Penn & Teller

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The one who speaks is the one holding the microphone.

Penn Jillette and Teller (born Raymond Joseph Teller) are a team of professional magicians who, in the vein of James Randi, have become debunkers of various irrational concepts. Outside of their longtime Las Vegas stage show, they are best known for their Showtime series Penn & Teller: Bullshit!, in which they investigate and debunk topics of interest. The show began in 2003 and concluded its eighth season in 2010, ending too abruptly for them to do the promised "Bullshit of Bullshit" finale. Their new ongoing show, Tell a Lie, does not appear to be based on skepticism.

For the uninitiated, Penn is "the big one with the long hair who talks," and Teller is "the short one who doesn't talk," although there do exist videos of Teller speaking if you are willing to plumb the depths of YouTube. As a general rule, Teller only speaks when he's not in character, but there are exceptions to that, such as the end scene of Penn & Teller Get Killed.

Penn and Teller are controversial figures in the skeptic community because of their libertarian political views. A good rule of thumb to use may be that their episodes and discussions on religion, pseudoscience, and conspiracy theories are great, but that your mileage may vary on episodes dealing with politics, global warming and economics.


[edit] The good stuff

Several episodes of Bullshit! have become classics. One episode that ripped the Catholic Church and the Pope a new hole ended up being so controversial that it was not included on that season's DVD set and is never rerun. However, why the episode was "disappeared" has never been explained.[1] Other episodes dealing with topics of interest to rationalists include debunkings of creationism and intelligent design, the Bible as a source of historical accuracy and morals, New Age crap, homeopathy, 9/11 conspiracy theories, and Moon landing conspiracy theories. Another popular episode deals with myths surrounding video game violence.

Aside from religion, pseudoscience, conspiracy theories, politics, and economics, some episodes of Bullshit! deal with societal trends, like bottled water or stress. The veracity of these episodes varies.

[edit] Bullshit on Bullshit!

The pair have been criticized for, in full irony, using appeals to emotion, especially on topics related to libertarianism. For example, in an episode about the Endangered Species Act, the show uses a highly disabled woman in a wheelchair who cannot build her dream house on a specific lot because it is also a habitat for an endangered bird as an argument against the Act. Whatever valid criticisms they may have of a subject are sometimes obscured by over-reliance on shock and emotion instead of logic and facts. However, Penn and Teller at least have the decency to openly admit both their usage of emotional appeals and their bias.

Some episodes of the show, such as "Environmental Hysteria and World Peace," feature individuals from the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank opposed every form of regulation of business, to argue Penn and Teller's position. The two are both fellows at the Institute but the potential conflict of interest is never mentioned.

Penn is best known for his ad hominem attacks against people who support the position being questioned by the show. The format of Bullshit! is such that individuals on both sides of an issue are interviewed by themselves, not in a debate format, allowing Jillette to take potshots at them (through post-production narration) without their knowledge. Jillette has explained this is a comedy tactic (also intended to cast him as the polar opposite of Teller, who never speaks) and that he does not really support insulting a person if you debate them, and it also forms part of their apparent defence against libel as it's fine to insult people quite dramatically, but you can't call them charlatans, as explained on the show.

[edit] Gun control

One of the "experts" presented in the "Gun Control" episode is John Lott, who has conducted (and fabricated) some highly questionable "research."[2]

[edit] Anti-environmentalism

Bullshit! tends to run into the most trouble whenever it wades into environmental issues, as the duo tends to take an anti-environmental stance, either by explicit denialism or implicitly by cherry-picking actual bullshit surrounding environmental issues and the gullible hippies who buy into it while failing to mention that the actual science itself is not bullshit. An example is the aformentioned "Environmental Hysteria," where they question global warming, and use an expert witness for their position a writer from Cato, who (among other things) is a DDT denialist.

[edit] More on anthropogenic global warming

Penn claimed that there was not enough evidence to make a decision on climate change, saying "we don't know." In the "Environmental Hysteria" episode the pair present Bjorn Lomborg as a great "debunker" of environmental hysteria, but neglect to mention the fact that his work has been excoriated by numerous actual scientists such as E.O. Wilson and Stephen Schneider and not just hippies and eco-nuts.[3] Jerry Taylor of Cato is also trotted out to repeat some PRATTs like the mythical "global cooling" consensus of the 1970s and make up some figures about warming trends to conclude that future warming will be less than one degree Celsius.[4] A later episode, "Being Green," recycles some of their earlier bullshit, and adds in criticism of carbon offsets (which are often, but not always bullshit), commits the Argumentum ad Gorem, and pulls off the classic dihydrogen monoxide hoax.[5] The general "expert interview" format for these episodes consists of hippies vs. think tank hacks -- the fact that scientists are ignored should set off your own bullshit detector.

