Penn & Teller: Bullshit is a show that aims to examine and show up the bullshit that is all around us. Although far from the most rigorous and in depth show on the subject, the duo have received praise and acclaim for their uncompromising attitude. However, they're not without their critics, and many strong rationalists tend to agree that Penn & Teller's political attitudes and need for controversy often outshine their rationalist message. This can be seen with episode titles alone, which show a clear mix of professional rationalist debunking (Talking to the dead, Astrology) and episodes that are more about comment on society and policy (Death penalty) and sometimes going into consumer affairs (The business of love, Hair). Their anti-government stance is also clear throughout, with the episode on gun control almost outright calling for a revolution and their beef with the Americans with Disabilities Act being entirely centred on the fact that it is government control.
So, do their politics interfere too much? Have P&T ran out of subjects where science can give them a definite answer? Does Penn Jillette's approach of "shouting over everyone in earshot" distract from their arguments? I intend on reviewing as much Bullshit! as I can be arsed to, and try and find out.
Disclaimer and notes
Obviously, this is just my opinion and doesn't represent RationalWiki as an entity or its members. If you disagree with something written here, then
fuck you asshole bring it up on the talk pages. I consider myself a rationalist so if you make a decent enough point I may change my mind. If there's something missed off from one of the summaries, then it's probably just an oversight, there's a lot to write and far too little space and time to do it in, yet alone the potential attention spans of people who might read this.
Talking to the dead
The first episode of Bullshit! is quite important if you want to get inside P&T's heads to find out what they do and why they're doing it, and also important if you want to compare the spirit that started the show with some of their more controversial episodes later on. Why Bullshit!? Well, if you call people liars and cheats and their wares outright scams and fakes, you can be sued; on the other hand, motherfuckers, assholes and bullshit is pretty safe. Okay, that cleared up we get to see why they do it, the great Harry Houdini spent the latter part of his life debunking what he called "humbug" - a word we wouldn't recognise today, but what loosely translates into "bullshit". A noble aim indeed for any rationalist.
So how to Penn & Teller fair at showing up modern bullshit? Pretty well here in the first episode, where they take on perhaps the biggest and most prominent of all bullshits; talking to the dead. Once the introductions are over, the episode goes off in good form, mostly letting the "psychics" and "mediums" show themselves up with very little of the sarcastic or shouty input that Penn Jillette becomes known for later in the show. In fact, far from shouty, he seems quite sincere when talking about how, having lost his own mother, seeing grief exploited in the way that mediums do is inciting them to do what they do in busting these scams wide open. Although this doesn't really say much about the truth of mediumship, it's a good insight into the passion that debunkers have - they're not just killjoys trying to stamp on people's "precious beliefs" as many believers may like to tar them with, this is a passionate quest for truth, driven by the anger of seeing such callous exploitation.
So, how goes the actual debunking? Quite good really. Good interviews from the Center For Inquiry, and they cover the usual stuff like cold reading, hot reading, the shotgun approach, selective reporting, clever editing, release forms with non-disclosure clauses, and the Barnum effect. There's a lot of quite good reporting as well, they try to get into one of John Edward's shows and quickly get thrown out, before talking to some of the audience, who were clearly unimpressed by the whole thing. Then they show Mark Edward (no relation) correctly guessing the activities of someone's dead father... and then the unedited version, which is far from impressive, and Penn goes on to highlight the hits and misses of Edward's actual performance. Of course, they then reveal Mark to have no psychic powers at all, as he's a reformed con-artist and kind of a US version of Derren Brown. From then on it's downhill for the psychics as Mark and Penn's commentaries blow up and expose every trick used to read people.
There are a lot of tricks going on and P&T do a good, hell no, a great job of covering so much in a short running time. An excellent start to the series.
Indeed, where do you start? RationalWiki's alt-med category contains 85 articles, a difficult topic to cram into 29 minutes - but P&T decide to keep a brief mix of the seemingly mainstream (chiropractic medicine) the "up and coming" (reflexology) and the outright batshit insane (magnetic therapy). They avoid my personal favourite, homeopathy, but you can't have everything.
As for what they present, it's very much a case of preaching to the choir. There's little in the episode to disuade believers, but then again, there's only so many times you can say "it doesn't work", so that's understandable. As a result, a lot of the episode relies on the the practitioners just describing their trade - again understandable as there's so much crazy going on you sometimes need it spelled out before you can go into refuting it. The refutations come from other doctors and expects - including Robert Park, author of Voodoo Science - stating various things although this boils down to a back-and-forward feeling of "yes it does work" "no it doesn't" "yes it does". For the most part the refuting experts explain their positions well, but I don't recall the words we need to hear, namely; "there is no evidence". Evidence is the key for showing whether a medicine works or not and this phrase seems absent. These studies have been done and failing to mention them just gives ammo to alt med practictioners who seem to say that science ignores them and therefore they haven't been proven fraudulant.
Highlights of the episode include the magnetic therapy proponent saying (repeated just to rub it in) how they're not allowed to say that it's actually an effective treatment from a scientific point of view, and the reflexologist who charges $2400 for a mail-order course in reflexology, yet still tells his "students" to practice even before they've begun. Let's not speak of the chiropractor who manipulates babies, that's just fucked up. Their demo on the "power of suggestion" (one assumes "placebo" is too complex a word for their audience) is entertaining, but the credulity of the people participating in their set up is probably the result of clever editing - I can't imagine anyone really faling for the "chiro-coat". Well, actually, I could, which is pretty damn worrying...
I feel a little weird shouting "ooo look at the crazies" with this topic as I used to be well into aliens and abductions and conspiracy stuff. Even now, if I think about alien abductions in a dark room alone at night I get the fucking willies. It's almost embarassing.
