Sunday, October 09, 2011

Journalists as publicity assistants

I've just been re-reading some old media articles about Daniel Tammet which I have kept on file, which I had collected in the process of compiling my lists of famous autistics and famous synaesthetes. Both interview articles are from the year 2009 and both were a part of a publicity drive to promote the second autobiography by Tammet which was released that year. Neither article mentioned anything about Tammet's 2001 name change or his impressive memory competition achievements from before his name change, or his participation among a group of memory championship participants in the "Routes to Remembering" study which was published in 2002-2003. In fact one of the articles, the one that was published in The Australian, puts a positively deceptive spin on Tammet's personal history. Journalist Peter Wilson characterised Tammet's highly publicised Pi recitation record as a kind of coming out following "a confused, restricted adult life" in the grip of autistic disability. We now know that Tammet's life was not previously so restricted that it precluded competing twice in the world memory championships, winning in gold medal and being the subject of an fMRI study.

I guess the lesson to be learnt is that there are two kinds of journalism. There is journalism which cooperates with the body or the individual who is the subject of the story. This type of journalism can include personal interviews, and the journalist can gain privileged access to the subject in this type of journalism, but one cannot expect much in the way of independent investigation or information that does not reflect well on the subject. One could call this "media release journalism", but I can think of less polite terms that could be used. Then there is the other type of journalism, real journalism which might have to contend with an uncooperative subject, but which is free to dig up dirt and ask uncomfortable questions. This is the type of thing that Joshua Foer did in his book Moonwalking with Einstein, and he managed to gain access to Tammet for interviews regardless. All the credit goes to Foer, and Celeste Biever from New Scientist magazine and journalist Peter Wilson both look rather foolish in hindsight.


Biever, Celeste (2009) Peek inside a singular mind. New Scientist. January 3rd 2009, number 2689, p. 40-41.
Online version:
Biever, Celeste (2009) Inside the mind of an autistic savant. New Scientist. January 7th 2009.

Foer, Joshua (2011) Moonwalking with Einstein: the art and science of remembering everything. Allen Lane/Penguin, 2011.
[includes a chapter about Tammet in which Tammet’s achievements in the World Memory Championship under his original name of Daniel Corney in 1999 and 2000 are discussed, Tammet’s synaesthesia and savantism is questioned and the author considers whether Tammet’s remarkable talents are best explained as the result of training]

Wilson, Peter (2009) A savvy savant finds his voice. Weekend Australian. January 31-February 1 2009, Inquirer p. 19.,,24986084-26040,00.html


Anonymous said...

The role of journalists is important, and I think the spotlight should fall first and foremost on the makers of the "Brainman" documentary. It was this documentary that took Tammet from being just another person who had memorised pi to celebrity "autistic savant" status.

The Brainman documentary appears to me to be at best lacking in skepticism, and at worst downright deceptive.

For example, the portrayal of his mathematical abilities appears to imply that he has incredible mathematical abilities that have been verified by scientists. What appears to be actually the case is that he has only demonstrated abilities in a very narrow class of problems (power multiplications and long divisions, for which he may well have memorised all the answers), and the scientists involved (Ramachandran et al) give the very unusual caveat that he could have achieved his mathematical feats by pure memorisation. This caveat is completely missing from the documentary.

The same kind of concerns run throughout the documentary; I have doubts over whether any of his "tests", including his interview in Icelandic which is the most impressive, were actually objectively controlled and reported. For example, a close reading of Tammet's own autobiography makes it clear that Tammet was not in Iceland for a week, as the documentary suggests, but four days.

Indeed, when the documentary makers first approached him, the only scientific study of him was the "Routes for remembering" study which gave no support for him being a savant. You wouldn't get that impression from the documentary.

And there is a more general concern - when the documentary makers approached him, he appears to have been basically unemployed with no serious source of income (bar his website selling a very limited range of language materials, promoted largely through his claims of being a savant). Being in the documentary (which he was almost certainly paid for) would, from his standpoint, be an opportunity at fame and fortune that would be hard for anyone to resist.

Both Tammet and the documentary makers had an incentive to create the "savant" story for which there is so much demand, and since then other journalists and scientists alike have been accepting the story uncritically.

Lili Marlene said...

Once could blame Dr Darrold Treffert and Prof. Baron-Cohen and team for the part they played in giving endorsement to Tammet from people who are supposed to be scientists, but it appears that the start of that documentary as a project preceded Tammet meeting Treffert or Baron-Cohen. If anyone knows otherwise, please correct me.

I think the big question is why did Tammet change his name? Is his explanation, that he didn't like his given surname, the true explanation, or was the name change a part of a deceptive plan?

Anonymous said...

