. From the Cato Institute, so can’t be dismissed as leftist propaganda.
(tags: law censorship internet)

Glen Scrivener, who blogs at Christ the Truth, recently watched Derren Brown’s Fear and Faith programme. In it, Brown apparently converts (or at least induces a religious experience in) a staunch atheist, a biologist called Natalie. Brown used this as a jumping off point for an argument that we don’t need to invoke a god to explain religious experiences. Glen’s posting argued that the existence of fakes doesn’t disprove the existence of the genuine article.

Blah blah blah Bayes

I commented that Brown would go too far if he claimed that an ability to reproduce religious experiences means there’s no God, but he could use it to negate the value of religious experience as evidence for God’s existence. If it is trivial for people who aren’t God to produce such experiences, then they are about as likely to occur in a world without God as they are in a world with a God, so they aren’t good evidence. Glen tried a variant of the Argument from Wife, saying that his belief in his wife’s existence is not invalidated because of his feelings about her. But this doesn’t work, since he presumably saw and heard her and so believed she existed prior to having feelings for her, so the causality isn’t backwards, as it is when Christians point to feelings from God as evidence for God’s existence.

Then I watched the programme on Channel 4’s website. In it, we see Brown convert Natalie in what looks like a church, with 15 minutes of chat about her father and tapping on the table to “anchor” certain feelings. He leaves her alone (except for the cameras, of course) for a bit, at which point she stands up and bursts into tears, speaking about how sorry she is and wishing she could have had this feeling all her life. Well, that about wraps it up for God, right?

Hang on a sec…

Something’s gone wrong with everyone’s argument here, and I probably should have spotted it before I watched the programme, because I’ve written about Derren Brown before. Can you spot it? Have a think for a moment, then read on.

Christian and atheists alike were assuming that Brown can convert someone in 15 minutes with NLP (and then arguing about what that means for God-belief). We’ve been taken in. It was a trick! Nobody can really produce a conversion experience in 15 minutes in the way we’re supposed to believe he did. Brown’s tricks don’t work by using NLP (because NLP doesn’t work so dramatically, if indeed it works at all, which I rather doubt). Remember, the bit at the end of the trick where he shows you how he did it using NLP (though he never uses the phrase) to implant suggestions in people’s minds is itself misdirection, part of his act.

I should have realised that, because I’ve had a similar conversation about Brown before, with an NLP believer on Less Wrong. See also Ferretbrain’s Derren Brown is a Liar and this discussion on the show: pjc229 has it right.

The bit at the end with the moral of today’s episode

That little “something doesn’t make sense” feeling is something you want to train yourself to listen to: as Saunt Yudkowsky says, your strength as a rationalist is your ability to be more confused by fiction than by reality. At the point where someone claims to be able to produce religious conversion experiences after 15 minutes of chat about fathers and tapping on the table, you should be feeling confused; not trying to defend religion as if the story Brown’s telling really happened and you had to explain how it doesn’t really threaten Christianity, or attacking religion as if Brown had shown it was bunk (these are like Yudkowsky trying to defend the paramedics in his story).

I must congratulate Brown on getting me seriously debating whether he’d provided a contribution to the psychology of religion, though. The man’s a genius. I wish I knew how he did it (pjc229’s suggestions about what Natalie saw not being what we saw must have something to do with it, I guess).

(None of which is to say that there aren’t satisfying psychological explanations for religious experiences which remove the need to invoke gods, of course, just that we shouldn’t go to magicians for that kind of evidence).

A Much More Exotic – The bad kind of murder

“A call to restrict porn is, in effect, a call for more women to be murdered. It’s a good thing we have a government that’s not afraid to take tough decisions.

Starting next week, this LJ account will be syndicated on Comment is Free and Feministing.”
(tags: porn rape murder jo-yeates media guardian satire)

Testing psychics « Derren Brown Blog

Derren Brown carefully avoids libelling Sally Morgan while pointing out that, well, all the other psychics were frauds…
(tags: derren-brown psychics woo woo-woo simon-singh sally-morgan sally morgan)

A suggestion for Dr. Dawkins | Alethian Worldview

‘Dr. Dawkins should challenge God to a debate. There should be an empty chair on a stage somewhere, and Dawkins should stand up beside it and say, “Well then, I believe that according to William Lane Craig’s rules of engagement, I am now entitled to declare that God is afraid to face me because He knows He’s wrong.”’
(tags: funny religion richard-dawkins william-lane-craig debate god)

Why the New Atheists Failed, and How to Defeat All Religious Arguments in One Easy Step

A neat summary of Luke's problem with Dawkins, and what he thinks is a better argument against theistic explanations. Youtube video with a transcript (hurrah).
(tags: richard-dawkins dawkins atheism religion philosophy explanation)

