Penn & Teller: Bullshit! is one of the more useful and honest shows that can be seen on US tv. The two magicians entertainingly set their sights on pseudoscience and dubious social movements characterized by intellectual dishonesty in their practitioner-evangelists and poorly developed critical thinking skills in their adherent-victims. A skillful crew gather the raw data, while Penn and Teller write their own award-winning expository material.

Penn and Teller are articulate spokesmen of the modern Skeptical movement which is most prominently represented by the Skeptical Inquirer and Skeptic magazines. As noded elsewhere, Penn and Teller exemplify the hard-headed libertarian atheistic point of view. They come by this in part because, as magicians, they lie every day to people, and they see, on the basis of their own practices, how others do it. But whereas Penn and Teller deceive without fraudulent intent ("we tell you we're lying"), all of the people they go after are in some way phonies who won't admit it. George Orwell would have approved.

And it's notably people they go after. To be sure, they do their best to expose false science and misleading political agendas as such, but (as always) human beings are the most interesting objects on display. To this end, they parade a large group of spokespeople for the "other side," giving them a surprisingly large amount of air time to expound their views. This is arguably because the methods of persuasion under attack (to quote Orwell) "appeal chiefly to unsatisfactory, or even inhuman types," and prolonged exposure to these spokespersons serves in itself as a powerful refutation of their ideas. A cynic would point out that not only do Penn and Teller exploit these people's visible inability to frame a coherent thought to cast doubt on their "ideas," but they also play some modest games with editing and occasionally use a slightly fisheye lens when filming some of them--the visual distortion suggests the distortion in their thought processes.

It is important to understand what Penn and Teller are not doing. When, for example, they look at second-hand smoke, they do not argue that smoke or smoking is good, or good for you; nor indeed, that second-hand smoke cannot hurt you. What they do attack are antismoking vigilantes who have not bothered to do their homework in mastering the antismoking medical literature and end up misrepresenting the facts in arguments to ban or limit smoking because they personally do not like the smell or effects of smoke.

Penn and Teller often admit the arguability of the issues under discussion, as, for example, when they stage an actual debate between a pro- and anti-12-stepper in the episode on AA. But their hackles are raised by dishonest or emotional appeals meant to short-circuit debate. Indeed, if you must use emotional appeals, that is almost a guarantee that you are either a disingenuous or incompetent spokesperson for your idea, or that your idea is just bad. Put another way, no end justifies the means of lying, either to yourself or to others. Once you lose the integrity of your own mind, what have you got left?

Penn and Teller's libertarian ethos is visible when they champion the right (for example) of smokers to retain limited, voluntary, smoke-friendly enclaves in (for example) New York City, or when they are perplexed by what they plausibly portray as a hijacking of the Green movement by people using it as a speciously attractive front for what might more honestly be called an anti-globalization, or anti-corporate movement. Note: Penn and Teller are not defending globalization or corporations (as they state openly), just attacking the dishonesty of hiding behind the emotionally attractive environmental movement.

The first episode is perhaps the best of the first season. In it, they attack the blatantly dishonest people who claim to be able to communicate with the dead, making a buck and coming off as humanitarians in the process. Penn and Teller arrange for an openly fake medium to channel the departed for an audience using well-known techniques such as cold reading, and then juxtapose that with a "real" medium who visibly does the same thing. They expose the editing techniques used by television shows featuring mediums which eliminate the inevitable long trains of bad guesses and present instead the small percentage of lucky "hits" to make it look like the medium really does zero in on the facts thanks to otherworldly help. In a particularly unappealing moment, one of the mediums examined places the onus for "misses" squarely on the backs of the grieving (they just aren't properly interpreting the medium's facts, poor fools). Another medium swinishly has her literary agent preload her audience with ringers whose personal stories she already knows--she then masquerades her simple rehearsal of facts already in the public domain as the supernatural channeling of unknown data.

Another fine episode begins season two: they take on PETA, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. While P&T explicitly deplore gratuitously inhumane treatment of animals, they insist on the bright line dividing animals and humans on the basis of things like human awareness of the future and the ability to rationally contemplate their situation. P&T get angry because the heavy-handed rhetoric and holier-than-thou stance adopted by PETA turns out to be a specious garb for an institution riven with hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy.

