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, September 24, 2009

Dear Penn and Teller: Bullshit!

I like Penn & Teller, the magicians and debunkers of pseudoscience and general inanity. I regularly use clips from their show in my critical reasoning class, despite cringing every time Penn indulges in his “fuck this” and “motherfucker that” exercise in free speech (it distracts the students from the real point, not to mention the always lurking possibility of an administrator asking me about the appropriateness of foul language in a philosophy class). Heck, I even recently went to Vegas to see them in person, had a photo taken with Teller, and managed to tell him (to his surprise) about how my students enjoy stimulating discussions triggered by the duo’s antics.

But as we have learned recently from the Atheist Alliance / Dawkins Foundation / Bill Maher fiasco, “skepticism” is sometimes too broad a label, as someone can be properly skeptical in politics but not about pseudoscience (Maher), while someone else may be great at debunking astrology and magnetic therapy, and yet also unable to shed some huge blinders when it comes to politically charged issues. The latter is, unfortunately, P&T’s case, as made excruciatingly clear by the 2008 (season 6) episode “Being Green” of Bullshit! I just watched it last night, and I found myself wanting to call up Penn to let go a few expletives of my own. Fortunately, I don’t have his phone number.

P&T have been very good at showing that just because one is concerned about the environment it doesn’t mean that one can think critically or act rationally. Their demonstration of well meaning environmentalists signing up to ban the “dangerous and ubiquitous” chemical known as dihydrogen monoxide (i.e., water) is priceless. In “Being Green” they pull off some of the same useful cautionary tales by showing how easily people can be duped by “green guilt” into all sorts of nonsense, like walking around with gravel (for which they paid real money) in their pockets in order to feel “connected with the earth.” Even more disturbingly, the episode raises some serious questions about large scale exploitation of pro-environment sentiment by web-based companies selling “carbon offsets” that are calculated in ways which the companies themselves have a hard time explaining.

But you know even our smart debunkers are running out of arguments when they choose to introduce former Vice President and Nobel winner Al Gore as an “asshole.” Again, there may be some legitimate criticism of Gore’s arguments and even tactics, but to give him the same treatment Penn & Teller usually reserve for real assholes, like con artists who sell snake oil to gullible people, just seems the kind of ad hominem attack that reflects badly on the attacker.

And going back to the issue of carbon offsets for a moment. It is one thing to alert people that they need to look into the companies that offer them, how the offsets are calculated, and how they are used. But P&T explicitly compare these offsets to the indulgences to avoid hell that were sold by the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages (and which eventually helped bring about Martin Luther’s Reformation and the rise of Protestantism). I admit that it is funny to see P&T in medieval church garments, but really? Do they seriously mean to imply that the two are on the same level? Hell doesn’t exist, and the Vatican is a corrupt operation for making money and inducing misery (as P&T themselves masterfully showed in a more recent episode of their series), but we really are fucking up (to use Penn’s florid language) with the environment, and it is no joke.

Except, of course, that P&T’s libertarian blinders simply do not allow them to accept something that is so obvious to anyone who looks at the data and listens to the actual experts in atmospheric science: yes, Penn, global warming is happening; and yes, Teller, a good part of it is caused by human beings. Instead, the best P&T can do is to resuscitate a television weather man from the 1970s to assure us that global warming is a myth. And of course we have the predictable appearance of a guy from a libertarian think tank (the Cascade Policy Institute), who has no credentials that we know of, except being President of said think tank. (Note to self: create own think tank and declare yourself President. Make sure to have web site and business card. No thinking is actually necessary.) Needless to say, no one with a knowledgeable alternative viewpoint is presented during the show.

Instead, our libertarian heros keep telling us to relax, enjoy life, and drive SUVs, despite showing at the beginning of the episode a good number of frightening examples of all too real environmental destruction. Even Penn and Teller, however, have limits. Right at the end of the show, Penn enters a confessional (again with the Catholic Church!) and admits that he isn’t sure that there isn’t global warming, and that he isn’t positive that humans don’t cause it. But he tells us that even if that were true, heck, nobody knows what to do about it, so once again, go out and party all night long, because somehow technology and the god of free markets will solve every problem for us.

That, my dear Penn and Teller, truly is Bullshit!


  1. I felt the same way about South Park. They've done some great skeptical episodes (e.g cold reading, scientology, Joseph Smith, etc.) but when they talk about global warming and Al Gore they have the same libertarian blinders as P & T.