Curing the gays « Derren Brown Blog

Derren Brown (who's gay, and who used to be a Christian): "I have, however, attended these sorts of church sessions and even courses which set about healing the ‘brokenness’ of homosexuality… I read of such things now and shiver."
(tags: derren-brown gay homosexuality christianity religion philippa-stroud sex)

Top Tory Adviser Ran Prayer Group to “Heal” LGBTS

Focusses on why the media have ignored the story. Contains a comment from one of the people quoted in the original Observer article, something which the regular media won't print, apparently.
(tags: philippa-stroud conservatives conservative politics sex religion homosexuality demons)

Erasing David

Ross Anderson on poor operational security in the NHS, made worse by politics: "Last night’s documentary Erasing David shows how private eyes tracked down a target by making false pretext telephone calls to the NHS. By pretending to be him they found out when he and his wife were due to attend an ante-natal clinic, and ambushed him as he came out."
(tags: privacy security nhs ross-anderson health)

A Bit of Fry and Laurie – A word, Timothy

"Berwhale the Avenger, the Weapon of the Chosen One." "He lives far beyond… in Saffron Walden."
(tags: funny fry-and-laurie stephen-fry fantasy parody berwhale)

Dawkins has published the complete interview he did with Derren Brown for the Enemies of Reason programme: it’s available on YouTube (in several parts, but that link is to a playlist which should play them in order). It’s mostly Brown talking about the techniques used by mediums, with occasional questions from Dawkins. I’m a fan of Brown, so I enjoyed it.

Like all the best people, the inestimable Mr Brown is an ex-Christian. The final part of the video re-iterates the first chapter of Tricks of the Mind, where he describes how he turned to rationality. He learned about hypnosis, which his fellow Christians claimed would allow in demons (keen students: from the teaching on demons in Matthew 12, or otherwise, show that this is What The Bible Says [5 marks]). He got into stage magic and learned how psychic powers were a con, and that believers in it were only interested in evidence in favour of their beliefs (this is what he calls “circular belief” in the book and video), and would discount or forget the evidence against them.

The young Brown realised this circularity applied to his own Christianity as much as it did to the believers in the psychics. As Brown says, it’s hard to see a difference between these sorts of claims, other than that religious claims have a certain gravitas from having been around for a long time. After all, you could probably construct plausible reasons for the psychic “misses” or why the people who are in contact with aliens can’t provide a proof of the Goldbach conjecture, just as you can for why God is silent (in fact, variants of “it doesn’t work because of your scepticism” and “you wouldn’t believe me anyway” are already common to all of them).

These beliefs rely on rear-guard actions against those who explicitly deny them, coupled with a personal conviction that the belief must be true. There’s little positive evidence in favour. We saw this in the case of Christianity, recently, when looking at Keller’s reasons for faith, much as Brown found when he investigated his former faith for himself.

Both Brown and Dawkins seem surprised that people don’t actually want to know that psychics have been debunked. Randi debunked Peter Popoff, but Popoff is still pulling in the donations. Although I’m occasionally irritated by Andrew Brown’s “New Atheists: UR DOIN IT WRONG” stuff, I think he’s right to say that most people don’t think the way Derren and Dawkins do, whether they’re theists or atheists:

It’s not natural to suppose that our emotions should be in line with our intellectual representations of the world and consistent and coherent over time: but as an ideal it’s tremendously important. Even as an ideal it has to be transmitted by a culture: as a discipline, it needs years of education and of practice. You might call it thinking for yourself, in a rather silly clever way, if by that you meant not independence from society, but using thinking as a tool with which to build yourself. Getting to that point is just about the central task of education, moral as well as intellectual, which means that almost everyone pays lip service to it. Yet the evidence suggests that most people, certainly most believers, don’t entertain it as a serious possibility. But neither do most unbelievers.

It’s all a bit depressing really. Perhaps Plantinga is right and rationality doesn’t necessarily have a survival value.

One of the Freeview channels recently repeated Derren Brown‘s Something Wicked This Way Comes. It was the episode which mattghg blogged about a while back, wondering about free will in a universe containing Derren Brown. You can find clips from the programme on Google Video.<lj-cut text=”Cut for people who don’t like talking about how tricks are done”>

Having finally watched the programme, I’m in awe of Brown’s showmanship. It used to be that people doing these sort of acts would claim to have psychic powers, either seriously, if they were charlatans, or as part of the contract between the magician and the audience (we know that the magician who says “I will now read your mind” isn’t really saying he’s psychic, it’s just part of the story told around the trick). These days, as part of our desire to be “scientific”, we sort of believe in pop psychological guff like neuro-linguistic programming. Brown’s hooked into this belief. He rightly lambastes the psychic industry for conning people (e.g. in his appearance on the Dawkins documentary). He’s careful to prefix his shows with a statement that he uses a mixture of “magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship”. But! The neat trick is that the misdirection includes the explanation of how he did it. Brown’s frenetic exposition at the end (starts about 4 minutes into this video) is part of the act, just as the claim of psychic powers was for older magicians.