But they also have fun, because: after showing the extremist position adopted publicly by PETA officials (no human exploitation of animals for any reason, even as pets, guide dogs for the blind, or for medical experimentation); after reviewing PETA propaganda comparing all human use (even as pets, etc.) of animals as being the moral equivalent of the holocaust; after reviewing the PETA (and allied) propaganda condemning the humane society and public impound and adoption centers for (among other things) putting uncared-for animals to sleep; after finding pretty secure evidence that PETA directly and indirectly gives aid and comfort to terrorist/arsonists who attack animal testing labs; after revealing the incredibly self-serving (swinish?) tergiversations of a PETA official who selfishly extends her diabetic life with the insulin which we possess as a result of experimentation using dogs (while desiring to shut down the faucet for everyone else); after all of that, they discover, through a PETA tax disclosure form, that PETA itself maintains a large, walk-in freezer for animals they euthanize themselves for reasons no different than the public pounds and other entities they compare to concentration camps!

The third season has now given us the finest episode yet, attacking the less-rational Oliver-Stone sort of conspiracy theories. In a brilliant segment, they subject the "second shooter" theory of the Kennedy assassination to hard, cold, skeptical logic. They show (using the conspiracy theorists' own diagrams) how proponents of the second-shooter scenario visibly ignore the non-standard aspect of the seating arrangement in the motorcade limousine. This arrangement, with Connally significantly closer to the center of the car than Kennedy, explains how the "magic bullet" would not have had to make the gyrations claimed by conspiracy theorists while traveling from Kennedy's throat to Connelly's torso, arm, and wrist. Conspiracy theorists often claim that Oswald's Mannlicher-Carcano rifle was a Rube Goldberg apparatus which he could hardly have fired three times in just under 6 seconds. Penn (with no training whatsoever in shooting) demonstrates on film that he can fire and cock a Mannlicher-Carcano three times in a sniping position in about three-and-a-half seconds--Marine sharpshooter Oswald had, on a minimal (conspiracy-theorist) estimate, two seconds more to aim the second two shots (the first missed and hit a curb, you may recall). But then they brilliantly refute the Oliver Stone "back and to the left" argument (which took up so much cultural space even Seinfeld ridiculed it) for a second shooter behind the picket fence on the grassy knoll. Binding a honeydew mellon with an inch of fiberglass tape to represent Kennedy's skull (on the model proposed by Nobel-laureate physicist Luis Walter Alvarez), Teller puts a shot through it. Slow motion photography shows how the spray of goo exiting the mellon propels it back towards the shooter. Put another way, "back and to the left" means "shot from the Texas School Book Depository Building."

James Branch Cabell wrote a series of very funny fantasy stories in the earlier part of the 20th century. One of the watchwords of his hero was mundus vult decipi: "the world wishes to be deceived." It does, and it does so for many reasons which, if not testaments to the power of the human mind over the temptations of wishful thinking, are nevertheless not dishonorable or discreditable in themselves. Penn and Teller just hate those regrettable people who exploit this natural human inclination for a buck, adulation, or dishonest political purposes.

Episode Guide.

Season One.
Episode 1: Talking to the Dead.
Episode 2: Alternative Medicine. (Watching the chiropractor adjust an infant is disturbing.)
Episode 3: Alien Abductions. (Watch for "the probe"!)
Episode 4: End of the World. (Survivalism and Nostradamus.)
Episode 5: Second Hand Smoke/Baby Bullshit ("The Mozart effect" silliness, etc.)
Episode 6: Sex, Sex, Sex. (It sells! And penis enlargements and breast augmentation do not work except when they involve costly surgery by reputable practitioners--there's no magic pill.)
Episode 7: Feng Shui/Bottled Water (Whatever the merits of Feng Shui, its priciest practitioners are fakes; bottled water is often just tap water with a fancy label--bottled water is unregulated.)
Episode 8: Creationism.
Episode 9: Self-Helpless.
Episode 10: ESP (Russell Targ and SRI.)
Episode 11: Eat This! (Lose weight by exercizing and running a sensible calorie deficit. The rest is crap.)
Episode 12: Ouija Boards/Near Death Experiences.
Episode 13: Environmental Hysteria (emotions, not reason, drive many people in the green movement, including many astonishingly ill-informed spokespersons).