On to this episode of Bullshit!. The episode is a game of two halves, but unlike other episodes like that, they're two very good halves. First, it's very much "wooo, let's laugh at the crazies!!" An entertaining jaunt at least, seeing a woman affectionately describe how the alien probe she was holding works even though it's clearly a dildo sprayed silver was a facepalming classic, and the rest of the UFO convention doesn't come off much better. Then we get to see lizard boy himself, David Icke - and if he's the most coherent member of a UFO convention, we're in trouble. P&T are good at pointing out that these people are providing fuck all evidence for the stuff that they're selling at pretty high prices (it's worth pointing out that these early episodes feature a lot about how much bullshit costs, so the consumer affairs aspects of Bullshit! aren't restricted to later series). Indeed, they show themselves up when one of them effectively dodges the "but how do you know this?" question. the true beleiver sees "I could be arrested if I told you why" as quite affirming, immediately imagining dozens of possibilities, maybe the government are in on it and after him, maybe he's an ex-military guy who knows the truth. The learned rationalist on the other hand sees through this and takes the absence of evidence as evidence of absence, and snide question dodging as evidence of bullshit.
But it's not all guffawing at some seriously messed up individuals, a clinical psychologist is on hand to describe the naturalistic phenomena that underpins the abduction experience. He's by far one of the most constructive guests, not only going on camera to state a fact or opinion, but clearly explaining everything. Covering the "5 signs that you were abducted" to pointing out how regression therapists subtly put ideas into people's heads. This guy's segments are amazingly well done. Their second expert is a doctor who describes the explainations for alien implants. His time on screen is much less, but again really well done, with him talking over and explaining the bullshit in a very precise and specific manner, rather than the simple "to-and-fro" set up that marred the alternative medicine episode.
Obviously not every topic is suitable for this kind of structure that contrasts serious science and refutation with highlighting extreme weirdness, but looking at alien abduction and UFO obsessives certainly is suitable and Bullshit! delievers perfectly here.
End of the world
- Damn straight Randi, we're all still here. And something tells me we aint going anywhere, anytime soon.
It's the end of the world as we know it, or is it? Obviously not. Hundreds of people have predicted the end of the world, and yet it has never happened. That's not to say the next guy won't be right, of course, but let's just play the odds. Pointing that out is a one trick pony, and P&T do well to spread it out over a full half hour episode.
Well, they don't spread it out, they fill it in with a ton of stuff on survivalists which is really neither here nor there on the debunking front. But of course, survivalist courses sell, and at $700 a pop for a weekend of being told the stinking obvious, it's certainly going to fire up Penn Jillette's temper. Though they do make an interesting point that, if these people are going to claim that 90% of the population are going to die, why do they assume they'll survive long enough to put these skills into use? Certainly I'm with P&T on this and playing the odds that I'm going to die, it's just sad that it'll be most likely slow, sick and painful, even in the event of a total apocalypse. But enough misery, and on with the show.
A good segment of the show, one that I think they could have filled an entire episode with if they tried, is Nostradamus, undoubtedly the king of bad predictions. This segment quickly devolves into a glorious pissing contest between John Hogue and James Randi, which Randi indisputably wins. Hogue has tried to identify the antichrist from Nostradamus' writing; first Ruhollah Khomeini, but quietly changed to Saddam Huissein for a later edition of his book. I just wonder if it's been changed again since Saddam hasn't fulfilled his duties as antichrist either. Randi tearing Hogue's ideas apart show just how good this guy is, knowledgeable and authoritative, Randi can smell bullshit a mile away and isn't afraid to say so. Thankfully, this is his first appearance of several in the series.
Second hand smoke / Baby bullshit
Picking holes in the second hand smoke episode is almost too easy. This is pretty much entirely composed the usual kind of libertarian arguments against everything; indeed, as soon as the anti-smoking campaigner even dares to suggest that the government should do something, Penn jumps in immediately with the tried and tested anti-government argument. It seems their "it's okay to smoke" argument seems to jump between this, which is boring and certainly a non-rationalist argument, and a little anecdotal evidence that smoking doesn't cause harm - like the barman saying how he "knows someone" who's been in a smoky environment for 60 years and is fine.
However, not content will waving their balls around in an anti-legislative manner, P&T decide to try science. Shame they totally dropped the ball on this one, stating outright that "not one" study had shown a link between passive smoking and illness. And when you get a guy on saying "I don't know where they got that from, the entire scientific world doesn't think there's a link between passive smoking and cancer" you'd expect him to be a doctor, or research epidemiologist... not a radio talk show host. Thankfully P&T seemed to retract their views on the science at a press conference after a "study from England" seemed to provide compelling evidence. I presume this was the 2004 study published in the British Medical Journal, but still, their crack research team missed a fairly prominent meta study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, published in 1992. On the positive side they develop a decent critique of some of the studies, namely the EPA report from 1993 that was accused of cherry picking and a WHO supported paper that found no statistically significant link. They also look into the scaremongering of relative risk, which is pretty good - although they really do fuck up their definition of statistical significance quite, quite badly.
The "baby bullshit" section of the episode is a more normal affair, looking at woo that is exploited in child rearing. I can't really say much for or against this except that it's very much in the vein that Bullshit! should be in.
Sex, sex, sex
- We're talking about the stuff that requires no commitment, pumps, pills, aphrodisiac cookbooks, pheromone colognes... in other words BULLSHIT.
