252Skeptical - review of Penn & Teller
- Mar 6, 2003People,
sorry - this list has been rather slow the last number of weeks.
I went to the Randi "Amazing Meeting" in Florida last month - it was a
great time (and a nice break from the weather). I highly recommend
others joining me next year.
The following is a review of a show that is needed on TV (the skeptical
community is also over due for more high profile "cool" promoters of
Pulling The Wool Off Your Eyes
Penn & Teller Declare War On Magicians' Bull
March 2, 2003
By MARK OPPENHEIMER, SPECIAL TO THE COURANT
Scientific skeptics are a beleaguered crowd, a devoted guild of mostly
male obsessives who debunk claims of clairvoyance, spoon-bending
and other impossibilities and who work to protect scientific inquiry from
creationism and other irrational threats.
With their love of the cerebral and fantastic, they are drawn to chess,
Renaissance Faires, Ayn Rand and "Star Trek." Go to a skeptics'
convention, and you'll hear a lot of "Monty Python" lines recited from
Their nerdy mien is just one of the skeptics' disabilities; they are also
telling people things they don't want to hear. We want to believe
psychics can communicate with the dead; we want to believe that Reiki
healing works medical wonders. So while the occasional James Randi
or Carl Sagan can bring the message to a wider audience, skeptics
usually get shut out of television and the popular media. They don't
make good copy. They don't get ratings.
Skeptically, then, this must be considered a banner season. In
December, the New Yorker ran a thoughtful profile of Joe Nickell, the
country's leading debunker of paranormal claims, and a
brilliant "South Park" episode poked fun at TV psychic John Edward.
The Discovery Channel has begun a skeptical TV series. And now
comes "Penn & Teller: Bullshit!," a 13-part Showtime series that made
its debut Jan. 24, featuring magicians Penn & Teller debunking
everything from TV psychics to bottled water.
It will seem queer to many fans that Penn Jillette (the one who talks)
and Teller (who has dropped his first name, Joe) have finally gotten a
much-deserved TV series in which they perform not magic but the
opposite of magic, disproving magical claims. But really, it makes
perfect sense. Ever since Harry Houdini turned against spiritualists who
(according to legend) channeled his late, German-speaking mother's
messages in English, the art of debunking has been best practiced by
There is an obvious reason for this - magicians can spot other
magicians' tricks. But there are less obvious reasons, too. Magicians
are in the curious position of taking people's money by lying to them,
and as such, they have an awesome responsibility. Like preachers,
they have people's near-instant trust. The good ones, then, have a
special ire toward the bad ones, the fakers who use their powers not to
entertain but to dupe. The good ones see it as their mission to protect
the honor of their craft.
According to Teller, the silent partner, who grants interviews only to
print reporters, "When you're about 8 years old, you start to discover
that it's possible to deceive other people. Some kids learn it earlier,
some later. You start to disbelieve in the Easter Bunny. You realize
deception is enormous power, and virtually every kid at that point
becomes interested in magic, a way to explore deception without
doing harm. Most people finish with that question, drop magic, and
choose a life that is fundamentally a life of honesty."
But of those who choose a life of dishonesty, there are two paths:
honorable dishonesty, which entertains people without hurting them,
and dishonorable dishonesty, which ranges from confidence scams to
psychic readings to selling curative snake oils.
It's not immediately clear, however, what is so wrong with pretending
to talk with the dead. Doesn't that give people a sense of comfort,
help salve their wounds? By providing distraction from life's travails, is
it not analogous to other kinds of magician's entertainment?
No, says Teller. The "cold reading" techniques that "psychics" John
Edward and James Van Praagh use to help people communicate with
their dead loved ones are deeply hurtful: "To those of us who have
chosen the honest deception route, these people seem like the scum
of the earth. They take advantage of the most vulnerable, and they
use a poetic, lovely art form to hurt people. And it does hurt them. ...
If somebody comes into your field of vision and says your relative
didn't die, and for some extravagant sum of money I will sit in your
room and babble about what your relative is really telling me, that
medium is denying you your chance to heal, to move on with your life."
In that answer, we hear Marxian echoes. Teller is saying that magic,
like organized religion, can be an opiate, and that people are better
off toughing it out on their own. This materialist ideology is, of course,
what we ought to expect from Penn and Teller, both libertarians of the
atheist, Ayn Rand stripe. They valorize human, not godly, ingenuity.
