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Entry 548, on 2007-06-05 at 17:19:46 (Rating 2, Skepticism)

I watched a TV program last night that I found really refreshing. Refreshing in the sense that it was different from the usual tripe we see on TV. It was a program called "Derren Brown: Seance". Now I admit that I judged this program harshly before it started because most (in fact, almost all) programs I see that deal with the paranormal are pathetically credulous and never ask the hard questions they should be asking. Making a program that makes paranormal phenomena look real is more entertaining than making one with a skeptical slant of course... or is it?

After a short time it was evident that this program was different. Derren Brown is actually a paranormal skeptic. He presented the program like it was a serious effort at conducting a seance, but it turned out that it was all totally fake, and the seemingly convincing phenomena were just tricks. As a skeptic myself, I recognised this, but other members of my family were fairly convinced it was all for real. Judging from the reactions of the University students Brown used as subjects in the program they were convinced it was real too. And the numerous phone calls made to the program by the public, who were under the impression the show was live (it wasn't), showed that they all took it seriously as well.

It was a great illustration of how easy it is to fool people into believing something which is obviously fake if you look at it skeptically. The scene was set with a spooky location and naive subjects, and Brown skillfully used suggestion and other tricks to manipulate the subjects into doing things subconsciously and believing things that should have been obviously untrue.

There were many clues in the program that things weren't as they seemed. The first clue for me was the way the subjects were chosen. They all had personalities which would be open to suggestion, hypnosis, etc. I always think that if a phenomenon is real then anybody should be able to experience it, not just those predisposed to taking the phenomenon seriously.

Then there was the background story of the building chosen for the seance. We were told there was a suicide pact there which resulted in the death of several young students, but it all just sounded too convenient, and I mentioned that I thought that it was fiction, which it was. Then there was the way they chose the person who's spirit they were going to communicate with. It seemed to me they used a trick which would result in most people choosing a particular person from the set of photos, and that was also true. Then there was a letter from a friend of the dead person which just happened to mention the identifying features the spirit shared with the subjects. Again, this was just too convenient and seemed contrived to me, which it was.

So the whole thing was a very convincing fake. And it was also very entertaining, so obviously people can enjoy a well executed illusion even when they know it isn't true. So all the other TV producers please take note: don't be afraid of the truth. You don't have to pretend that ghosts, ESP, the Loch Ness monster, or anything else are really true. The truth behind a well executed illusion is much more entertaining than any fake!


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