After some cool debunking for the first half of the series, this seems like a bit of a "WTF" moment for Penn & Teller. Sex, Sex Sex is one part filler, one part consumer affairs and one part testing pills and stuff - perhaps as an excuse to show some legitimate trademark smut, I don't know. The episode does feature my favourite Bullshit Experiment where they get a researcher to ask questions on the street about toilet cleaners... once with a modest top, and again with some cleavage. The results are as startling as they are hilarious when they use a hidden boob-cam to catch guys who try to catch a cheeky glimpse of tit while answering the questionnaire.
The episode doesn't seem to have an ultimate point behind it beside testing quack treatments to enlarge sexual organs, and it's not until nearly halfway through that this comes to the fore, the dicking around with Ron Jeremy doesn't really go anywhere apart from pointing out how odd it is for Ron Jeremy to sell penis enlargement pills; as they say, it's like Shaquille O'Neal trying to sell platform boots. In the first piece of proper bullshit, we see a hypnotherapist who claims to be able to make women's breasts bigger. Indeed, this a bigger crock of shit than most of the mediums that appeared in the first episode, its a short and sweet segment, both revealing and hilarious ($90 per session totaling to near enough $1000 over the course of the "treatment"). Out of the three women treated, one refused to talk to the show again, another said it didn't work and one claimed a modest half-inch increase (and not even the Large Hadron Collider can boast a cost of $100 per millimeter) but it was revealed she had a little bit of a vested interest, and this interest wasn't in actually proving her claim. The rest of the episode is punctuated by a "trial" of pills, pumps and special exercises (the description of which sounds far too close to excessively violent masturbation for comfort) to test penis enlargement. Again, these three poor suckers get negative results despite the expense, and in the case of the pump, pain. Okay, so these are technically anecdotes rather than trials, but when you're testing woo, anecdotes are supposed to turn out positive, but this is Bullshit! and perhaps the selective reporting goes the other way too.
The aphrodisiac foods section is a refreshing change from the smut, and is interesting but short, a case of "it's a placebo, idiot" and moving on. Fair enough, really, I don't think there's much more they could have pulled out of that one. Aphrodisiac food looks like cock and pussy, and often involves getting shit faced. Who knew?
The final Bullshit Experiment is quite good, testing out pheromones by using identical twins. Compared to most Bullshit Experiments, this actually had a half decent trial design (by TV standards), by using adequate controls with twins, and hinting at the importance of randomisation. Huzzar! Perhaps viewers can actually learn something other than what a pair of tits looks like from this episode.
Feng Shui / Bottled water
P&T's main gripe with Feng Shui is it's claims of science. Now, one could argue this point with all of their psuedoscientific targets, but that would make a fairly repetitive series. There are, of course, bullshitters who are far more guilty of falsely claiming that they're science - homeopathy, at least - but it is Feng Shui just happens to fall into the sniper scope here.
The central thesis of this science gripe is that it should be methodological, reproducible and consistent. After all, if the CERN super collider gave different results to Fermilab, we'd be in trouble. The way P&T test this, quite simple; get three Feng Shui "experts" to look at a room and rearrange it, if it is science, all three should independently agree. No points for guessing that they don't, by a long shot. Feng Shui enthusiasts may protest, but if they're going to claim science, they need to follow the rules. Next, Feng Shui... haircuts?? Yep. And again, P&T do good in testing this out by sending in two twins to test out a $16 haircut vs a $150 Feng Shui haircut. Hardly a rigorous test, and Penn actually admits it, but it's like Mythbusters in that they put these things to empirical testing.
The whole double-episode concept is good because it means you can cover a lot of bullshit without the excessive padding. So, P&T segue to bottled water... $4 billion on bottled water, you lunatics! Anyway, Feng Shui didn't entirely use up the week's quota of empirical testing and we get two further Bullshit Experiments. Firstly a quick taste-test showing that 75% of people preferred tap water, and another amusing setup in a restaurant where unexpecting customers are tasting and buying expensive water... which was all taken from a hose and just given a stupid label. The final bottle was "Amazon Water" that featured an Amazonian arachnid inside it, I once had a bottle of vodka with a scorpion in it, yeah, it's kind of amusing. Really, bottled-water is such an easy target, it's a wonder that people still swear by it at all.
The meatiest of the meaty when it comes to pseudoscience, creationism is one of the most ideal topics to cover in Bullshit!. Except that, like the alternative medicine episode, where do you start? Set against the background of a ruling of the Cobb Country school board (the one that famously put the disclaimer in biology textbooks) on teaching creationism as science, the episode is - at least to someone like me who is experienced in the matter - more like a "Beginners Guide" to creationism. There's an explanation about intelligent design, the explanation about what "theory" actually means, and a good segment about how voting doesn't change reality - all good stuff delivered well.
The first half of the episode concentrates almost exclusively on the politics of the situation as it stands in the US. This probably doesn't interest anyone in the world of debunking and scepticism but it's fitting with whole "Beginners Guide to Creationism" vibe that this episode puts out. Indeed, putting the issue into this sort of context makes the show a lot more well-rounded and attention grabbing, it tells you why it's an important issue and not just a case of cranks pushing their wares on the unsuspecting. The key argument seems to be via the analogy that the US is "like a club" and like all clubs, you pay a membership fee (taxes) and obey the rules (the constitution) which says "no religion". Not science, but good politics and good bullshit.
The science doesn't kick in properly until nearly two thirds the way through the show, when Duane Gish turns up to hint that the Grand Canyon was formed by a flood (he doesn't quite gallop, though) before Eugenie Scott gives us all a lesson on how hard rock is. Then a quick "oh no it isn't" and "oh yes it is" regarding fossils, we're back on why creationists want to spread their view; that evolution gives rise to "materialistic atheism". All very interesting stuff but covered briefly. The conclusion briefly compares science and non-science, making a good point about how the Raelians believe pretty much exactly the same thing as ID advocates, but with space aliens rather than God - funny how the "non-religious theory" of ID doesn't like that too much.