  2. Irreverence is as irreverence does, Massimo.

    Why would you be shocked when someone who is generally irreverent towards just about everything leaves no stone unturned or sacred cow still standing?

    Isn't that the actual aim of skepticism after all?

    Evolution 'in the gaps' becomes especially apparent when comparisons with the environmental stance of no species left behind, or without a next species for a food source, with the fact that the fossil record shows millions of instances of species that don't form connecting/working food chains.

    Even they know that it represents an especially crazy and unworkable hypothesis.

  3. Thank you Thank you Thank you!

    While I love watching their show it pisses me off to no end when they pull their own bullshit. I think there's room for making fun of granola eaters but all too often they stack the deck in favor of their arguments when there are legitimate things to be said by the other side. And who the fuck cares what someone from the Cato institute says other than libertarian Ayn Rand zombies?

  4. A good way to spot the bad episodes of Bullshit! is the pay attention to who their guests are. If the guests for an episode consist primarily of Penn Jillette's friends from the CATO Institute, there's gonna be a lot of bullshit in the episode.

    In their good episodes, they also have good experts. But the secondhand smoke episode, the recycling episode, the several episodes on the environment--in every one of them, there are hardly any actual experts interviewed.

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  6. As someone who routinely takes a skeptical position in public--with my friends, family, colleagues, etc--I have to cringe at P&T's methods. How can we present ourselves as well meaning people, with actual evidence and reason on our side, when the go-to prototypes that are most readily available are these self-righteous clowns with their voice-over denunciations of unsuspecting victims? I don't use skepticism to prove to all present that I'm smarter or better read. I'm not motivated by self-righteousnesss. By all means, expose the charlatans. But keep in mind skepticism is different from cynicism. And smell your own bullshit.

  7. the fact that the fossil record shows millions of instances of species that don't form connecting/working food chains.

    That ain't the half of it. There are millions of fossil teeth that don't show any working connection with legs or anything else.

  8. "That ain't the half of it. There are millions of fossil teeth that don't show any working connection with legs or anything else."

    Well gosh, whats the big panic about losing *one* species here or there then? That is natures way after all. Can't you be a tad more tolerant? If extinction happens because one species places pressures on another isn't that all just part of the game?

    If humans are in fact part of evolution and humans create industries, chemicals and whatnot who are we to suggest that those pressures are not created by NATURE in the first place? No foreseeable room for value judgments here.

    Environmentalism attempts to artificially thwart nature and create something that at least attempts to take the place of the supernatural. And to a degree it is. For instance, birth control use is so promoted so that the planet actually has to bear the weight less children, but it is NOT "okay" TO LET particular species go extinct? Isn't that just one larger species preying on the less able members of it's same species? If you happen to be an environmentalist, why wouldn't you have an issue with that kind of abuse?

  9. Penn seems a bit more inclined to accept the science on Global Warming these days, but he still hates Al Gore with a passion. In fact, that seems to be the entirety of the reason he doubted global warming at all.

  10. Well said. I agree 100%, and for anyone reading this, this is a great time to think about yourself and your own blinders (definitely the right word). Because as rational as you might think you are, everyone has a weak spot.

    I, for one, appreciate it when someone points out my biases, or corrects me on something I've said, and usually wind up considering what they've said very deeply. More than a few people have been confused when I've thanked them for calling me out. Sure, it's a bit embarrassing to realize you're wrong (or maybe, right for the wrong reasons), but I prefer it to keeping the blinders on!

    I've gotten angry on a few occasions where someone's questioned my statements, but in the end, that's usually a sign to me that I have too much emotion invested in the subject, and not enough reason. I almost always wind up apologizing :)

  11. Caliana does it again..brings the stupid with a flourish.

    She seems to be asserting that since its natural its good. The position being that since extinction is common, it must be aok! This is what happens when you take your desperate search for justification in the Xian mythology and foist it on the real world. Next, Caliana wil be telling us that scientists shouldn't use lights because dark is NATURAL and not caused by angels pushing the sun down or that scientists shouldnt use heating and cooling because its NATURAL and not being in areas of the world that at certain times of the year god is angry at or turns his back to, respectively.

    Keep bringing the stupid and Ill keep bringing the WTF!?!?!

    oh and abortion!

  12. There are YouTube videos of P&T in panels at the recent TAM conference. What struck me was Penn's pathological contrariness. It would be astounding to see the dude nod his head and say, "I'd agree with that" or "I couldn't have said it better myself."

