2007-07-03 22:40 in /life/food/baking
2007-07-03 22:20 in /life
I recently got pointed to an episode of Penn & Teller: Bullshit! on YouTube, and decided to stick a couple of the DVDs on my Netflix queue. After watching the first few episodes, I have to say that I’m a bit disappointed. While I sympathize with what they are trying to do with this show, and mostly agree with their positions, I think the execution is flawed if the goal is actually to persuade anyone, and not just to get those who already agree excited about someone expressing their views with such passion. (In other words, I think Penn & Teller may be the Michael Moore of skepticism.)
Episode 1 attacks those who claim to communicate with the dead. At first I thought this episode was pretty solid, but on later consideration, I’m not sure how convincing it would be to someone who believed in psychics going in. Sure they make a couple specific people look bad, and they have their own “reformed con-man” perform a similar routine, but I think one could argue that a couple frauds doesn’t necessarily discredit a whole group. Overall, this topic has got be a hard sell, because the vast majority of people do believe in an afterlife, and once you believe that it’s hard to believe that there can’t be any crossover between the two worlds. This episode also introduces two problematic techniques of argument that Penn & Teller use repeatedly in the show. First is argument by authority. This is problematic both inherently, and because most viewers aren’t even familiar with the authorities presented. For example, even though I consider myself a pretty big skeptic, I wasn’t familiar with the Center for Inquiry, who are presented as the authories on psychic claims in this episode. Second, they show explicitly how selective editing allows them to make their “psychic” seem much more successful than he really was. A critical viewer should notice that Penn & Teller use editing over and over in this show to make their opponents look bad.
Episode 2 takes on “alternative medicine”, specifically reflexology, chiropractic, and magnet therapy. The practitioners of reflexology and magnet therapy have almost certainly been selected to present as poor an impression as possible. The choice of experts on the skeptics side is somewhat odd as well. When they started interviewing Robert Park, S. asked, quite reasonably, why do they have a physicist talking about medicine? Since I am familiar with Park, it made sense to me, but for most people it’s a fair question. A big section of this show centers around making some people at a mall look silly trying out bogus alternative cures. They do (very briefly) admit that lots of people didn’t go along with them, but the bigger thing that they ignore is that the major reason people are willing to try this stuff out is that “modern western medicine” just isn’t that good. Yes, we’ve got acute injuries and illnesses pretty much under control, but there’s lots of people with chronic conditions who find that their western doctor is not useful at all. Given that the authority presented by the government and the mainstream health industry has failed them, what are they supposed to do other than experiment until they find something that does seem to work for them?
The episode on alien abductions really highlights the difficulty of skepticism, and particularly in trying to package skepticism in a half-hour format. The problem is that there’s almost no attempt at real proof offered by the UFO crowd, so there’s basically nothing to debunk. They spend perhaps 5 minutes showing that even the most prominent speakers at a UFO convention really have nothing to back up their claims when pressed, and other than that the rest of the episode is pretty much just Penn & Teller making fun of people. Then at the end they give this little speech about how sad it is that these people are so starved for interaction that they invent alien interactions and that people should just try being nice and talking to them more, and then they wouldn’t need to construct such fantasies. How’s that for hypocrisy? (Aside: the UFO “experts” in this episode are discredited because they are trying to sell books, but note that, in the previous episode, Robert Park is presented as a genuine expert on alternative medicine because, that’s right, he wrote a book.)
The next episode takes on the “end of the world” crowd. This episode has a split personality. Half of it shows, pretty successfully, that those peddling Nostradamus and biblical prophecy about the end-times are full of crap. (One juicy bit shows two editions of the same book, one claiming the Ayatollah Khomeni as the anti-christ, and the other, after the ayatollah’s death, Saddam Hussein in his place.) However, the other half tries to lump Tom Brown’s Survival School in with them, despite the fact that there’s nothing in the marketing of that program about preparing for the end of the world or the collapse of civilization. Sure, they find one kook in the class who’s trying to prepare for when the terrorists take over the US (or something like that), but they really overwork that one connection into an indictment of the whole school. (Disclaimer: I know Tom Brown as a highly respected tracker, from when I worked search and rescue in college.)
The final episode on this disc takes on both second-hand smoke and the peddling of stuff supposed to make your baby smarter. This is the first episode where I didn’t entirely agree with their position. I sympathize — I have enough libertarian leanings to think that smoking bans are starting to go a bit overboard (and in some places went overboard long ago). But, their arguments are fairly unpersuasive and certainly don’t convince me that they approached the topic with a true skeptical, scientific view; rather than picking arguments that match their politics. The major, major red flag in this episode is that their chosen experts are Larry Elder, and The Cato Institute. Both of these parties claim the published medical studies don’t support second-hand smoke as anything other than a trivial health risk; but apparently they couldn’t find an actual doctor, epidemiologist, or statistician to support this view. They also cite a lower federal court decision which attacked the major EPA study on second-hand smoke, but fail to acknowledge that upon appeal the study held up. On the anti-smoking side, they pick an activist rather than a doctor or researcher to present that argument, and then ruthlessly edit the interview to make him look bad.
Overall, I found this show quite disappointing. I’d love to see a good show that debunked popular pseudo-science which was entertaining and accessible. Unfortunately, this is not that show. “Bullshit” seems to care more about allowing skeptics to feel smugly superior than about dispelling superstitions or convincing believers in pseudo-science.