Generally, the episode lacks the scientific kick to debunk creationism and prove evolution. But looking at the episode as a whole, that would be biting off far too much to get into 26 minutes and I think they pitched it right with looking more into the politics of the situation. The title of the show is, after all, Bullshit! and their brief is just to show creationism as bullshit. The indiviual points in the evolution/creationism "debate" are far too nuanced and numerous to put in a show like Bullshit!, so while I don't like them sticking the science on the backburner for this one, I think it's the right decision.
Looking at Bullshit!'s track record so far of creationism and mediumship and aliens and so on, self-help seems like an odd thing to move into. However, self help is indeed a little bullshit, although I'm sure RationalWiki would more likely label the sort featured on this episode as woo. This is very true of the central self-help featured in this episode, which takes fairly mundane things (well, mundane once you know how they work, and David Willey is on hand to explain everything) and makes them seem like superhuman feats of wonder. Namely, walking on glass, breaking an arrow with your throat and walking on burning coals (well, burning wood, rather than coal, as Willey's says, wood is a poor thermal conductor so is quite easy to walk on). This is an easy enough one for P&T to show up, alternating between footage of the self-help camp and Willey's explanations, but while that itself is total bullshit, it doesn't really cover why the self-help aspects are bullshit.
While this camp is the recurring focus of the episode, P&T scatter-shot through a few other gurus. Penn's voice over, as is is often the case, doesn't really add much apart from a bit of snark over the clips. Indeed, P&T hardly feature on the show and their interludes and segues are a little pointless, so while the subject matter is worthy of attention, this one smells fully like a cheap filler episode. Luckily, we're still treated to two qualified clinical psychologists who do a little bit of analysis. While thoughtful, their contributions are reduced (by the editing and pace of the episodes) to mere soundbites - which is particularly unfortunate as "reducing everything to a soundbite" is one of the criticisms they levy against self-help. I'm sure they could go into more depth but we're really asked just to take their opinions on trust, good TV clearly takes precedence here.
It's ultimately a far from flawless episode. The psychologists say that cheap, quick-fix self-help has no long lasting positive effects, but we're never really given interviews with people who appear in the self-help segments as follow ups. This would be indeed an interesting addition. We're given a few select vox pops of people in a sex themed self-help event who say they've been coming "for years" as a nod to this, but that's it. It's this lack of a follow up (they did feature something similar in the talking to the dead episode) that makes the episode less well argued than it could have been. Overall, it's a good attempt but not enough to dissuade your True Believer.
ESP covers a wide-range of supposedly psychic and paranormal phenomena that are all based around sensing things... without actually sensing them. P&T pick a few individual bits and pieces, remote viewing, pet psychics and spoon bending, and have at it with a series of "lets laugh at the crazies" segments.
The first quarter of the show goes to CIA funded experiments performed by the Stanford Research Institute since about the 1970s. At a rumoured cost of $20 million, we get James Randi pop up dramatically to say he could have told them it didn't work for free. Hooray for James Randi; everyone knows this show needs more beard. Anyway besides the usual mentions of Randi's famous million dollar prize, and a few admissions from the SRI that it doesn't really work, there's little to outright disprove ESP on the show; as with half of the aliens episode, they're mostly left to their own devices to show themselves as bullshit. The interjections by P&T are hit and miss, talking about how pet psychics are just stating the obvious and unprovable and in the end asking why the "I don't need the money" attitude is bullshit when they can just hand Randi's prize straight to charity.
Other highlights include the segment on psychic detectives, it's interesting to see the police psychologist representing the police saying that they used to think it was Mostly Harmless until they realised psychic detectives really do waste time and could potentially derail serious investigations. I have to commend Mark Klass, father of murdered Polly Klass, for coming on the show to renounce these bullshitters. Of course, the show isn't devoid of empiricism, they do an experiment into remote viewing that appears to fail miserably. Not a patch on some of the demos I've seen elsewhere, that show the viewers attempt to shoehorn their drawings into the revealed image post facto. And of course, there is a little confrontation in the show (which I don't recall seeing very often) where guests actually speak to the researchers, Russell Targ seemed to get quite irate with some of the questions, and the gullible prats with the pet psychic got extremely teary-eyed and defensive when questioned.
Overall, the tour is a bit whistle-stop at times, and the analysis of evidence is lacking, but it covers the basics.
Food woo is the port of call for P&T today. This episode foreshadows a lot of consumerism-based based Bullshit! that comes later and is ostensibly a prequel to the obesity episode in a later series - indeed it fills the massive gaping hole about the diet industry in that episode. So what's the basics of this? Diet woo primarily, that there is no magic bullet cure that lets you lose weight. There's a few talking head points covering this and then launching into a Bullshit Experiment with a guy running the all liquid "Hollywood" diet for a few days. This ends up predictably crazy,the guy loses weight but puts it back on pretty quick. Who'd have thought eating nothing would cause that? Still more talking heads about crash dieting and interviews with guys who have done massive weight loss. The episode hammers home the point about "there is no magic" repeatedly. Common sense, in all honesty, but people are suckered in by diets so it makes sense to reiterate the point.
The interesting tidbit, although they lack any direct evidence (due to an apparently "non disclosure" clause and some legal threats), is that the diet industry will pay injured athletes to bulk up and eat. This lets them take one of the "before" shots in their diet pictures. So when said athlete recovers and goes back to their old lifestyle ("like running marathons"). And lo and behold, they become thin again for the "after" picture. It's an interesting thing to mention, and despite the lack of evidence I have little trouble believing that may well happen. The whole "before" and "after" pictures accompanying diet plans either has to work through subterfuge or selective reporting.