    As for his fuzzy take on global warming: issues that require coordinated action on the part of a large population can be problematic for dogmatic libertarians. It's not at all surprising that Penn would give short shrift to facts on this topic.

  13. Lorax

    Since the U of Minnesota is radically left how would you know if WHAT YOU THINK YOU KNOW is true? And especially from the bio dept. One of my nephews graduated from there incidentally.

    I'm not sure how MN became so undermined in its thinking but I'm beginning to get a pretty good idea. Yeah, I suppose one could say that some university profs are effective. Effective towards the end that everything that is pursued more or less becomes useless and hopeless. Not too earth shattering or impressive really.

    Likely just man's natural state w/out God.

  14. What is the world coming to when even the current Pope pays more credit to global warming than P&T.

  15. Speaking of Maher, he's up to his old tricks again:


  16. "There are YouTube videos of P&T in panels at the recent TAM conference. What struck me was Penn's pathological contrariness. It would be astounding to see the dude nod his head and say, "I'd agree with that" or "I couldn't have said it better myself.""

    Actually, I was at TAM7. On one of the panels, I saw Penn come about as close as I've ever seen him to admitting that AGW is real and that he was wrong, but he still couldn't bring himself to do it explicitly. Instead, he couched as, "Is the world warming. Probably. Is human activity a major contributor to this warming, possibly. I JUST DON'T KNOW."

  17. "Is the world warming. Probably. Is human activity a major contributor to this warming, possibly. I JUST DON'T KNOW."

    Let that be a lesson for all of us about how difficult it is for even smart and skeptical people to admit being wrong...

  18. Good critique, Massimo, but what DO we do about climate change? As much as I agree with you that this is a pressing issue, I can't help but feel that the problem is so large that it is almost impossible to do anything effective to stop or reverse climate change. Do we even have the time left to effectively combat it? Perhaps I'm being overly pessimistic, but with each day that goes by, doesn't the likelihood that we will just have to adapt or react to a changed climate increase?

  19. Matthew,

    that's a darn good and complex question. But of course my point is that first P&T and others need to acknowledge that there is a problem (OK, this is beginning to sound a bit too much like a 12-step program...).

    As for what we do, we've got literally thousands of scientists and technologists who could be put to work on this full time by an international effort, and for relatively little money. And yes, coordinating international efforts is tough. But that "asshole" (to quote P&T) of Gore pointed out that we succeed in solving the ozone hole problem precisely by asking scientists what should be done and then convincing governments around the world to get on board.

  20. But isn't whether somebody is an asshole a matter of opinion? You wouldn't mind P&T calling Bush or the Pope assholes, would you?

  21. I stopped watching after they decided to treat 2nd hand smoke as an annoyance rather than a health issue. I spent 10 seconds on something as trivial as Google Scholar and found numerous papers where the authors concluded 2nd hand smoke was a health issue.

    I think one has to actually TRY to miss the mark by that much/

  22. Benny,

    perhaps being an asshole is a matter of opinion (though that's a debatable opinion... :-) but it has to be justified nonetheless, if someone wants to be taken seriously (as P&T do, regardless of their lame "it's just entertainment" defense).

    The Pope and Bush are assholes for many reasons we can both easily think and list. Even if Gore is wrong on some issues, he is trying to make a difference for the right reasons, and I can hardly imagine why he deserves to be called an asshole, other than by assholes...

  23. Orac quotes a common tactic in the global warming debate, as well as some other debates (to a lesser extent): claiming that we "don't know" the answer to a certain question when, in fact, we can have at least a moderate degree of confidence that a certain answer is correct.

    This works because saying "we don't know" sounds moderate and reasonable. It goes along with the stereotypical and overemphasized modesty of science with regards to the truth (the idea that scientists never really have the right to just say a certain view is correct). And it makes the counter-arguer look like a jerk. He is the one who has to say this:

    "Sorry, but we actually do know. We have data. We have analysis. We have everything we need to have to show that there is an answer and to claim that we 'just don't know' is to ignore all of the work that has been done on this issue."

  24. Actually we don't have data. We have "adjusted" global temperature data from two main sources who won't release the original data, nor will they release the adjustments made to that data. But you are not in the least skeptical of this - is not that lack of skepticism an agenda?

    As for Gore, his personal carbon footprint is massive, and his green corporations are positioned to profit hugely from the upcoming green legislation largesse; one of his corps has just scored a $500 million loan. "Asshole" has no definition; "profiteer" does.