Those of you with plenty of time on your hands can go and argue with all the commenters on YouTube who think that Brown’s an NLP guru. As the man himself says:

Years ago the issue was whether or not you told people it was psychic because people were prepared to believe in psychic ability–and how far down that road do you take them. Now we’re in a situation where we’re into pop psychology, and NLP [Neuro Linguistic Programming], all these huge industries, and people are prepared to believe in that, and maybe in a way that’s the new psychic realm.

The whole interview with Jamy Ian Swiss is an interesting discussion of the difference between what Brown does and what old-style mentalists did and the ethics of misleading an audience who are expecting to be misled. I’d recommend it.

Channel 4 screened Enemies of Reason, another Dawkins mini-series, on Monday night. Slaves to Superstition was the first of a two-parter; the second, The Irrational Health Service is on Monday night at 8pm. If you missed the first one, or are foreign, you can see it on Google Video, or get it from BitTorrent.

Having dealt with religion in Root of All Evil?, Dawkins has turned his attention to astrology, spiritualism, dowsing and suchlike; the sort of stuff which regular readers of Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column know as “woo-woo”.

As Charlie Brooker’s excellent review says, this time round Dawkins seems to have toned down the outspokenness which gets him a bad reputation in some quarters. Sometimes I found myself wishing he’d been a little more direct, but his tactic of sitting quietly while someone tried to give him a psychic reading (or whatever) and politely pointing out where they were getting it wrong made his opponents look silly without making him look mean-spirited, so perhaps it was for the best. As a commenter on James Randi’s forum said, “There should be at least one program a week where Dawkins stares at people while they try to explain their woo.”

The first part of the programme mostly consists of that sort of thing, of one charlatan (or sincerely deluded practitioner) after another facing Dawkins’s quiet questioning. I thought of it as shooting fish in a barrel, but maybe there really are people out there who don’t know that there’s bugger all evidence for woo-woo. scribb1e pointed out that most of those people probably weren’t watching, but he did have a prime-time slot. We can but hope, I suppose.

Dawkins talks to Derren Brown about mediums and cold reading. You can see Brown’s classic illustration on how psychics work on YouTube, although as ever with Brown, be aware that sometimes his “explanations” of how he did a trick are themselves misdirection. Nevertheless, Brown claims no special powers and yet is able to do this sort of thing. Brown rightly points out that there’s something particularly sleazy about the medium industry, as it feeds of the grief of the bereaved.

Dawkins is genuinely concerned that woo-woo is supplanting science, and intersperses his examination of the woo with paeans to science and to the wonders of the natural world. He talks about the decline in people studying science at A-level and university, and of the closure of science departments at some universities (does anyone know how common this is? It’s a worrying trend, if it’s true). Perhaps responding to critics who call him a fundamentalist, he says “I’m often asked how I know that there isn’t a spirit world or psychic clairvoyance. Well, I don’t. It seems improbable, but unlike the fixed worldviews of mystical faith, science is always open to new possibilities.” He follows this up with the story of the discovery of echo-location in bats, a relatively recent example of evidence causing scientific theories to change.

To illustrate the sort of evidence he’s after, Dawkins shows a double-blind trial of dowsers, who are asked to identify which of some sealed boxes contain bottles of water and which contain bottles of sand. After they all fail to do better than random guesses would, their denial in the face of evidence leads into the final part of the programme, where Dawkins questions why these people continue to believe in their abilities.

He settles on the same sort of explanations which some evolutionists have advanced for religions, namely that we are good at spotting patterns and sometimes do so when the patterns aren’t real. Skinner’s superstitious pigeons are an example of the sort of thing he means. We have cognitive and perceptual glitches (see the “Slight of Mind” section in the endnotes to Peter Watts’s Blindsight, for example). These make us vulnerable to conspiracy theories of the sort which, Dawkins point out, find their natural home on the Internet, in the many pages which insist that Armstrong never went to the Moon, or that “Jews did WTC”. In the face of this, how can we know anything at all? Dawkins seems to get close to tripping over something like C.S. Lewis’s arguments on the rationality of naturalism (as a character in Blindsight says, our brains may delude us if that has more survival value than showing us the truth).

In the end though, Dawkins is a pragmatist. He points of the successes of the scientific method as evidence that it works, and to the MMR scandal as an example of what happens when the careful gathering of evidence is ignored in favour of personal feelings. Our glitches may cause us to make mistakes, but we have to do the best we can. Dawkins speaks of the gradual build up of evidence for echo-location in bats, contrasting it with the fleeting evidence for the paranormal. The careful steps of science may be frustratingly slow, but make us less likely to fall into the cracks in our minds.