This is really a two-part episode, although it isn't billed as such. The second half jumps, without so much as some linking dialogue, straight from diet woo to P&T's patented hippy bashing. Fun fun fun! Greenpeace talking shit? Check. Penn shouting over them? Check. Something that Bullshit! viewers will certainly get used to as the series progresses. But the shots of people protesting genetically modified food segues nicely into the main point of the second half, and something they reiterate in different guises throughout: that it's easy to protest when you're not starving yourself. This segment also features Norman Borlaug, who Penn describes, literally, as the greatest human being ever to live because of his involvement in food and agriculture developments. He's certainly one of the more interesting people to be interviewed but it really is just a oneupmanship on behalf of P&T: our great human being supports food technology and genetic modification, these hippies are just spoiled brats protesting because they can.
Generally I don't think it really goes into enough depth to get a proper argument going, perhaps as a side effect of it being half an epsiode. For instance, they interview a guy who wants organic food and then say that we'd only feed 2/3 of the word - must have been under 30 seconds for the entire thing. I'm sure they have the citation for that, but they don't actually present it. The detail about how you go about calculating that sort of thing may be convoluted but it's essential to explain it. They jump into the science behind genetic engineering a little bit with someone who knows what they're talking about, but it's short and they switch back immediately to laughing at the hippies. Although in fairness, the hippies are pretty stupid and it's worth watching for them revealing that they're just anti-government and anti-corporation rather than actually for science or the environment. As entertaining as this episode is, they lambast Greenpeace and the raw food movement for not using science (and rightly so), yet the scientific arguments for genetic modification are hardly presented at all so P&T are effectively guilty of the same thing. As such, the entire second half is just a warm up to Penn's final words "unless you and yours are starving, you need to shut the fuck up!"
Ouija Boards / Near Death Experiences
I have to say that this is one of my favourite episodes, and really the one that sold me on Bullshit! a few years ago when I first started watching. If there's nothing I like better than watching hypocritical arsewipes be shown up for the fuckers they are it's... well, there's probably nothing I like better than watching hypocritical arsewipes be shown up for the fuckers they are. This episode covers the animal rights movement in general to it's extreme sides like the ALF. However, they reserve their best attacks for the arguably the largest and worst organisation in the business, the Missionaries of Charity of the animal rights world PETA. Let's just ignore the sections with Ted Nugent shouting loudly; "chickens are stupid!", "FOOD!!!", yes, we get it, you're a maniac.
They start with a clear point; ethical? The word is essentially subjective so is meaningless - okay, a bit of arguing from semantics isn't up to much, but it's an important point to make as they later go on to show that PETA's view of "ethical" may be a little different to the standards most people would expect. Firstly, PETA kills more of its rescued animals than it rehomes, and Penn is insistent on ramming this fact down the viewers throats. Although they make no mention of what standards PETA use to decide whether it really is more humane to put the animal down, PETA are often quiet about it themselves. I have no sympathy for an organisation with a $33 million budget (their head office is far from humble), while smaller animal shelters struggling with funds make it policy not to put healthy animals down.
However, one of the most interesting points of the show is the very end; "no animals were harmed in the making of this show, except...". It's very difficult to lead an animal free life or with no exploitation of animals (hell, it's difficult to live a life that doesn't exploit other humans) and Penn's extensive list of animal products used in filming servess to highlight this. This is probably Bullshit! at its best, they present their facts and sources pretty well and are solidly uncompromising in their attack against a very deserving target.
The business of love
War on drugs
The Bible: fact or fiction?
Yoga, tantric sex, etc.
Fountain of youth
Exercise vs genetics
Holier than thou
- It's the same old story, almost every successful religion is built on some guy or gal who is "holier than thou"
What do Mother Teresa, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and the Dalai Lama have in common? They're bigger assholes than most people think. This is Bullshit!, so we expect this to be a one-sided hatchet job for the most part, but is there any more under there?
So, the key accusations are that Mother Teresa was a fraud, Gandhi was a racist and a bit of a pervert, and the Dalai Lama is just a dick who wants to impose an archaic social order on the country that booted him out for enforcing that fucked-up social order. This is backed up primarily by authors who are against these people and have written on the subject; Christopher Hitchens for Teresa, for example. We get a little balance, though, so it's not entirely one sided; they're more than happy to get Gandhi's good points out of the way first - plenty of praise for his philosophy of non-violence, as most people should agree on - and especially make a good point about how at the same time Gandhi was talking about how niggers only wanted to get enough cows to swap for a wife, the US were bollocks-deep in the Ku Klux Klan and segregation. As Gandhi's nephew points out, it was a different era. A defence? No. But at least it contextualises everything and also underscores their general message that there's no such thing as "holier than thou". Mother Teresa gets no such defence, except for what the Catholic League can provide, which isn't much. I sense the Catholic League parts are quote mined (mostly because I sense that quote mining is a given when the show is ~30 minutes long and interviews often take a couple of hours), but they seem to pick at least relevant soundbites and Penn doesn't talk over the guy for a change.
With the Dalai Lama, things focus on obscene levels of hero worship - the celebrities fawning over him, namely - but they also try to dig into what Tibet was like under him. I'm not 100% convinced they really go about proving that Tibet would be worse under the Lama's rather than the Chinese, and like Mother Teresa an entire documentary could be filmed to backup this point properly. However, they're happy to make a throw-away remark about how both the Lama class rulings and the Chinese suck on grounds of freedom, "the lesser of two evils is still evil" and all that. The general message is that hero worship is stupid, and that there's no such thing as "holier than thou", as we all have failings, and for this what they do more comprehensively reveal about the Dalai Lama (funding controversies, for example) supports this tone. It's the claim to being better that P&T are against, and for that, spreading their ranting over three individuals, uniquely placed in the world as people who are assumed to be Holier Than Thou and beyond criticism because of it, highlights just enough failings over a wide range of examples to back up their point sufficiently.