  25. I'm not sure you have to justify yourself when calling someone an asshole, it is not a rational term. To quote my favorite philologist, the late George Carlin: "Have you ever noticed that anyone driving faster than you on the highway is a maniac and anyone driving slower in an asshole?"

    As far as "trying to make a difference for the right reasons", so are the Pope and Bush, and Hitler for that matter! We just don't agree on what is right (unless you are an objectivist, in which case you would know what right is).

  26. Global warming skeptics like Stan also like to portray the AGW view as the product of a particular individual (Al Gore) so acceptance of Anthropogenic Global Warming can be made to seem like an irrational form of devotion rather than the natural result of paying attention to findings in the natural sciences.

  27. Following Reuters report doesn't sound very irrational right fringe to me.

    Antarctic ice is growing, not melting away

    By Greg Roberts

    The Australian
    April 18, 2009 11:52am


    * Ice expanding in much of Antarctica
    * Eastern coast getting colder
    * Western section remains a concern


  28. It's also common for AGW-deniers to act as though the fact that Antarctica's ice sheets are expanding in some areas indicates that AGW isn't true, or that it even counts as evidence against it.

  29. Prof. Pigliucci,

    Regarding environmentalist issues, be careful that you don't fall into the "sacrifice trap." It's a form of resolving cognitive dissonance, from our drive to justify our actions.


  30. Seth points out a common trap in discourse, but there is a similar trap that points the opposite direction: supporting a mildly effective solution to a problem to avoid the burden of really taking serious action. An example here is the efficient car/bike dichotomy pointed out at Overcoming Bias: riding a bike is always going to be more energy-efficient than driving a car by a significant margin, and people who can afford to ride a bike instead of driving a car should do so. Should we frown upon those who act like they're really doing much to support the environment by buying a car with lower gas mileage? Perhaps not, but we shouldn't act as though they're doing one half as much for the environment as those who refrain from driving are.

  31. BTW, at the risk of being too blatant about self-promotion, I have a little suggestion for the AAI Convention:



  32. "whats the big panic about losing *one* species here or there then?"

    It's not one species here and there. We are wiping out all life on Earth. Every major taxonomic group with very few exceptions is in decline. Every habitat type or ecosystem except for deserts is in decline.

    As for global warming. We do have the data. It comes from a wide variety of sources that support the theory that human activity is changing the global climate.

  33. Also the fact that one species is wiping out the life support of the entire planet is decidedly NOT natural. This is something that has not happened before in the history of life on Earth. The idea that we natural and therefore our actions are somehow "natural" is a fallacy.

  34. "We are wiping out all life on Earth. Every major taxonomic group with very few exceptions is in decline. Every habitat type or ecosystem except for deserts is in decline."

    Sure about that? According to the fossil record, 90 % of varied species were wiped out before we supposedly arrived on earth. So does that invalidate the fossil record or your latter conclusion? Possibly both.

    Global warming is an excuse. An excuse to procure MORE of everything for each individual person. A few people may really believe that they care - but if they do and if they are saving the planet for future generations, why is there such an emphasis on getting rid of unborn children? They are NOT THE PROBLEM. The promotion of THE SELFISH in evolution is THE PROBLEM.

  35. Congratulations on writing the second-dumbest blog post I have ever read. The competition was fierce and drew from Daily Kos, World Net Daily, Democratic Undergound, Hot Air, and Prison Planet, but you came out on top. Your certificate should arrive in the next 5 to 7 business days.

  36. Caliana's comments are absurd. We'rre talking about rates of extinction here. It is a well known fact that well over 90% of all the species that have ever lived on Earth are extinct. (Probably over 98%)So What. The point is that right now the rate of extinction is very, very high, something like 100+ times the usual rate, (except for periods of massive extinction like the end of the Dinosaurs). The cause is overwhelmingly human activity. As for it being "natural". That only works if you define anything thats possible "natural", because if it can happen it is "natural". I which case a raging infection is natural even if it kills the patient. In this case the Earth has a raging infection of Homo sapiens sapiens, which is raging out of control in the same way an algae bloom devastes a pond. Any organism that is very successful risks destroying it habitat and then collapsing, and that is what is happening with humans.

