April 24, 2010

Derren Brown vs. Sylvia Browne - The Extra E is For Evil

As an American, I don't quite understand why Derren Brown is such a polarizing figure in the UK. For those of you who have never seen him before, Brown is a performer who rarely strays far from England. He specializes in feats of mentalism. Boiled down to its core, it means he "reads minds" and predicts future events, which of course, is completely impossible. Certainly, he's a gifted performer, but all of his successful tricks are just that - tricks.

Brown makes no claim to be clairvoyant. In fact, quite the contrary -- he's adamant that he is not. And that's why I don't understand the outrage when he doesn't tell people "how he did it" after a jaw-dropping performance.

Nobody in America is furious with David Copperfield when, after making the Statue of Liberty seem to disappear, fails to then explain the exact methods of his illusion. The only living creature who ever got in the face of Siegfried and Roy was the very tiger they used in their act. Those who paid for show after show never got all uppity that the duo didn't let the cat out of the bag, as it were, as to how they worked their magic.

Yet when Brown "predicted" the winning lottery numbers, newspapers in the UK and citizens alike were angry that the performer's explanation on how it was done didn't seem genuine. He was called a liar and a fraud. The outcry - at least as it appeared to me an ocean away - seemed to grow exponentially after his "Beat the Casino" special.

In this program, Brown offers up video "proof" of how he hypnotized a man, had him withdraw a large sum of money from the bank, and give it to him in order to make a one-time bet on a single spin of the roulette wheel. (That people bought, no problem.) Brown spends much of the show explaining to the audience that he has figured out how to precisely determine where the ball will land when the roulette dealer spins it, and he goes into an undisclosed casino with a hidden camera so that he can make the wager without alerting casino officials in advance, presumably so he won't be stopped from making the sure-to-win bet.

And then -- he loses. He ends up being one spot off on the wheel. And the show ends.

The next day, people were outraged that he missed. I'm thinking to myself, of course he missed. There is no foolproof way to beat a casino's roulette wheel - and I should know. I was a casino dealer for five years. Yet, people were so convinced that Brown could do the impossible that when he failed, they got angry with him.

Think about that for a second… when Brown does something impossible, people are angry that he doesn't tell them how it's done because it must be a trick. When he fails to do something impossible, people are even angrier - because his failure means he does not in fact have magical powers, which nobody in their right minds should truly have believed him to have in the first place.

That's exactly why I think he's a genius. He made people believe he could pull off the impossible, and the raw emotional outcry after his "failure" is proof that people were simply angry at themselves for allowing themselves to buy into the possibility that he might be truly "magic" in the first place.

Contrast that to the equally puzzling behavior of American audiences when it comes to Sylvia Browne. For her, there is seemingly no public outrage when this self-proclaimed psychic is proven wrong, time and time again. Despite her utter failure at proving her psychic abilities, she nevertheless gets constant invites to appear on television shows to spout her nonsense.

She has made a fortune charging gullible souls for her services in speaking with loved ones who have passed. She has written and sold countless books about her "gift." So why is she not taken to task? Why is Derren Brown the bad guy - someone who merely entertains with what is clearly showmanship, as opposed to Sylvia Browne's getting rich off the misfortune of others?

Here's an example of Sylvia Browne "at work" on the Montel Williams Show.

...and here's Derren Brown, in the first part of an interview where he pretty much tells you exactly what he thinks about people like Sylvia Browne and whether or not they are what they say they are. Again I ask, why if he the bad guy?

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