The sequence of events appears to be that Tammet met Treffert during his short visit to the US in the summer of 2004, where the US scenes of Brainman were filmed. At this point, Treffert had already put up the quote from Tammet on his website which said that he was a memory competitor and had participated in the Nature Neuroscience ("Routes for remembering") study. If Treffert had done even a basic amount of follow-up on this information, he would have found the holes in Tammet's story. But it appears that he didn't, and instead endorsed Tammet's savant story wholeheartedly.

On the trip to the US, Tammet was tested by Ramachandran and his team in San Diego. Most of the airtime on the video is taken up by Shai Azoulai, a grad student who appeared very convinced by Tammet. I suspect that Ramachandran himself was not convinced by Tammet. He is never quoted as saying that he believes Tammet, which suggests he doesn't (why would the documentary makers leave out such a quote?) and Ramachandran conspicuously avoids mentioning Tammet in his own books and writings, even where it would be relevant.

Baron-Cohen appears to have only got involved very late in the documentary, a few weeks before broadcast. That means that during Tammet's trips to the US and Iceland, he still hadn't been diagnosed as autistic.

I think Treffert should probably take much of the responsibility for giving support to Tammet's savant claims; there's no excuse for his failure to investigate the "Routes to remembering" study given it was mentioned on the website profile Treffert himself wrote.

Lili Marlene said...

I have very little regard for Treffert as a scientist. I reviewed a book of his about savantism a while ago, and wasn't too impressed. It was publiished by Jessica Kingsley, a publisher who seem to specialise in terrible book about the autistic spectrum. Just the other day I was browsing journal papers by Treffert and came across one in which Treffert failed to make a distinction between a palinopsia, a visual defect, and eidetic memory. How anyone could confuse the two is beyond me.

If Ramachandran had real doubts about Tammet's genuineness, he should have said something publicly. I keep an eye on matters to do with synaesthesia, and over the years I've found it interesting the lack of reference to Tammet by synaesthesia researchers. Maybe they always had unspoken doubts too.

Anonymous said...

On the question of why Daniel Corney changed his name to Daniel Tammet, the sequence of events shows that he was using the "Tammet" name well before the savant claims. So on his website in 2000, he described himself as a memory competitor who trained hard, with no mention of savantism; the savant claims came later in 2002, around the time he launched his current "optimnem" website.

So the innocent explanation that Tammet changed his name because he didn't like his birth name is plausible given the timeline.

Mr Anon.

Lili Marlene said...

Not sure if you were aware of the discussion that took place in the comments of this blog post.

Anonymous said...

Another little reminder not to take everything journalists say at face value...

Mr Anon

Anonymous said...

A discussion of journalistic exaggeration and Daniel Tammet isn't really complete without this absolute gem, from Der Spiegel magazine in Germany, entitled "British savant learns German in a week", explaining how Tammet performs the amazing feat of learning German in a week (starting with only "rudimentary" knowledge).,1518,611381,00.html

There's also this interview in German:,1518,610651,00.html

My translation of the first two paragraphs, using my "rudimentary" grasp of German, is:

"On Monday evening you will appear on the "Beckmann" talkshow to talk about your life and your new book. For that you have, in the past week, starting with only a little prior knowledge learned almost perfect German. How's that?

Tammet: I had a language coach at my side, who helped me. In the mornings we read for two hours. Later we went through the town, went for example to museums, and talked only in German. It's very important while learning to have no stress. With stress learning is very difficult...."

Things that he didn't say in his answer:
- He had learned German for six or seven years at school, getting a grade B at "A level".
- After that he stayed in touch with his German friend Jens, regularly writing to him by email, as documented in "born on a blue day"
- Two or three years after that, he started offering private tutoring in German (alongside French and Maths)
- Then he started a website boasting of how he had "mastered" German through memory techniques
- Then he started another website selling German lessons, boasting "In a single week, Optimnem course participants can expect such things as a complete underlying grasp of a foreign language".

So by the time of his interview in 2009, Tammet had been studying German and/or selling German language materials more or less continuously for about 18 years.

Still, I guess the headline "British savant learns German in only 18 years" doesn't sell quite as many newspapers.

Mr Anon

Lili Marlene said...

I've not got time right now to double check your facts, but gee that sounds like a most amazing misrepresentation, or in other words, the bloke lies like a rug!

Makes one wonder about the supposedly amazing feat of learnign Icelandic in a week. I always wondered how all the people who claimed it was amazing in the Brainman documentary could be sure that Tammet had done what we autistics call a bit of "prevision", which is revision before you start a uni course or school year. No one ever seemed to mention this obvious possibility. It is impossible to test whether someone is pretending to have less knowledge or ability that they actually have, as is the case with the face recognition test that Baron-Cohen and team gave to Tammet when they were studying him. We can only trust that Tammet wasn't malingering, but there are reasons to believe that he was.