Season Two.
Episode 1: P.E.T.A. (Animals are special but they are not people.)
Episode 2: Safety Hysteria.
Episode 3: The Business of Love. (Three words: "winking and dripping".)
Episode 4: War on Drugs.
Episode 5: Recycling. (Inefficient as practiced but a societal fetish.)
Episode 6: The Bible. (Not to be taken literally.)
Episode 7: Yoga, Tantric Sex, Etc. (New age mentality.)
Episode 8: Fountain of Youth. (Cosmetic surgery pushers and junkies.)
Episode 9: Death, Inc. (An update on Jessica Mitford: undertakers exploit clients' grief to make big bucks.)
Episode 10: Profanity (misguided crusaders against profanity, etc.)
Episode 11: 12-stepping. (Recovery success rates appear unaffected for good or bad by 12-step programs.)
Episode 12: Exercise vs. Genetics. (In some areas of body development, genes are fate, contrary to slick advertising claims.)
Episode 13: Hypnosis.

Season Three.
Episode 1: Circumcision (Objective arguments for this cultural convention don't hold much weight.)
Episode 2: Family values (A skeptical look at arguments for mandatory one-man one-woman pair bonding.)
Episode 3: Conspiracy Theories (JFK, 9-11, shadow government, etc.)
Episode 4: Holier than thou (Mother Theresa was horrible. No, really, she was.)
Episode 5: College (It's not for everybody, though there's this thing in the USA that everyone has to go.)
Episode 6: Big Brother (Libertarian critique of the patriot act, surruptitious surveillance, etc.)
Episode 7: Hair (Why should women have to shave, or men get rugs? Intriguing video of men and women getting a Brazilian bikini wax.)
Episode 8: Gun Control (An armed society is a polite society.)
Episode 9: Ghostbusters (How do you get a credential as a ghostbuster?)
Episode 10: Endangered species (Legislation in place isn't helping much but gives the government a lot of power.)
Episode 11: Signs from Heaven (Remember that grilled cheese the idiots were worshipping? Easy targets.)
Episode 12: The Best (People have this thing about paying for the best, but can't really tell between the 'best' and 'mediocre'.)

Season Four.
Episode 1: The Boy Scouts (Their repressive sexual agenda is due to a Mormon takeover! Can you believe it?)
Episode 2: Prostitution (Legalization, if Nevada is anything to judge by, wouldn't hurt here.)
Episode 3: The Death Penalty (As a solution to crime, it's just so damn final.)
Episode 4: Cryptozoology (Not a profession for the smart or critically-thinking.)
Episode 5: Ground Zero (Makes fun of politicians ineptly but shamelessly making hay out of rebuilding on the WTC site.)
Episode 6: Pet Love (Not Penthouse but people confusing animals for objects in the human category.)
Episode 7: Reparations (Opportunistic grabs for money, but Japanese Nisei victims deserved it.)
Episode 8: Manners (Manners are conventional and it's fun to see people take them way too seriously.)
Episode 9: Numbers (Not the racket but dishonestly generated and presented statistics.)
Episode 10: Abstinence (Points out the cruelty and parochiality of those trying to enforce 100% abstinence.)

Season Five.
Episode 1: Obesity. (The simple equations many make between body mass index and health need rethinking.)
Episode 2: Wal-Mart. (With an unbelievable 'pot calling the kettle black' scene of thoughtless Wal-Mart critics.)
Episode 3: Breast Hysteria. (On the double standard of what men and women can legally expose.)
Episode 4: De-Toxing. (The colonic-irrigation segment is the funniest thing of the season.)
Episode 5: Exorcism. (Human well being sometimes gets lost in the big (pointless) battle 'tween Good and Evil.)
Episode 6: Immigration. (With a brilliant section on migrant workers building a mock 'border fence' then scaling it easily.)
Episode 7: Handicap Parking. (So what about all those 99% empty handicapped spaces?)
Episode 8: Mt. Rushmore. (An overdue debunking of this rube Valhalla.)
Episode 9: Nukes, Hybrids, and Lesbians. (Penn is greatly moved by the final scene.)
Episode 10: Anger Management. (The piano guy is really full of himself.)