Bullshit! works best by highlighting things that not everyone knows, for that, it's a 5-star episode. Whereas most of P&T's audience will probably already think the Bible is bullshit, and that reflexology is nothing more than an excuse for foot-fetishists to gain employment, few are ever aware of the masses of controversies that the Holier Than Thou folk get themselves into. Such things are easily suppressed and ignored when personality cults form, and to reveal this sort of thing on TV is practically a public service. But the fact is, P&T could have ditched a load of the silly comic set pieces and the anti-China rant and filled it with some more on the Dalai Lama: we're treated to first-hand experience of how the Missionaries of Charity are just a cult of suffering ran by the Catholic Church for religious advancement, and then interviews with one of the most well-researched authors on the subject; we get direct quotes of Gandhi's racism, interviews with surviving relatives and a lot of historical context and balance about the man himself; but for the Lama we're left with taking the piss out of celebrities for gullibility and a few assertions about Tibet accompanied by stock footage... and little else. This is the sort of thing that makes me wish they had an extended-edition of Bullshit!, that made more of the source material available to be seen publicly.
In short, if you're asking for a comprehensive and authoritative documentary on why any single one of these individuals is a douche, you'll be found wanting. But if you're after 30 minutes of why "Holier Than Thou" is bullshit, it pretty much does exactly what it says on the tin perfectly.
Anyone who has watched any of Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe will know that TV is an expensive business (even more so than the $34 billion spent on hair care products in the US). Therefore in order to get a TV show on the air,you need a lot of episodes for not much money, and this often means some cheap episodes to fill in the gaps while you save for the more expensive shows. P&T admitted in a conference announcing series 3 that their episode on hair was one of these, a fairly cheap and easy to film filler episode. As a result, it's one of their more blatant consumerism episodes and there isn't much to go on here, but I don't want to hold that against it too much.
The episode itself is entertaining enough (the set-up job interview segment is worth it), and if this sort of thing lets them use their budget to stamp all over PETA, I'm happy enough - they've avoided fecking clipshows at least. So what do they cover? Side effects of cheap "anti-baldness" drugs, check. How stupid it is to spend $34 billion on hair care, check. The ridiculousness of spending hours in the morning sorting your hair when you barely have any, check. Phallic like hair toys, check. The list goes on. You don't get to the end of this episode feeling ultimately enlightened, but as a light-hearted trip into the world of weird and pointless obsessions over hair, it's pretty spot on.
Signs from heaven
The boy scouts
The death penalty
Ah, the abstinence episode. Again, this is one of my favourites that I watched several times the first time around before re-watching it for this review. The abstinence movement is a craze sweeping America, as Penn suggests, people are trying to make it look like 50s sitcoms were real - you know, all that "gee whiz" happy-clappy sort of thing (makes me want to watch Pleasantville again...).
We kick of the show almost immediately with a masturbating Asian chick - you have to keep the viewers interested, somehow, right? Of course, let's not dwell too much on the gratuity of this show, it's a tongue-in-cheek distraction at worst and, at least compared to some other episodes, it has a place in this sex-themed edition. So, on to the actual content. This episode is pretty good in just letting the bullshitters show themselves up; frankly, some of the lecturers in schools preaching about it are just plain embarrassing. The woman who does the "igniting the flames of passion" thing? Well, if they think teenagers are impressed with an old flash-paper trick and that one that shows the flame temperature of alcohol is lower than the ignition point of paper, then perhaps their views of reality are more skewed than we first thought - the kids are practically falling asleep (but they do have a poster in the background for the woo-scale).
Okay, onto the "medical science", and the founder of the Medical Institute of Sexual Health. Again, good reporting, showing them to claim to "not be an abstinence organisation" but clearly showing some very Abstinence Only type material on their website. However, refuting his ideas about how prevalent STDs are is a little lacking, I'd like to have seen the figures, rather than just saying that it's a case of counting or not counting herpes as an STD - it's a complex subject and the prevalence goes up and down for different reasons (try make sense of this for instance). This guy is also unable to answer the question of whether kids taught abstinence only are less likely to use protection and hence more likely to suffer an STD - and I believe them when they say they're not pulling a Michael Moore-esque stunt, a "go to" guy should be able to answer this straight away, it's not like it's a new and unique question asked of the abstinence only movement.
Of course, it wouldn't be P&T without trying to blame the government, and they spend some time saying how government funds has ensured that this idea spreads like wildfire. I can't help but agree with them here, the government providing a billion dollars for abstinence education makes me a little on the pissed side, not least because it's something that they shouldn't be interfering with like this, but also as it's ineffective and spreading lies. So at least they don't just go "government is baaaad m'kay" and leave it there.
Thankfully, P&T aren't all about criticism and highlighting up the misinformation put out by government sponsored programs, they're happy to show a solution; interviewing Planned Parenthood that suggest abstinence as well as other methods. And this is key, staying away from sex until you're ready and happy to do it is the best way, but this shouldn't be preached at the expense of good education about birth control and STD prevention. This is where P&T's main argument begins to crystallise; kids are going to fuck. There's nothing you can do to legislate or brainwash it out of them.
