Monday, July 27, 2009

Holes in our heads and other stories

"People are too often terrible advertisements for their own beliefs."

Derren Brown, Tricks of the Mind, p. 357.

The Dr took me to see Derren Brown's magic show, Enigma, for my birthday back in June. Even before I'd read his book I suspected how some of the tricks might be done. Perhaps he wasn't reading people's minds, he just remembered which cards they'd taken; perhaps he used a loaded die...

I'd thought the book, Tricks of the Mind, would be a magic primer, detailing his card-sharpery and the mechanics of illusion. Indeed, Brown begins with a simple coin trick and a simple card trick. He explains misdirection and showmanship – at least as important as the simple “trick” of palming a coin or remembering a sequence of cards.

But he then goes on to explore all kinds of gaps in our cognition that can mean we’ll believe very odd things. In doing so, we learn how to use our memories better, how to hypnotise ourselves, and see how neuro-linguistic programming, psychics and other belief systems are able to ensnare us...

Brown tells us he uses a mixture of these techniques himself. He also tells us something much more important: that what he does is a trick.

The joy of magic, I think, is in knowing it’s a trick – a way of fooling our perception a given event. The performer doesn't really have psychic abilities or a way to sidestep physics. We just have to puzzle out how it was done. Brown talks about laying false clues to muddle the audience when they try to review what they've just seen. But even if we can't figure out how trick is done, we know there is an answer.

On that basis, it's easy to see where Brown's thinking overlaps with scientific enquiry. He's intrigued by NLP but cynical about its cult of personality and resistance to meet its great claims with evidence. Brown is a doubter, though he also talks earnestly about having previously been an evangelical Christian. There's a sense - one I sort of share - that he hates the thought of being fooled again.

He might labour the point, but Brown’s good at explaining why, if you have a proposition – that a certain chemical has healing properties, that the world works in a certain way, that there’s some kind of God – the onus is on you to prove the proposition is true, not for others to prove that it isn't. That's especially important if your proposition encourages some kind of action.

With the zeal of the convert Brown hopes to convince us to doubt. In many ways, Brown's book reminded me of Dawkins' The God Delusion – it's smart, it's lively, it covers a great deal of ground and it explains complex ideas simply. Yet the petulant tone makes it read as if written by a clever 17 year-old. It’s hectoring, ranty and the jokes are often forced. That can give the impression – in both books – that the author has all the answers, whereas the whole point is that we don't settle on easy answers.

Rather, Brown explains the strangeness of reality. In the section on lying, he explains how people telling the truth include all kinds of odd, incongruous details. (I'm reminded of Orwell on Charles Dickens and the genius of his “unnecessary detail”.)

On which point, though I've still not got to Ben Goldacre, I'm hesitant about m'colleague Jonny's review of it:
"Yes! That’s exactly what I already thought, but put slightly more clearly!"
As Brown and Dawkins both spell out themselves, a lot of science is counter-intuitive. In fact, one good test of a scientific theory is whether it confirms what the proponent already "knows". Brown has a whole section on "confirmation bias".

That in turn reminded me of Flat-Earth News by Nick Davies – and especially the bit on heroin use and the war on drugs, where policy seems based on comforting, fundamental beliefs and not on physical evidence.

In fact, Brown’s book has make me connect dots between all sorts of disparate stuff. I shall blog at some point on Father Christmas and on birthdays – two subjects much scrawled in my notebook.

Tricks of the Mind is then a primer not in magic trickery but in strange and wondrous reality. Despite the painful jokes and adolescent tone, it’s an extraordinary book.

Other recent reads:

Austerity Britain by David Kynaston
Loved this; intend to blog my notes. But then I said that about Flat-Earth News, too. Oops. So here’s the Telegraph’s glowing review.

A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut
A funny, provocative collection of leftie newspaper columns full of sharp one-liners. Not as heavyweight as the other stuff of his I’ve read, but more hits than misses.

The Ghosts of India by Mark Morris
Doctor Who in an exciting adventure with Ghandi. Mark explores the last complex and controversial days of the Raj, for ages eight and up. Plus there’s spooky monsters. I wish I’d thought of this.

Johannes Cabal – The Necromancer by Jonathan L Howard
Reviewed for Vector, but didn’t think that much of it.

Me, Cheeta by Cheeta and James Lever
Another birthday present, the autobiography of the chimpanzee who played Tarzan’s mate. I thought the joke might wear thin quite quickly, but it’s an often very funny read. Sometimes it’s funny because we read between the lines, sometimes because of Cheeta’s animal perspective. Cheeta’s last meeting with the aged Johnny Weissmuller is beautifully moving. What’s more, it’ll be hard to hear salacious showbiz tales without thinking of that ape.

Now reading Spies by Michael Frayn.


Garpu said...

When Dawkins isn't being preachy, I like his writings, even though I might not agree with his premise. Read Ghosts of India on a flight to Boston and loved it. (Problem is those books are a bit too short for a Seattle-Boston flight.)

Le Mc said...

I enjoyed Ghosts of India.