Derren Brown is a very interesting person to follow and read and watch. He has written a number of books, and starred in quite a few programmes and DVDs, but a couple of his most enthralling aren’t on general release.
He made a video of some of his card tricks (The Devil’s Picturebook) which he only made available to members of The Magic Circle because it went in to detail about how he made the illusions.
I came by a rather grainy copy of this through “a friend of a friend of a friend” and, after watching for about an hour, had more respect for the man and what he does than I did before I saw it. Why? Because although I could see how he did it, it will have taken so much practice to pull it off seamlessly it just made me more awestruck.
There is no way I’d be able to do what he does – even having had him demonstrate step-by-step some of his neatest card illusions – because so much of it is practice and skill.
There is also a large leather-bound tome of his on magical performance theory that is now tantalisingly out of print (Absolute Magic: A Model for Powerful Close-Up Performance), though I keep my eyes open and search for it every so often.
Despite his profession in illusion there is a common thread in a lot of his programmes and in a lot of what he says and posts online, along the lines of a skeptical/rationalist theme. An occasional moral of his programmes is to illustrate how easy it is to be fooled – how, in looking for patterns we can be fooled in to seeing patterns where there is randomness, or “luck” where there is just self-confirmation bias.
He illustrated one of these by placing a group of people in a room with various things to do. Every so often a light would flash on, and the people in the room started to associate the light with something they were doing, and started repeating it. They came up with some sequences to be repeated to get the lights to come on, in an almost ritualistic way. He later revealed that the lights were automated, random and not connected with anything they were doing.
We can get the same thing in our way of life, hence the need to keep up to date, read journals, keep attending courses and conferences. It can also be more trivial… for example, people are banned from saying “the Q word” (quiet) in our hospital because, if they do, the doors will fling open and there will be an unstoppable tide of new patients.
It can also affect the way we do surgery and how we use drugs and combinations of drugs. If a vet’s first experience with a new drug, gadget, or procedure is in any way negative, they’ll stop using it completely.
I suppose that is why we need evidence-based medicine, which I have previously described quite flippantly as “a statement of the bleeding obvious”. EBM and science-based medicine, in my view, are formalised ways of doing what any self-checking scientist type should be doing, but with the emphasis away from experience and on to hard data meeting certain criteria.
That said, I doubt we’ll start using “the Q word” or stop touching wood before an operation any time soon!