Sunday, September 13, 2009

Cheaty Cheaty Bung Bung

What do the following have in common:

  • Formula 1
  • Afghanistan elections
  • Westminster MP's
  • Derren Brown
  • Several Premiership football clubs
  • Harlequins

Yup, cheats (or alleged cheats) are everywhere. OK Derren Brown may not have cheated, but anyone tuning in to find out how he 'predicted' the lottery numbers on Friday would have been disappointed. He promised to explain how he'd done it, and didn't - or at least, nobody else who watched the program is any the wiser*. So maybe 'misdirection' is the latest word for being 'economical with the truth'. The main trick he pulled was to get people watching his programme, and that worked very well.

From an early age, we're wired to sniff out potential cheats. Cries of 'that's not fair!' echo around every school playground and childrens party. It often means 'you've got something I haven't, and I'm jealous', which is another reason why people cheat in the first place.

The way we use language to cover up our cheating is almost comical. Brown (Derren, that is) gets away with 'misdirection', and millions of illegal downloaders protest about being 'criminalised'. How does that work? If you're doing something that's against the law, and you know it's against the law, you're a criminal. Yet somehow it's the laws fault, and the downloader is entirely blameless. The same specious rubbish is used about speeding. Are benefit and tax cheats 'criminalised' too?

The good news is that we can still get up in arms about cheating. The moral compass still works. The bad news is that we're better at reading other people's compasses than our own. Whether it's MP's trying to bluff their way through expenses scandals, or a football manager protecting his diving centre forward, there are far too many supposed role models who live as though cheating was ok, and a perfectly acceptable means to an end.

Before we get too uptight about the Afghan elections, and what Our Boys are doing propping up a corrupt and backward regime, it's worth reminding ourselves that the UK is hardly a bastion of fair play. If we wink at, celebrate, or reward those who cut moral corners, then we lose moral authority. When there are protests that immigrant communities have failed to 'integrate', I sometimes wonder if they've been wise not to do so, given the values of their host nation.

My other concern is that we're leaning to experience moral outrage as a form of entertainment. It sells newspapers, as the Telegraph discovered to their shareholders delight and MP's distress. The online Daily Mail headline generator ('Will Yobs infect British farmers with AIDS?') is close enough to the truth. If we can package moral outrage as an 'event' - a march, a music festival (remember Live8) then that heightens involvement, but our politicians also know that within a few days we'll have got bored and moved onto the next thing. Sustained pressure, outside of committed activists and pressure groups, is more elusive.

The encouraging thing is that these stories are 'news'. If everyone in rugby cheated, Harlequins wouldn't stand out. Unfortunately cheating is suspected/expected in so many sports now (athletics, cycling, football....) that rugby was seen, until this year, as an island of fair play in a sea of corruption. Will that tide turn back, or is this just part of human nature which will keep repeating somewhere, in some form, for as long as there's an advantage to be gained?

this is a cross post from the Wardman Wire, where I occasionally write a column called 'Touching Base'.

*if you watch the vid, his method is a load of cobblers: 'averaging out' numbers from 24 people who write from their 'collective unconscious'. Notice that none of them see his workings, or his conclusions. I really hope his 'team' weren't taken in by this, nor anybody else. The online consensus seems to be that it was a camera trick, with a split screen, with the balls switched after the draw, and the split screen removed.


  1. I was fascinated by the programme and as soon as it became clear that he wasn't going to tell us how he really did it, it became an hour long programme about belief.

    Of particular interest to me was the reaction of the twenty-three who took part in the experiment. They seemed like everyday people who if they thought about it would realise that what they had done had nothing to do with the "prediction" of the numbers. But they were completely taken in with the idea that they had in their subconscious collectively predicted the lottery.

    Deep down I think everyone would like a super power and Derren gave them that feeling which they didn't question. By the way, Derren didn't explain why one dropped out, swine flu or just because that person wasn't taken in by the whole thing.

    You might be upset that Derren gets away with misdirection but it's much better that he's a tv entertainer rather than a con man or cult leader, on either of those two paths he would hurt a lot of people.

  2. Andy - interesting take on it, that's got me thinking!

    Agree that Brown is probably 'safer' where he is, but he still (probably) lied about the fact that he'd reveal how he did the 'prediction' in the show on Friday. There's a question about whether that's ok because it's 'entertainment'. We give more license to people in the arts, who can portray things (e.g. pornography, violence) which wouldn't be tolerated in everyday life. Does Browns act fall into that category, and should there be that kind of category anyway?