This is one where I like their idea of going into society-based bullshit, rather than staying with the scams and pseudoscience, because there are a lot of facts to show that it is wrong, and there's a lot at stake with continuing it. Overall their reporting is good in this episode. They interview the right people. Let the assholes show themselves up and cite (most of) their data where appropriate. Abstinence only is, indeed, bullshit.
Kicking off series 5 with something like this was probably a mistake. The episode is high on the silliness but very low on argumentation, yet alone reason. Their view is that obesity just isn't a problem, despite numerous statistics that say otherwise. Okay, so it probably is a little overblown, someone with a slight beer-gut isn't in the same league as the super-obese but none of this takes away what most doctors would agree is quite a serious problem. Their first argument that it isn't an epidemic is a one of blatantly unimaginative semantics, it's not an "epidemic" because it's not a disease, nice one - if they'd said that it was the media hyping it with an incorrect term, I'd be happy, but this seems like a few minutes trying to get us to take it seriously. Secondly, their Fat Person Olympics. Yes, we get the point, someone who is slightly fat but healthy and in good fitness will out perform someone who isn't obese but a general Joe Average. They seem to ignore the point that their "fat" guy who wins is clearly built with a bit of muscle and totally ignore that the one who is clearly properly fat didn't even finish any of the events. To me, that's outright dishonesty, but at least they just failed to mention it rather than outright try to hide it. Their interviews with fat activists don't really add anything either.
As a good point, they delved into the diet industry and how it exploits people. But seriously, this should have taken up 90% of the episode rather than 10%. This seemed to get less airtime than their criticism of the BMI, which everyone knows is just a simple proxy for health and not applicable in extreme cases. Health insurers using such a thing as a hard-and-fast rule for their premiums is certainly bullshit, but attacking it because it was invented in the 19th Century by a Belgian is not.
Finally, ending their "it's okay to be fat" message getting massages from two topless skinny chicks? I'm all for their trademark gratuity, but this was just outright hypocrisy.
After a little bit of a detour, they're back on something a little closer to the debunking that inspired them. Throughout this one there are good points and bad all round. Detox is obvious bullshit and most health experts will agree on it. However, I can't help but feel that Ben Goldacre's opening pages of Bad Science cover the topic a little better. P&T at no point seem to challenge these people about what these "toxins" actually are - and science agrees, they aren't actually anything and even when they do tell you what they are, it's clear that they don't actually remove them from your body (see Kinoki Foot Pads). Yet no mention of this key point in showing up "detox" for the con that it is.
Like the obesity episode, they go into the supplement industry a little and show it up as exploitative. This was very good, $42 for a can of syrup? Yep, that's bullshit and a half and well worthy of being shown up. Penn didn't even need to shout "ASSHOLE" to make the audience come to that conclusion. There's a good, albeit short, segment with an actual parasitologist, even if they do spoil it with naked breasts again; for a pair who are supposedly on the side of science, they don't half piss about when people try to be intelligent.
Finally the moment we've all been waiting for, an actual live colonic! Excellent, this should be must-see viewing for people before they actually try it. Penn begins by giving us an account of a colonoscopy (being 50 he needed a check up for colon cancer), a painless medical procedure that takes less than 15 minutes. Contrast this with their plucky volunteer undergoing the colonic, who seems about as comfortable with having a lubed up probe shoved menacingly into his backside as you'd expect; i.e., not at all. All despite the protestations of the therapist who is trying (unsuccessfully) to convince him that it's painless. All-in-all, it's obvious; it's not a "toxin" because you were just going to shit it out the next day anyway.
I lost count of the number of times they used the same shot of the watered down shit going through that tube.
Teller is dressed as a girl, lying in bed and vomiting, it can only mean one thing; exorcism. A nice meaty subject to look into, but I'm sorry to say that this one seems a little content-free.
So, again they mostly let the bullshitters show themselves up. You have a pastor who claims to have seen levitation, super strength and all that jazz, but his video shows him... well, far more mundanely beating the crap out of someone and throwing water at him. Another woman gets people to cough into handkerchiefs all the while Penn seems to point how how weird it is. Pretty indicative of how mundane and boring real exorcism is and it's good to show it. The dynamic duo are very big on letting these guys talk about the power of Christ and all and describing what it is from their believing perspective, but short of just some simple mockery and gags with a ventriloquist, there's not much going on to refute this crazy idea. Maybe it really does just take care of itself (it kind of does) or maybe they're a little glazed after repeatedly watching the same footage of a colonic in the previous episode.
Yep, there's a little talk of the idiomotor effect when John Livingstone tries to tell what a demon is by swinging a pendulum. Hell, you can see him do it! It's so unsubtle I doubt it is the idiomotor effect and is just him swinging it knowingly. But where's the talk about hysteria? The psychology? Or the sleight of hands used to make possessions and exorcisms seem supernatural? Talking about exorcism without talking about mass-hysteria is like talking about organic chemistry without mentioning the carbon atom; you can do it, but people aren't going to understand what the hell you're talking about. In the first episode on talking to the dead, Bullshit! crammed in everything - literally, every trick in the book was exposed in 26 minutes, and here we barely scratch the surface. I wouldn't have minded them going over ground already covered, surely mediums and exorcists have a similar tool bag, but we get none of this stuff here. Mockery is great, but you need to set your case out first.
Oh, well. At least they didn't blame Big Government for it.
Given some of P&T's more controversial attitudes, you'd immediately begin to think they were anti-immigration with Penn's opening speech. In twist however, they declare fuck you, that's bullshit and launch into defending immigration.
