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Skeptical - review of Penn & Teller

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  • eric krieg
    People, 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
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 6, 2003
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      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

      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
      magicians themselves.

      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


      The Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Science

      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
      that myth.

      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
      many scientists.

      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).

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