    As for Caliana's hysteria about abortion. Well tell that to God, the greatest abortionist of all, who no doubt is responsible for the hundreds of millions of spontaneous abortions that occur each year. To say nothing of the fact that in the wild abortion and infanticide are pefectly "natural". For which God is of course also responsible. Humans have practiced population control for thousands of years. We have ussually always found ways to control our population. The good Christians of Medieval Europe found ways to restrict the number of pregnancies, and thus the number of children born. You are aware that in virtually no human society have women had the number of pregnancies that they were capable of. In the Middle Ages in Europe Women seems to have had on average between 4-5 pregnancies. Which with high Infant mortality meant that the population was just above replacement level.

    As for the emphasis on getting rid of unwanted children, read some family history. Even in the heart of Christian Europe, during the Middle ages, even in countries today that ban it, abortion is one of the most common medical procedures. Sorry but people have always been willing to adopt drastic solutions if they feel that they are going to be unable to cope. Each year the daughters of Fundementalist Christians who get pregnant have abortions, and go right back to picketting the local abortion clinic. I have little doubt that even if abortions were banned worldwide many millions of abortions would be done worldwide anyway, probably not much less than done today if not more.

    Part of the planning to ensure that there are future generations is to ensure that you don't wipeout your home and thereby ensure that they're are not future generations. Any creature with an once of intelligence would not continue to grow in numbers at a geometric rate that is simply suicidal. So concern for future genrations does require that we not grow at a accelerating, hysterical pace.

  37. devolve,

    I'm sorry, only second dumbest? I'm so sorely disappointed. I'll be looking for my certificate in the mail.

  38. It's always struck me that the Libertarians in the U.S. skeptical movement aren't skeptics in the true sense of the word, rather they are ideologues whose philosophy happens to be materialistic.

    If there were large groups of Marxists running around these days, I think you would find exactly the same phenomenon.

  39. P "To say nothing of the fact that in the wild abortion and infanticide are perfectly "natural". For which God is of course also responsible."

    So God does in fact exist? AND someone ought to be held responsible as well if any baby dies for any reason whatsoever?


    You just said that humans are all a lot of pond algae (IE scum) anyway. How can GOD be held responsible for limiting the growth of POND ALGAE? I mean!

    Of course you know that humans are NOT algae and God is not responsible for why some children die right before they are born. There are women who have miscarriages because there is something in their daily routine or in the set of hormonal tenancies they have been handed that makes having children less feasible. WHAT WOULD THE WORLD BE LIKE if no one ever did miscarry?

    Lets personalize it:
    Thankful that I have never miscarried. Matter of fact my very wonderful, 6'4 son is somewhere in the prof pic I have on at the moment, taken during his 4 month long trip across the US and Canada this summer. When your children do grow up to be who they are individually it just is incredibly hard to imagine that "I" could have had anything to do with deciding if he could have lived or not.
    Is that NOT the epitome of arrogance, to think we could have that kind of control and say over another life?

    NOW THAT really is absurd.

  40. "You just said that humans are all a lot of pond algae (IE scum) anyway." No Pascal didn't say humans are pond scum. What he did do is point out that uncontrolled growth of any organism leads to that organism destroying it's environment.

    "How can GOD be held responsible for limiting the growth of POND ALGAE?" The same way he/she/it could be held accountable for the anything. If a God exists and you believe that it created the world and life then it would be responsible for the environment which would include the limits of algal bloom growth. If not directly then at least in setting up the conditions for it.

    "with the fact that the fossil record shows millions of instances of species that don't form connecting/working food chains." Okay another ignorant creationist. Yes general food chains from fossil records can shown. However even if we weren't able to do so it wouldn't invalidate evolution.

    So what evidence do we have to food chains. We can get dietary details from jaws, size of specimen, scat samples and much much more. We can tell often from teeth and jaws whether one species of animal is carnivorous or a herbivore and thus say x animal may have eaten y animal. We can see from Foot tracks signs of behaviour. The Lark Quarry tracks in central Queensland Australia shows a Tyrannosauropus hunting the smaller Wintonopus and or Skartopus.

    While we will never be able to build fully fleshed out food chains, which can be difficult even with living common species, we can and do have a lot of evidence for food chains.

  41. In the first place, Penn & Teller have no brains of their own. They just exploit their proximity to the skeptical community to sell 'libertarian' ideas of their own. Libertarianism has nothing to do with science at all and it should not be viewed as such.

    It is good that P & T got a smell of their own shit finally.

    P & T give people atheism without science and atheism without ethics. People find it easy, so they follow them.