In later interviews, Penn stated that anthropogenic global warming was probably real, but claimed that he was talking about not knowing whether "the whole package" (i.e. the need for government intervention, presumably as opposed to a self-correcting market) was real.[6][7]

[edit] Recycling

The "Recycling" episode also contains some misleading information. In fairness, they do point out that recycling aluminum is justified and there is some bullshit surrounding recycling, but they misrepresent some cost-benefit analysis numbers and seem to imply that recycling paper pollutes more than creating new paper.[8][9]

Later on, they comment that it costs more energy to recycle than it is to make a new plastic bottle. They include in the list of reasons for this the cost of transportation. While there is a transportation cost associated with moving recycled products to a landfill, the fact that the landfill is not the final destination of recycled materials would seem to bear this out. They also comment that cities often make a net loss on recycling, while failing to mention that this is also true of landfills, and that the recycled material is often then given or sold to manufacturers, so the city takes a loss, and you end up paying less for recycled goods. It should be noted that in a Reddit interview Penn expressed a shift in personal belief while researching the recycling episode, saying "it's not that we're not open minded, it's just that we're working on it. So our opinions don't change when we do the show, they change when we're working on the show."[10] Yeah.

The episode also claimed that aluminum was the only substance that it was economical to recycle, and showed as evidence scenes of homeless people rooting around in dumpsters for empty soda cans. They neglected to mention that most U.S. states have enacted "redemption" legislation, which collects a 2-5 cent deposit on each can when purchased and pays 2-5 cents for each can turned in to a redemption station -- in other words, the empty can collectors aren't being paid based on the scrap value of the aluminum, they're being paid based on what essentially amounts to a government subsidy. (This doesn't mean it isn't economical to recycle aluminum, just that their example was a bad one.)

[edit] Animal rights

The "PETA" episode again invites on questionable experts, such as David Martosko of the Center for Consumer Freedom, an organization that lobbies on behalf of the fast food, alcohol, and tobacco industries.[11] The show dismisses the animal welfare movement by pointing out a few extremists who believe in using violence to achieve their ends and attempting to establish a spurious link between them and PETA (PETA officially opposes the use of violence[12]), and interviewing a few hippies who make illogical arguments for animal liberation rather than intellectuals in the movement.[13]

[edit] Second-hand smoke

In the episode "Second-hand Smoke/Baby Bullshit," P&T rely on another Cato "expert" to declare that second-hand smoke is harmless. Their main objection is to a 1993 EPA report, which they say shows no statistically significant risks but claims that there are anyway. This claim relies on a technicality surrounding the cut-off for significant p-values -- although 0.05 is the most common number used, different kinds of studies and experiments may use a different significance level. Epidemiological studies sometimes use 0.1, and the results were significant at this level. In addition to this, the critics of the report falsely claim that a risk ratio of 2 or 3 is generally considered significant, but it's actually 1.1-1.3.[14]

P&T later admitted in a Q&A session[15] that they were absolutely very likely wrong about the dangers of secondhand smoke, but Penn claimed that the research at the time did not support it well. Regardless, they issued a correction on the DVD release of the show.[16]

[edit] Martial arts

They claimed that martial arts aren't effective for self-defense, but also stated that they can violate self-defense laws. They conveniently ignore the fact there are a significant number schools that only teach how to punch the air and do kata. They also ignore that boxing is a form of martial arts.

[edit] Forensic science

In "Criminal Justice,"[17] the duo made (or rather, supported) some rather bullshit claims with regards to the validity of forensic science, unsurprisingly with the aid of a couple more of their libertarian buddies. In fact, the entire opposition against forensics during the course of the episode consisted of nothing but a lawyer from (shock) the Cato institute, and a writer from Reason magazine, neither of whom it might be noted are scientists. Though they made some valid points with regards to forensics (such as the imprecise sciences of fingerprint & bite mark analysis), they also made (or rather, acted as the vehicle for & then didn't dispute) some rather eyebrow-raisingly crank statements, such as the following from Radley Balko, senior editor of Reason:

The problem with forensic science in general is that it isn't science, it was basically invented by the police [...] There's never been sort of a rigorous, scientific review that we've seen in every other field of science [...] There's no peer review in forensic science, there's no blind testing in forensic science.

Which is, of course, why there are no credible journals relating to forensic science. None.[18] At.[19] All.[20]

It's also rather interesting that both of the actual forensic scientists in the episode are mocked to a greater or lesser degree. On the other hand, Radley Balko is introduced as "a serious guy" with a "super cool comic book detective name" who's been "studying and writing about our [...] criminal justice system for years."

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

[edit] Footnotes

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