P&T’s Bullshit may be bullshit itself?

I’ve stumbled across a new blog that’s right up my alley called A Skeptical Blog and I’ll be adding it to my blogroll as soon as I finish this entry. Though it is with some disappointment that I read James’ entry on why Penn & Teller’s Bullshit! is not a very good show on skepticism.

It gives me no pleasure to write an article trashing P&T. As a fellow magician I admire Penn & Teller tremendously. They are innovative performers who have changed the face of magic, and for the better. They make me laugh, and that is a high compliment indeed. Yet as a fellow skeptic, I cannot stand by and allow what is basically a political question – should laws be past to curtail smoking in public places – to masquerade as science, which unfortunately is exactly what P&T did in this episode. When I decided to be skeptical, it was with the realization that I would replace consoling fantasy with uncomfortable truth. I choose to live in the real world, such as it is. A skeptic should be a seeker of truth, not a spinner of lies. Unfortunately I am drawn to the conclusion that this is exact what Penn & Teller are doing. Exposing bullshit is a noble goal, but by engaging in a bit of bullshit on their own, they cast doubt on any other argument they might care to bring to the table. After all, Penn and Teller are doing exactly what we accuse Creationist of doing. Praising science when it agrees with them and damning science when it does not.

Shame on you.

Mind you, I’m not disappointed with the James’ entry, I’m disappointed that P&T may not be promoting the cause of skeptical thought as well as I had hoped. I can’t comment myself as I don’t have Showtime and haven’t seen an episode yet, but early reports from friends that have seem to indicate the show plays fast and loose with the facts at times. In the case of the episode on Environmental Tobacco Smoke which James writes about it appears that P&T aren’t dealing in facts at all, but spreading a little bullshit of their own.

Which is disheartening because I think this country could do with a few more shows like P&T’s that are both entertaining and illustrative of the benefits of skeptical and/or critical thinking. Alas it looks like P&T may be undermining the value of their show by engaging in some of the very same tactics they accuse others of using. I’m still interested in catching an episode or two when I get the chance, but in light of these early reports my enthusiasm for the show is not what it once was.

10 thoughts on “P&T’s Bullshit may be bullshit itself?

  1. Penn and Teller’s “Bullshit” series is now available on DVD.  I rented the first disk from Netflix, and the wife and I watched the first few episodes.

    I saw most of the episode on smoking last night, and most of what I saw actually seemed to be right on the money (please don’t misunderstand me—I used to be a smoker, but I was—always—a “courteous” smoker that found fairly remote locations to smoke.  Now, I don’t find cigarette smoke that offensive, but my wife absolutely abhors it, and I tend to side with her on the issue.)

    In terms of the P&T episode, I think they were correct in pointing out that there isn’t that much evidence indicating that second hand smoke is a major contributing factor in the development of lung cancer. 

    They did NOT, however, really talk about childhood asthma, emphysema, the statistical probability that children will emulate their smoking parents, etc. etc.  That’s really the only problem that I had with their show.  In terms of the “2ndhand smoke causes cancer” argument, I believe they’re actually correct, but cancer is hardly the only health risk posed by smoke inhalation.

    My—major—disagreement, however, is with their idea that we can’t, as a population, restrict public behavior that is offensive.  The real question is where you draw the line.  Some people would draw the line at taking a dump on the floor at a McDonald’s.  Others would try to make it illegal to pick your nose at a stop light. 

    I fall somewhere in between.  If you need to get that sucker out of there, I say “dig away.”  I’ll either watch, or gag and look away, depending on the mood I’m in.  And on the smoking issue, I think private businesses should be allowed to permit smoking in their establishments, provided they clearly post their policy on or near their front door.  That way, I don’t have to find out that they allow smoking when I’m in the middle of my meal.

    Anway, I liked the “Bullshit” episodes; I particularly like the fact that they don’t spend a lot of time bashing the schmucks—as magicians, they’re well aware of the fact that people—want—to believe.  As P&T point out, they—tell—you they’re tricking you.  It’s when the hucksters claim that they’re telling you the truth that the con is no longer amusement, but a crime.