Season Six.
Episode 1: War on porn. (It's not entirely the systematic degradation of women feminists portray.)
Episode 2: New Age Medicine. (With a hilarious 'how fake can we make it before people catch on' segment.)
Episode 3: NASA. (Less critical than normal, but still focusing on bureaucratic mental ossification.)
Episode 4: Dolphins. (They're not so nice after all, but the Sedona dolphin lovers segment literally provokes face-palming.)
Episode 5: Sleep, Inc. (Lifestyle gets in the way of a good night's rest so that even special mattresses do no good.)
Episode 6: Being Green. (Carbon credits aptly portrayed as a (lucrative) modern-day sale of indulgences.)
Episode 7: Sensitivity training. (Men in fake 'sensitivity training' put on bras over their suits to understand what it's like to be a woman . . . .)
Episode 8: Stranger Danger. (Effectively arguing that the societal fear vastly outweighs the real danger.)
Episode 9: World Peace. (See the YouTube video of P&T shooting the head off the dove of peace with gouts of blood.)
Episode 10: Good Ol' Days. (Excessive nostalgia makes you look stupid.)

The premium cable channel Showtime airs the broadcasts. The show's web site is at http://www.sho.com/site/ptbs/home.do. The first five seasons are available (with a smattering of bonus material) as DVD sets published by Showtime Entertainment.


9 August 2004. The Bullshit! website now announces that the show picked up 2004 Emmy nominations 1) for outstanding reality program and 2) for outstanding writing for nonfiction programming. Showtime has unsurprisingly renewed the show for a third season. In addition, the site announces that Bullshit! won the 2004 Writers' Guide Award for best comedy/variety series and that the second season was nominated for the same award.

21 August 2005. The Bullshit! website announces 2005 Emmy nominations for 1) outstanding reality program and 2) outstanding writing for nonfiction programming.

16 July 2006. The Bullshit! website announces 2006 Emmy nominations for 1) Outstanding reality program, 2) Outstanding picture editing for nonfiction programming, and 3) Outstanding writing for nonfiction programming.

So, is Penn & Teller: Bullshit! fun? Definitely.

Thought-provoking? Yes.

Honest? Not so much.

Whie the magician duo often make solid points, the simple fact is that they do indeed have an agenda of their own, and, well, they're not above bending the truth in their favor. Which isn't so bad when you're putting on a stage performance, but is when you're trying to argue a point.

Some of the more notable points:

    Then there's the simple fact that Penn and Teller control who is on the show, and that they can pick and choose who gets airtime - which is a good way to stack the deck rhetorically. It's not apparent in some of the episodes like the PETA episode (all you need to do to make Ingrid Newkirk look like an idiot is give her enough rope to hang herself), but in some of the others, like the gun control episodes, it's pretty clear that the opposition is, well, a tad thinner than it could be. (Seriously, they couldn't find any police chiefs to appear on the show?)
    And then there's the decision to have on the reparations episode a man by the name of HK Edgerton. A man who walks around the town of Asheville, North Carolina in a Confederate uniform. Oh, and he's black, and a former president of the local NAACP chapter. Sounds perfect for rebutting reparations, right?

    Of course, what the duo fail to mention is that the Asheville NAACP fell into decline under Edgerton, and that his departure was not amicable - he was booted after trying to push the NAACP chapter to work with a lawyer with ties to white supremacist groups. Somehow, disclosing that might have somewhat discredited Edgerton.

    And then there's the fact that some of these episodes are really nothing more than advanced exercises in intra-glass house stone tossing - they admit as much at the end of the "Pet Love" episode.

That's not to say that watching the show isn't worth the time - Penn and Teller do bring up good points, and they do deflate the egos of those that need it.

It's just that you need to remember that they too have an agenda, and in many cases, what Penn and Teller are pushing is, well...bullshit.

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