As you may/may not know I have a love/hate relationship with Derren Brown. One the one hand I really respect him as a sceptic and overall spokesman of common sense, on the other hand he drives me insane with his pseudoscientific gimmick explanations to his own magic tricks. I don’t know if this will be visible outside the UK (and if you aren’t from the UK you’ll probably not be able to handle strong Liverpudlian accents anyway, so it may be a blessing if you can’t see it) but for the next 26 days you can watch an interesting programme on the Channel 4 website consisting of Derren doing a slightly Louis Theroux style documentary on self-proclaimed medium Joe Power.
The paranormal is something that supposedly has a huge wealth of totally elusive evidence for it, but I am not one of the ‘chosen few’ who has been selected to view it, so I wanted to watch this programme and see Derren quite convinced that this man could really speak to dead people. We all know that there are plenty of bad mediums around, but it would be far more interesting to find one who was really good. The programme is quite generous to begin with and shows a fairly incredible ‘reading’; could it be that Joe is going to turn out to be that elusive REALLY GOOD medium? Unfortunately not. It gets more balanced later on. In the next part Joe ‘reads’ a couple of Hollyoaks actors in which he gets a fair few misses, then Joe invites Derren to try one and through cold reading (so he claims, but he probably did some research before hand) Derren hits a couple of specifics more impressive than Joe’s. At the end Joe, who seems to feel a bit shown up (through insecurity rather than any good reason, or perhaps he hoped Derren would make a hash of it so he could use that as “see I have a gift!”), amusingly states that “I come up with facts” in a striking juxtaposition with two minutes earlier when his hit rate was about 50% and most of his hits required the other person to fill in the context. Then just to show he’s one up on Derren he casually mentions “oh you don’t know about the affair, do you” to her, but refuses to tell her anymore(!). We also see a fairly generic stage act where he throws out names and numbers and the audience occasionally says “oh you said Jean earlier, I think you meant Joan”, and lots of dead grandparents pass on exciting messages like “I’m proud of you”, but never “I forgot to tell you that I left my old service revolver under the floorboards in the bedroom”.
Things go downhill for him from this point in the programme. The one interesting hit he got with the Hollyoaks actors was when he predicted the girl drove a mini. This became less interesting when Derren’s driver goes “yeah I could have told you that, she pulled up in it while we were in the car park”. It also turns out that Joe makes a habit of going to everyone’s toilet as soon as he gets into their house to read them and suddenly his amazing ability to throw out numbers of relatives seems less impressive. Towards the end he has a reading with a woman named Roz where he gets absolutely nothing right, at which point he decides it’s all Derren’s fault and storms off (out of Joe’s earshot, Derren called it “bad cold reading”, and I agree with the ‘bad’ part, but I think the ‘reading’ part is being a little generous). Then just to ensure that his credibility really is completely shot to bits, right at the end there is the revelation that the woman whom he read to begin with with impressive accuracy (his only convincing success) is actually his sister’s next door neighbour.
Throughout the programme Derren borrows a few expressions and tones-of-voice from Louis Theroux as he tries to remain diplomatically neutral in Joe’s presence, but the overall result isn’t so much a case for Joe Power as it is Joe Powerless.
At one point Derren wishes to set up a test which involves Joe reading various people without the two of them being in the same room. Joe was initially willing to take a test but upon finding out exactly what it involves he responds with “a dog wouldn’t take that test, it was designed for failure“.
Unusual comparisons aside, this highlights something interesting I have noticed with a few people now, as my interest in the occult and paranormal (or lack of it) has grown: People who proclaim supernatural powers are often quite willing to consent to a ‘test’ but then pull out later on as more details as to what the test would involve emerge.
Naively a test is something that’ll prove an outcome. That’s an okayish definition. Even more naively, a successful test is something that proves you were right. That’s a terrible definiton, and it’s totally wrong, but it’s kind of the default view until you’ve thought about it.
Think of it like testing software; you’ve just written your program and you tested it and found no problems. Is that good? Not really; you just spent all that time testing it and your program still has the same number of errors as it has before you tested it. It was a waste of time. If it was a mature piece of software and it’s been tested extensively before then okay, you’re starting to get a picture that it doesn’t have many problems, but if it hasn’t been tested before then your test was a failure because it did not advance your knowledge past the uninformed view you originally had.
The point of a test is to find new information. If you design a test for which the only possible outcome is to be in the exact same place as you started, the only thing your test can prove is that you’ve lost the plot (if you ever had it).
In short, when a believer says they are willing to ‘test’ their beliefs/claims, they usually fail to understand what a test really is. They erroneously believe that the point of a test is to CONFIRM their beliefs by using scenarios that disallow any chance of discrediting them. Apart from this being a waste of time, in terms of being evidence of their being correct it is as convincing as building a house of cards then inviting people to look at it intently, then proclaiming its failure to fall over is proof of its invulnerability, even though you have only allowed it to be tested by the power of staring.