Friday, December 02, 2011

The opposite of investigative journalism

I'm still trying to figure this one out. J. K. Rowling and other celebrities have complained at a recent inquiry in the UK that they have been stalked by the press and had their privacy invaded, while Daniel Tammet has apparently had a dream run with the world's press and electronic media, including the same hard-arsed British media industry that the other celebrities have recently been complaining about bitterly. All these years Tammet has been sitting on the fact that Tammet was not his real surname up until 2001, and I don't even think it was a journalist who revealed to the world what his original surname was. And the name change is just the tip of the iceberg of the untold story of Daniel Tammet.

In 2005 one journo with the much over-rated newspaper the Guardian wrote a piece on Tammet which was totally lacking in any skeptical view except that it revealed the fact that his name had been changed, but the journalist kindly did not reveal Tammet's original surname of Corney, citing a desire for privacy on Tammet's part, and thus failing to give the readers of the Guardian the key that could unlock the significance of the publicly-available World Memory Championship records of Tammet's pre-2001 achievements. Tammet apparently made veiled references at his own blog to his participation in a "Memory Olympics", but without knowing what surname he did this under this information cannot be easily verified or researched.

The almost uniformly breathlessly sycophantic promotional tripe that has been written and broadcast about Daniel Tammet by the world's journalists over many years, contrasting with the invasive and obnoxious treatment that many other famous people have received from the media over the years begs the question - why has Daniel Tammet been such a sacred cow?


Anonymous said...

To be fair on the world of journalists, it was a freelance journalist, Joshua Foer, who did most of the work to investigate the full story of Daniel Tammet and bring it to the world's attention in his book, Moonwalking with Einstein. This can be regarded as an excellent piece of investigative journalism, done in a balanced and sensitive way.

All other journalists appear to have given him a very easy ride. It's particularly notable to me that many journalists who have had the opportunity to interview Tammet do not report on the limitations of his mathematical skill. Over and over again, interview report on Tammet doing specific calculations like "he could multiply 37 to the power of 4 instantly!". It begs the question of how the interviews really went. I think it must be something like:

Tammet: Give me a number less than 50 and I'll raise it to the power of 4.

Interviewer: OK, what's 37 to the power of 4?

Tammet: 1 874 161 [incredibly quickly because he has already memorised every number less than 50 to the power of 4]

Interviewer: Amazing! Can you do another calculation for me? Like, what's 4734 * 9276?

Tammet: [evasive reply; maybe "I'd prefer not to do any more calculations, my mother warned me not to become a performing seal/I'm seeing the colours and shapes in the farthest reaches of my mind, but they are not forming into a number for me]

But despite the very limited calculations he usually demonstrates (which can be explained by memorising a few numbers to the power of 4), journalists repeatedly report his mathematical abilities as amazing, when they could easily debunk them. Of course, it's always possible that Tammet really can do lightning sums like 4734 * 9276 that can't be pre-memorised. But if so, why is this not reported in a single interview with him?

Foer reports that Tammet wouldn't do any calculations at all for him, even though if his abilities were genuine it would have been an easy way for Tammet to allay Foer's suspicions about his abilities.

Mr Anon

Lili Marlene said...

In his first book Tammet claimed to be "relatively poor" in algebra because he apparently has synaesthesia for numbers, which assists, but no synaesthesia associations for letters, which are used in algebra. When you carry a mysterious label such as "synaesthete" or "autistic" you have an all-purpose explanation for not being able to do just about anything. I know of two other celebrity autistics who can write complex prose, even best-selling autobiographies, but by their own accounts cannot perform simple household tasks for themselves such as running a bath or making a sandwich. Go figure.

I myself have colours and genders and age and personality associations for most of the digits and letters of the alphabet, and all of these types of synaesthesia played no part whatsoever in my ability to do high school maths at a respectable intermediate matriculation level, including algebra, equations, long division, arithmetic, geometry, that cosine crap etc. I did see one comment in a school report that I had an original approach to maths, and have no idea what that was about, but I can't see how any aspect of maths that I've done has been influenced in any way by my synaesthesia, so Tammet's claim about not being able to do algebra due to a lack of syn is a complete mystery to me. I also have a hard time imagining having colours for numbers and not letters, as Tammet claims, as I have colours for a range of things that are learned in a set sequence such as letters, numbers, days of the week, months, centuries. Tammet's syn is clearly quite different to mine although technically we both have grapheme-colour synaesthesia. A lot of what Tammet says and writes about syn has no resonance to me, although I seem to have it in spades, and so does he.

Lili Marlene said...


Lili Marlene said...

Is Joshua Foer a journalist? I guess it depends on how you define journalist. I don't think he's ever worked for a newspaper, and thus has never had the discipline of answering to an editor with high standards, which is supposed to be such a major big deal, but I think actually counts for little. Just look at the capers that have been going on at News Ltd. Not many standards there. I see that the film rights have been sold for Foer’s book. I can’t wait to see that flick. He’s done well, that Mr Foer.

Lili Marlene said...

Back to the kitchen, my natural habitat as a female.

Laura said...

Tammet most certainly has more than just number synesthesia. If you recall the title of his first book, Born on a Blue Day, was named such because, according to him, his birthdate (31 January 1979), was a Wednesday, which appears as blue to him.
Additionally, as of 2009, he had a personal YouTube account to promote his second book (which was not an autobiography like his first one. Instead of discussing his life, he talks about how his mind is more like ours than many would think, which would most certainly be the case if he isn't actually the savant he claims to be).

Lili Marlene said...

Yes, I think it's true that Tammet claims to have a number of different types of synaesthesia, which makes me all the more sceptical about him claiming to have none for letters of the alphabet. It seems to be the ususal thing that synaesthtetes have more than one specific type of synaesthesia, and coloured letters is an incredibly common type of synaesthesia, so his case does seem odd to me.

Lili Marlene said...

Yes, you are right Laura that his second book isn't primarily an autobiography, but it does give new autobiographical info about Tammet, such as his IQ score, and some discussion about his intellectual development and schooling. Thanks for the correction.

I've had a quick look at Tammet's current YouTube channel, which was started in 2008, I guess the same one you refer to.