Friday, October 22, 2010

TAM London speaker 5: Andy Nymon

This was a fun session, but I don’t think I was able to appreciate it fully because I haven’t seen Ghost Stories, which Andy wrote and stars in.  Sounds like a good show though.  It supposedly has skeptical elements although neither Andy nor anyone else revealed much about it.  Apparently that was planned and they’ve had a hard time keeping critics from revealing spoilers.

Andy has plenty of other skeptical credentials though.  For instance, he’s been friends with Richard Wiseman for years and indeed this segment was an interview between Nyman and Wiseman.  Also, Andy works with Derren Brown, co-writing and co-designing his TV and stage work.  This is quite interesting, but the talk didn’t cover that in much detail.  Someone asked in the Q&A about the lottery trick: specifically what they were trying to achieve.  In case you don’t know, Derren Brown did a very widely publicised trick where he predicted the lottery.  There was a big build-up to this based around the idea of the wisdom of crowds: get a bunch of people to guess the weight of a cow, average the results and you’ll get a more accurate answer.  The conceit of the trick was that the same could be true of the lottery and the prelude showed a group of people practicing(!) doing this, finally turning their attention to that night’s lottery.  This yielded a set of numbers which formed Brown’s ‘prediction’ of the lottery results.  The reveal was broadcast live at the same time as the lottery and the numbers were shown to be correct.  This was followed up with a show supposedly revealing how the trick was done.  However, that answer was the wisdom of crowds one, which was clearly not true.

The method works with guessing a cow’s weight because guesses will tend to be normally distributed around the cow’s actual approximate weight.  Most people will guess a little high or low, fewer will guess more widely of the mark and so on.  And the distribution will tend to be symmetrical.  The lottery is different because it’s random and the distribution of guesses will be random.  In fact, it probably won’t be.  Some numbers will probably be favoured more than others.  But that doesn’t help us.  The fact remains that guesses about the cow’s weight are based on our intuitions about weight, so you’d expect most of them to be in the right ballpark, whereas guesses about the lottery are not connected to the eventual result in any way.  This means that the wisdom of crowds approach isn’t applicable to the lottery case.

Anyway, much was made of this at the time.  Skeptics who didn’t accept this explanation speculated on his reasons for bothering.  Was he trying to fool people?  Was he trying to give skeptics a reason to feel smug?  Was he trying to get people to think?  It’s an interesting question.  A lot of people in the skeptical community were quite angry about it at the time.

Unfortunately, Andy didn’t really answer the question.  He said that C4’s policy is to arrange one big-headline spectacle a month and this was theirs for that month.  The question was kind of deflected and that was a bit disappointing.

But it was a fun interview that made me want to see Ghost Stories and wishing I’d gone with the TAM crowd on the Friday night.  I much prefer this chatty style of interview to the dreadful overly-confrontational type that all newsreaders (presumably at the demand of their bosses) seem to insist on these days.

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