We can understand, too, the crossover between the scientific skeptics
and the secular humanists, led by philosopher Paul Kurtz's Council for
Secular Humanism. Kurtz tries to protect people from irrationality by
fighting against religions, while Penn and Teller focus on charlatans
making quasi-religious claims.
That's why their Showtime series attacks not just television psychics
and the like but also purveyors of bottled water and therapeutic
magnets. The gullibility that allows people to believe the dead can still
communicate is the gullibility that allows people to believe that
magnets, properly affixed to the body, can heal arthritis. In each
case, physical laws are being ignored because an authority figure,
someone with charm and a knowing air, makes an appealing case for
the paranormal, the metaphysical. Homeopaths, psychics and
magicians are similarly skillful at diverting people's attention from
what is physically possible.
The trick for skeptics, then, is to divert people back to reality. James
Randi has, for more than 30 years, performed a kind of anti-magic
show, inviting those who make paranormal claims to submit to his
tests. You say you can find water with a divining rod? Randi will hide
water underground and invite you, under scientific controls, to find it.
And if you succeed, you win the $1 million Paranormal Challenge,
Randi's ingenious publicity stunt (which he has never had to pay out).
Penn and Teller may be the most entertaining skeptics of all. For
years, Teller told me, they have been convinced that they could make
skepticism work on TV. Now that Showtime has bit, they are milking
the opportunity for all potential laughs. In their magnet episode, they
have one poor woman walking around a mall wearing "magno-mitts,"
regular oven mitts covered with magnets. She returns from her walk
raving about how much energy she feels, only to be told that
the "magnets" are, in fact, de-magnetized. In an episode about the
false health claims for bottled water, Penn and Teller send an actor
into a tony L.A. restaurant to portray Tim, a "water steward," who
counsels diners on which gourmet waters will go best with their meals.
The diners delight in how wonderful the waters are, and how they will
never drink ordinary tap water again. The joke, of course, is that all
the waters Tim brings out are ordinary tap water.
You saw that punch-line coming? The skeptics' magic is working
The following is a great summary by Bob Park (author of Voodoo
From the issue dated January 31, 2003
POINT OF VIEW
The Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Science
By ROBERT L. PARK
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is investing close
to a million dollars in an obscure Russian scientist's antigravity
machine, although it has failed every test and would violate the most
fundamental laws of nature. The Patent and Trademark Office recently
issued Patent 6,362,718 for a physically impossible motionless
electromagnetic generator, which is supposed to snatch free energy
from a vacuum. And major power companies have sunk tens of
millions of dollars into a scheme to produce energy by putting
hydrogen atoms into a state below their ground state, a feat
equivalent to mounting an expedition to explore the region south of
the South Pole.
There is, alas, no scientific claim so preposterous that a scientist
cannot be found to vouch for it. And many such claims end up in a
court of law after they have cost some gullible person or corporation a
lot of money. How are juries to evaluate them?
Before 1993, court cases that hinged on the validity of scientific claims
were usually decided simply by which expert witness the jury found
more credible. Expert testimony often consisted of tortured theoretical
speculation with little or no supporting evidence. Jurors were
bamboozled by technical gibberish they could not hope to follow,
delivered by experts whose credentials they could not evaluate.
In 1993, however, with the Supreme Court's landmark decision in
Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc. the situation began to
change. The case involved Bendectin, the only morning-sickness
medication ever approved by the Food and Drug Administration. It had
been used by millions of women, and more than 30 published studies
had found no evidence that it caused birth defects. Yet eight so-called
experts were willing to testify, in exchange for a fee from the Daubert
family, that Bendectin might indeed cause birth defects.
In ruling that such testimony was not credible because of lack of
supporting evidence, the court instructed federal judges to serve
as "gatekeepers," screening juries from testimony based on scientific
nonsense. Recognizing that judges are not scientists, the court invited
judges to experiment with ways to fulfill their gatekeeper responsibility.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer encouraged trial judges to appoint
independent experts to help them. He noted that courts can turn to
scientific organizations, like the National Academy of Sciences and the
American Association for the Advancement of Science, to identify
neutral experts who could preview questionable scientific testimony
and advise a judge on whether a jury should be exposed to it. Judges
are still concerned about meeting their responsibilities under the
Daubert decision, and a group of them asked me how to recognize
questionable scientific claims. What are the warning signs?