Well, I say defending immigration, that's not particularly true at all in the episode. That would require some statistics on how immigration helps the economy and society and they give us none of that. They more attack the hysteria and responses to immigration in the US - and it is pretty overblown there. First stop, the Minutemen a volunteer organisation that's a throwback to Way Back When but has now evolved into a group of gun-nuts patrolling the border with Mexico. The Minutemen talk about stopping drug dealers and terrorists, but really they're just against illegal immigrants - most of whom just outstay working visas rather than cross the border covertly, but that doesn't stop them patrolling the border and "being courteous" to potential visitors. Oh, and the 9/11 hijackers were all in the US legally anyway, so go figure. Accusing these people of thinly veiled racism and xenophobia would be a cheap thing to do, thankfully P&T avoid it.
P&T's central argument for immigration is pretty much bog standard. That America is entirely descended from immigrants, it'd be hypocritical to start hating them now. Okay, so that's not objectively convincing, but they don't dwell on it too much, the show at least seems to focus less on the bigger picture of immigration and more on the smaller absurdities. Absurdities such as building a wall across the border - a wall that would only cover 700 miles of the 2000 mile stretch. According to one anti-immigration spokesperson, you can't say a wall is ineffective because it doesn't cover the entire stretch, P&T say otherwise and I'm inclined to agree with them on that. To show up how absurd the wall idea really is, they embark on perhaps my favourite set piece of the series so far; picking up six illegal immigrants and paying them to build a short section of wall - before getting them to break and cross it in record time. It takes 6 of them to build it, and in pairs they each cross it in a few minutes. Pointless? Maybe, but it does highlight that desparate people cannot be deterred by simple and cheap solutions that are designed more for the politicians to feel better about "doing something" than actually being effective. The interviews with these people are also fascinating and moving, their stories of begging on corners for day-work painting a remarkably different picture from the stereotype of immigrants coming abuse a welfare system and commit crime.
At the end of it, this epsiode doesn't really successfully argue for or against anything in particular, and is lacking the sort of things you'd expect if you wanted to debunk the idea of immigration being a bad thing. But somehow, that doesn't stop it being one of the more insightful and entertaining episodes of the series.
"Trust me, it's bullshit" seems to be the message here as there's very little fact to go on. This episode is very much a game of two halves, one the one hand their argumentation is piss-poor, their reasoning non-existent and the entire thing is encased in this grumpy anti-government pseudo-propaganda, while on the other hand, you can't really argue against their very true and very poignant take-home message: "you can't legislate compassion".
So, in the early 1990s, Bush Senior signed the Americans With Disabilities Act (as a full-fledged Brit I often wonder if Yanks can go five seconds without shoving the word "American" into something, Ameirican Idol, American Inventor and so on, is it some kind of reassurance? But I digress). This act essentially mandated that people with disabilities should get a fair deal in life, equal access to businesses, consideration for parking spaces and so on. P&T's problem with the act? Well, I'm not quite sure, their main argument seems to be entirely centred on the fact that by virtue of it being vaguely to do with government it must be wrong. Yes, that really is the crux of it, I thought they'd try and go a little deeper but as deep as they go is "did you know that round door handles are illegal".
So the act costs people money. Yes, so do most laws that you have to comply with but you don't see Penn Jillette ranting and screaming about the price that soap costs in order to comply with basic hygiene laws. They ask repeatedly "how much does this cost?" when declaring how New York's buses have wheelchair access, but never actually answer it; so much for their crack research team. Add to this a very selective story about a town that was collectively sued by some lawyer who is clearly a jerkward - this is obviously a sad case but undoubtedly the exception, not the rule, if they'd spent the entire show tracking this asshole down to try and give him another disability to complain about, I'd be much happier.
Finally, their iron lung stunt. Yes, remarkably the device is used on a few people in the US still today, but you can't get it in most places that declare "disabled access". Good point? Possibly, they are right that we're never going to be able to account for every concievable disability or illness, but that doesn't mean people shouldn't try and stupid, almost straw man stunts like this just take the biscuit.
Nukes, hybrids and lesbians
War on porn
New age medicine
Good ol' days
Violent video games
The above quote is from Sabina Guzzanti rather than Penn's opening gambit of the show, but I figure it's far more prominent and representitive of the argument here. I say "argument", but that's not really the case as to argue you have to argue against something, and as the Church politely declined to appear on Bullshit! to defend itself, this episode has somewhat of a different feel. Gone are the bullshitters showing themselves up and Penn shouting over them mockingly, the entire thing takes on a more expose documentary tone. I don't take issue with this for the same reasons P&T don't; the Church were offered and declined, P&T could have found some other apologetic group to appear or make some kind of defensive statement (indeed, having another group step in to defend it would probably make the Church look weaker) but they didn't. Secondly, the Church has been preaching its shit for centuries, it's about time they shut up for thirty minutes and let everyone else speak out.
P&T are preaching to the choir here. I'm a strong atheist, proud of it, and quite well in the know about the bad aspects of the Catholic Church, so I can't guarantee objectivity and neutrality when reviewing this episode. I can try though.
The episode is far from a "oh look, organised religion is bad" - we know this - but does go deeper. They look into why the Church does what it does, why it needs to cover up and make itself infallible. They look at some interesting ramifications of its policy; for instance, forbidding the use of a condom for a man who has AIDS/HIV is tantamount to breaking the "thou shalt not kill" commandment. When it comes to exercising their own made-up dogma over the actual teachings that they're supposed to be about, the Catholic Church is really second to none. The whole episode is set against the backdrop of Sabina Guzzanti's "controversy" for saying that Pope Cuntish XIV is going to hell, and while I'm no fan of leaving the punchline of that until the end it makes good TV.
Bullshit! has recieved a lot of criticism as it's aged, but I'm glad to say they end their last series on good form, even if I can't declare that neutrally and objectively.
Slated to air sometime in June 2010