Derren Brown and the Lottery “Prediction”

Look – I really shouldn’t spend much time on this as there’s been far too much time wasted on the internet with people trying to guess how he did it and what he did.
Brown told us after Wednesday’s live prediction that all would be revealed on Friday and we too would be able to predict the lottery.
First things first. Brown didn’t predict it. We didn’t see the numbers before they were revealed. I’d have been very impressed and seriously puzzled if I had seen them. But like everything else it’s a magic trick and either he’s going to let us in on the secret or not.
Penn and Teller are great at doing this. They often let you in on the secret – perhaps performing the cups and balls trick with clear plastic cups, or getting the audience to guess how they faked a truck running over Teller (sadly the linked video ends before the reveal – foam tyres and heavily weighted on the other side).
Indeed Brown himself likes to play around with the medium. In his Seance special, he pretty much explained how many “psychics” operate. He’s not a fan. Indeed, he’s reported to be conducting an online web show debunking psychics.
A year or so ago, we also had The System which I wrote about at the time. I was troubled at the time about some of the details which didn’t seem quite right. But he did explain that he’d effectively conned us and how he’d done it.
In last night’s “reveal” show, it was clear that we were going to have to wait until the end. Brown took us along a path that really just had a number of well executed tricks that had little or nothing to do with the lottery “prediction.”
Then he moved on to a nonsense about the “wisdom of crowds” – something about which we’ve heard a lot recently. But that does not mean that a group of 24 people can guess the lottery numbers? Yet, in the end, that’s what we were meant to believe. Why 24? Who knows.
The system was something to do with “automatic writing” – surely something Brown will be debunking on his psychic debunking series – and averaging everybody’s scores.
But if I get a group of people to predict a number between 1 and 49, and then I average those numbers as Brown was doing (we’re not told how he dealt with decimals – indeed we never saw any workings at all), I’m more likely than not to end up with a number somewhere in the mid-twenties. This is because if each number between 1 and 49 was equally likely to be “predicted”, then the spread of numbers will tend towards a mid-point.
Furthermore numbers at the extreme ends – 1 and 49 – will be very hard to reach. If I average 24 people’s numbers and end up with 1, then nearly everybody would have had to have chosen 1 in the first place. Given that 2 came up in Wednesday’s draw, it would require nearly everyone in the room to come “predict” 1, 2 or 3 to arrive at an average of 2.
Indeed, if 23 out of 24 people “predicted” 2, and just one person predicted a number that was 14 or greater, then the average would have been 3 or more, and the “prediction” would have failed.
23 people x 2 = 46
1 person x 14 = 14
Total = 60
60 divided by 24 people = 2.5 rounded up to 3.
Even if Brown adopts a round-down approach, it would only take one person choosing 26 or higher to skew the results so far off that 2 wouldn’t be achievable as an average.
Note: Obviously if a lot of people “counter” with a “prediction” of 1 then the maths doesn’t quite work. But you can see what I’m saying.*
Anyway, this was clearly all bunk. We still didn’t see the final numbers predicted, and Brown did the calculations himself, we were told, so there was no proof there.
At the outset, Brown claimed that there were three ways he could have done it:
1) Using numerology and studying probability etc.
2) Using the wisdom of crowds
3) Fix the machine
As the programme ended he took us through the machine fixing idea, and suggested that by getting a lottery programme insider to replace balls with differently weighted balls that would have been achievable. We’re somehow supposed to think that this is what he did. Clearly this too is a nonsense.
But there was a fourth solution that Brown avoided.
It was a camera trick pure and simple.

And you know what, I’d have been more impressed if he’d admitted as much having reasoned that predicting numbers for the lottery was impossible.
As I say, there were some decentish tricks along the way, and the heads and tails trick was good and learnable. The maths involved is not at all “deep” as Brown suggested. In fact it’s pretty trivial.
I still enjoy watching Derren Brown. His shows are great ways of showing magic off in the 21st century. And doing live stunts is always excellent.
I’m again reminded of Paul Daniels in 1987 with his Halloween stunt. His live show ended with an escape from an Iron Maiden. But it all appeared to go horribly wrong…

Indeed, as hackneyed as you might think that Daniels is, he uses many similar presentational traits, seemingly thinking of things as he goes along for example.
The programme ends with an unseen studio manager saying “Ladies and gentlemen, please leave the room in an orderly fashion” as the screen turns to black and the credits roll.
It was a Saturday night, and, as I recall, the next programme was something like Casualty. Over the end credits of that show, a BBC continuity announcer – or perhaps Daniels himself, I don’t recall accurately – assured us that what we’d seen earlier was a trick, and that Daniels wasn’t harmed.
This all caused a good bit of fun and sensation at the time, as Brown has managed over the last few days.
Let’s hope that the rest of Brown’s The Events series is a bit better.
[Update] A couple of interesting comments were published on The Guardian’s site following this.
One commenter was someone who’d been one of the ’24’ who’d been predicting the numbers.
“And the reason we didn’t get 24/25/26 for every ball: we were allowed to think of numbers below zero and over 50.”
So they were just thinking of entirely random numbers were they? It’s amazing, in that case, that the numbers fell anywhere near the numbers 1 to 49.
“This is how it worked:
The first time we got together we got one number out of six. This may have been genuine.
The second time we got three. Jiggery-pokery.
The third time we got four, plus “63” for 36 and “42” for 41. Definite monkey business. But again, very well done.
So we all knew it was built up so that we’d get 6 out of 6. We knew the Wisdom of Crowds thing was meaningless at generating numbers for a random draw.”

Nothing surprising there really. But it turns out that they weren’t even that stupid.
Another very interesting comment was this one. The commenter seems to have some very inside information. One might suppose that it’s another magician.
“You’ve only left people with one plausible explanation and regrettably one that undermines the basis of your most powerful medium. The level of proof doesn’t satisfy Wednesday night’s claim … and all we’re left with is a split screen (invisible compromise indeed). How long will it take for the press to check out your back catalogue and find at least two other effects that could be explained by the same method?”
And:

“Misdirection happens before, during and after the effect … get off the open topped bus, show us the ace up you’re sleeve and you could still make all our Christmas’ come early.”

It’s worth noting that there is supposedly another big reveal coming later in the series which, one supposes, will tie up all the “events.”
In the meantime, doing a trick and not explaining how you did it is fine. That’s what happens in most magic shows. Putting a bit of phony science is fine too, although people who know about the science will call you out. But claiming that you’ll tell everyone how you did and then patently lie about that is not clever, and leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Hence the yards of comments.

1 Comment

  1. Good post. I like Derren and think he is very skilled with his skills of misdirection, reading people and the NLP stuff. Unfortunately, Derren Brown has lost a lot of my respect for last night’s show. The pure, simple fact is that all of the balls are evenly weighted, having the same chance of being picked. Therefore, there is no relationship whatsoever between one week and another week, so the group prediction thing is utter rubbish.
    If he did option 3 or did a camera trick, then that is not magic, but more TV fakery! I thought Derren was better than that.
    I wonder how complaints Ofcom/C4 will get with this show…

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