I have identified seven indicators that a scientific claim lies well
outside the bounds of rational scientific discourse. Of course, they are
only warning signs -- even a claim with several of the signs could be
1. The discoverer pitches the claim directly to the media. The integrity
of science rests on the willingness of scientists to expose new ideas
and findings to the scrutiny of other scientists. Thus, scientists expect
their colleagues to reveal new findings to them initially. An attempt to
bypass peer review by taking a new result directly to the media, and
thence to the public, suggests that the work is unlikely to stand up to
close examination by other scientists.
One notorious example is the claim made in 1989 by two chemists
from the University of Utah, B. Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann,
that they had discovered cold fusion -- a way to produce nuclear fusion
without expensive equipment. Scientists did not learn of the claim
until they read reports of a news conference. Moreover, the
announcement dealt largely with the economic potential of the
discovery and was devoid of the sort of details that might have
enabled other scientists to judge the strength of the claim or to repeat
the experiment. (Ian Wilmut's announcement that he had successfully
cloned a sheep was just as public as Pons and Fleischmann's claim,
but in the case of cloning, abundant scientific details allowed scientists
to judge the work's validity.)
Some scientific claims avoid even the scrutiny of reporters by
appearing in paid commercial advertisements. A health-food company
marketed a dietary supplement called Vitamin O in full-page
newspaper ads. Vitamin O turned out to be ordinary saltwater.
2. The discoverer says that a powerful establishment is trying to
suppress his or her work. The idea is that the establishment will
presumably stop at nothing to suppress discoveries that might shift
the balance of wealth and power in society. Often, the discoverer
describes mainstream science as part of a larger conspiracy that
includes industry and government. Claims that the oil companies are
frustrating the invention of an automobile that runs on water, for
instance, are a sure sign that the idea of such a car is baloney. In the
case of cold fusion, Pons and Fleischmann blamed their cold reception
on physicists who were protecting their own research in hot fusion.
3. The scientific effect involved is always at the very limit of detection.
Alas, there is never a clear photograph of a flying saucer, or the Loch
Ness monster. All scientific measurements must contend with some
level of background noise or statistical fluctuation. But if the signal-to-
noise ratio cannot be improved, even in principle, the effect is
probably not real and the work is not science.
Thousands of published papers in para-psychology, for example,
claim to report verified instances of telepathy, psychokinesis, or
precognition. But those effects show up only in tortured analyses of
statistics. The researchers can find no way to boost the signal, which
suggests that it isn't really there.
4. Evidence for a discovery is anecdotal. If modern science has
learned anything in the past century, it is to distrust anecdotal
evidence. Because anecdotes have a very strong emotional impact,
they serve to keep superstitious beliefs alive in an age of science. The
most important discovery of modern medicine is not vaccines or
antibiotics, it is the randomized double-blind test, by means of which
we know what works and what doesn't. Contrary to the saying, "data"
is not the plural of "anecdote."
5. The discoverer says a belief is credible because it has endured for
centuries. There is a persistent myth that hundreds or even thousands
of years ago, long before anyone knew that blood circulates
throughout the body, or that germs cause disease, our ancestors
possessed miraculous remedies that modern science cannot
understand. Much of what is termed "alternative medicine" is part of
Ancient folk wisdom, rediscovered or repackaged, is unlikely to match
the output of modern scientific laboratories.
6. The discoverer has worked in isolation. The image of a lone genius
who struggles in secrecy in an attic laboratory and ends up making a
revolutionary breakthrough is a staple of Hollywood's science-fiction
films, but it is hard to find examples in real life. Scientific
breakthroughs nowadays are almost always syntheses of the work of
7. The discoverer must propose new laws of nature to explain an
observation. A new law of nature, invoked to explain some
extraordinary result, must not conflict with what is already known. If we
must change existing laws of nature or propose new laws to account
for an observation, it is almost certainly wrong.
I began this list of warning signs to help federal judges detect
scientific nonsense. But as I finished the list, I realized that in our
increasingly technological society, spotting voodoo science is a skill
that every citizen should develop.
Robert L. Park is a professor of physics at the University of Maryland
at College Park and the director of public information for the American
Physical Society. He is the author of Voodoo Science: The Road From
Foolishness to Fraud (Oxford University Press, 2002).