About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Thursday, February 07, 2008
Bullshit! (The Pen & Teller variety)
However... (Hey, nobody starts a blog entry with such lavish praise if there isn’t an “however” following suit). There are two reasons I think Bullshit! isn’t quite as good as it could be. The first one is relatively minor, though I have seen its negative effects on my students; the second one is more serious and troublesome.
The first problem is P&T’s (well, Penn’s, since Teller never talks) use of foul language. I’m not a prude, I do enjoy the occasional f* word, and I certainly wouldn’t change the title of the show. But Penn -- by his own frequent admission -- simply relishes the idea that he can abundantly pepper his commentary with f* this and mother f* that because he is on cable. Well, more power to you and your freedom, Penn, but have you considered what you are trying to do and how it may be affected by your over-boisterous manners? I assume P&T (whom I do not know personally) really mean to do some good for the cause of critical thinking, not just to make an (admittedly honest) buck. But I have seen too many of my students cringe at Penn’s expressions and in the process losing the thread of his reasoning. To put it bluntly, Penn often crosses the boundary into crassness, and crassness -- while perhaps enjoyable for the one who practices it and his close friends -- detracts from whatever broader message one wishes to convey.
OK, now for the serious problem. P&T are at their best when they criticize what they know best: they are magicians, so they -- like the Great Houdini before them -- have the professional skills necessary to unmask phony mystics, paranormalists, faith healers, astrologers and others who profit from selling bunk to a gullible public. However, I have seen too many episodes of Bullshit! where P&T seem to go in the wrong direction, dismissing good science or progressive policy as if they were just another example of telepathy or belief in unicorns. The show has presented caricatures of complex issues such as recycling, animal rights, the relationship between health and exercise, and global warming. What is going on here?
This isn’t just a matter of my personal disagreement with P&T on specific issues. I do think, for instance, that some animal rights activists cross the border into irrational ideology, and I’m sure there is quite a bit of room for discussion on which recycling programs are most effective and should be encouraged. Nonetheless, these are issues where critical thinking means presenting the complexity of the problem, taking the various sides seriously, not lampooning them by giving the mike only to the most outrageously stupid members of PETA, say. Ridicule is the appropriate option when the case truly is a slam dunk: there is no serious side to horoscopes, or magnetic therapy, for instance; accordingly, P&T’s brand of buffoonery shines when they take on that sort of target.
So, puzzled, I started to look at P&T’s background assumptions, and the lights came on immediately. As they freely admit (though not on their TV show), the magicians are staunch libertarians, with Penn being a fellow of the Cato Institute, a so-called “think tank” that pushes a pro-business, less government agenda. We all have ideological positions (I am a progressive atheist, for instance), so I am not criticizing Penn and Teller for adopting their particular set of assumptions about the role of government in society (though I do find libertarian positions either naive or disingenuous). But, again, there is a difference between debunking factually clearly false claims (UFOs, Feng Shui) and criticizing people’s positions on complex issues where values and facts intersect in multidimensional ways. Bullshit! does a great job in the first case, but it becomes a parody of itself in the second one. Pity, because I really like Penn and Teller.