    And that’s MY two cents

  2. Thanks for the info – I’ll be looking for that DVD.

    I give ‘em an A-.
    Penn slams The Eagles. I’m a heavy metal kind of guy but I still love The Eagles – how can anyone not like The Eagles huh?

  3. It’s a great DVD set, especially the special features set.  They have some pretty hilarious material in there, and a lovely interview with James Randi.

    In the second season they’ve gotten more heavy-handed with the gratuitous bashing, though, which turns me off a little.  I think it would be enough for them to present their case (spiced with their own particular language) and just leave it at that. 

    But in any case I’m fixing to go into withdrawal, as we just saw the last new episode until AUGUST.  Ack!

  4. In the second season they’ve gotten more heavy-handed with the gratuitous bashing, though, which turns me off a little. I think it would be enough for them to present their case (spiced with their own particular language) and just leave it at that…

    That would be a turnoff if you’re already on the side of skepticism.  But most people’s habit of credulity seems to be set in concrete – maybe it needs a little heavy-handed bashing.  Unless we could lead each person by the hand and get them to read Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World.

    Of course, since I havn’t seen the series, anything I say about it is Bullshit.  I’m definitely going to try to get hold of the DVD!

  5. Nah, they do silly things like showing footage of the interviewees when they didn’t know the camera was (still) rolling, and then making fun of their facial expressions, etc.  It’s completely irrelevant to their arguments, which is what annoys me.  I think it does a great disservice—the credulous can say, “Oh, they’ve just got it in for them personally” and ignore the actual content of the show. 

    But they ARE showmen, and as they pointed out in the very first episode of the first season, if they say someone’s a liar, they can get sued, but if they call them a fucking asshole, it’s free speech. grin

  6. Oh, if they do that, you’re right.  It would take away from the pitch.  I still want to see the DVD though.  I’ll start bugging our video store guy to get it.  (We’re lucky enough to have an independent video store specializing in offbeat stuff nearby.)

  7. I have actually seen most of the BS shows.  Actually, I love P&T and admire most of their work.  BUT when they have a show on something I know about, I can see the holes in their argument.  Recently, they took on alternative medicine (clearly they were on the “anti-” side of that argument).  They were wrong, wrong, WRONG on many aspects (scientifically, I mean), especially herbal medicine.  Their modus operendi also is heavy handed.  They take extremists on both sides of the issue, nutcases who are in favor of views they don’t like, and more reasonable-seeming fanatics on the side they do like.  You don’t really get a “fair and balanced (!)” view of each issue.  On the other hand, they are comics, so it makes for good viewing.  I usually have my tongue firmly in cheek when watching.

  8. Finally! Our video store got the P&T series, and happened to have it not rented out when I was in there.  Gleefully I popped it into my cheapo DVD player…

    A darn shame, but I have to say it isn’t very good. Their own arguments make many appeals to authority, with a heaping helping of abusive parody thrown in.  The high points are cameo appearances by James Randi, but otherwise the series IS Bullshit. 

    It had its moments: the fung shui haircut bit was hilarious.  But they kept missing important points.  For example: comparing New York tap water to bottled water – hardly a fair comparison because NY’s tap water is world famous for its high quality.  Some communities really do have water quality problems – Bloomington, IL had an advisory a few years back recommending pregnant women not drink it but it was hardly necessary to warn anyone because it tasted awful

    (It’s all better now.  Being very cheap, I buy about one bottle of water a month, and refill it from the tap until the bottle springs a leak.)

    I was hoping for more substantive treatment given the importance of the topics they cover.  I think the MythBusters guys would have done a much better job.

  9. Hey, guys…Bullshit isn’t a science show. It’s their opinion. They are the FIRST to claim it’s biased. They don’t WANT you to be convinced by anything they say. The whole idea is to use your own critical thinking skills and find out for yourself. If you disagree with them, and find evidence to the contrary – they have done what they set out to do.

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