Magic, Consumer Advocacy
by Christine Corcos
The Penn and Teller Showtime series Bullshit! will be
back on the air in April of 2004, spreading the duo's own brand
of iconoclasm and debunkery once again. If you don't know them,
or haven't seen one of their performances, I can describe them
as serious, but not solemn, practitioners of the magical arts,
who cheerfully lead their audiences down the garden path and
then let them in on some of the secrets of the tricks they perform.
They know that people like to be thrilled, liked to be fooled,
and like to be mystified; that's the basis of their highly popular
and long-running Las
Vegas show . The Penn and Teller gimmick is that Penn Jillette,
tall, sturdily built and quite imposing, does all the talking.
The smaller, more fragile looking Teller (and he does have only
one name) says absolutely nothing, but his rubber face expresses
a range of emotions as Penn uses him for all sorts of bizarre
far, so good. But Penn and Teller have a couple of other missions,
and one of them is the education of the American public through
a Showtime series forthrightly named Bullshit. If you
are easily offended, do not watch this series. You will not think
it is amusing, or educational, or well-balanced (and you won't
think Penn and Teller are well-balanced, either). Don't visit
their website . Penn
and Teller require all the protections of the First Amendment
for their writing (bibliography appended below), for their performances,
and for their show.
Bullshit! is dedicated to the proposition that
we can all be taken in, at some time or other, by charlatans,
fakes, frauds, cheaters, scammers, and bamboozlers. Further,
it tries to investigate at what point we should, individually
or as a society, put an end to such goings-on and how we should
do so. Libertarians Penn and Teller are the last to suggest that
the government should limit our freedom to lose our shirts buying
into perpetual motion machines, magnet therapy, feng shui apartment
re-dos, and telephone calls to Miss Cleo. Their point instead
is that if we engage in some critical thinking about the claims
we hear, we'll be less likely to lose our shirts (maybe we'll
just lose the sleeves). For example, the premiere episode of
the 2003 season dealt with "Talking to the Dead", demonstrating
once again that even folks who truly believe that they are psychic
are probably deluding themselves. Episode 2 featured a look at
"Alternative Medicine", by which Penn and Teller mean
chiropractic as well as reflexology and magnet therapy. Whether
or not this stuff works, or relies on the placebo effect, or
on the mind-body connection to make you feel better (assuming
you do feel better), Penn and Teller suggest, you should at least
realize that the science behind many of these approaches may
not be rock-solid and some of the claims may be exaggerated.
The word on the street is that videos of the first season will
be available in early spring, 2004.
One of the cleverest episodes
was "Feng Shui/Bottled water", in which Penn and Teller
show the variability of outcomes of Feng Shui science, depending
on the practitioner. Three different Feng Shui designers came
up with wildly different room decoration schemes for the same
individual and each claimed to be applying some sort of scientific
principle. One highly recommended red for the living room to
be redecorated because it was good "chi", another was
violently against it because it would invoke bad vibrations.
The duo even got one designer on tape saying under his breath
after his own rearrangement of the furniture that "It still
looks like shit." The bottled water segment demonstrated
that not only is bottled water almost guaranteed to taste the
same as tap water, sometimes it is tap water. Why, ask Penn and
Teller, pay a dollar or more for a plastic container of H20 that
you already pay for through your taxes? And why are there numerous
EPA employees charged with monitoring ground water and no EPA
employees charged with monitoring bottled water? Because the
FDA is in charge of the quality of bottled water. But there's
only about one FDA employee in charge of monitoring bottled water.
For the whole US. The confusion is consistent and amusing, but
it poses some important questions about the nature and extent
of government regulation of products offered to the consumer.
Penn and Teller, who clearly know that the issue is complicated,
drop the issue at that point, and that point is where I see a
The problem that I have with
Penn and Teller's show is that the objections they raise to designer
water, séances, and a prohibition against second-hand
smoke may lead some of their converts to demand the intervention
of the law to deal with the problems. Many of the philosophical
issues they raise are issues that viewers will ask legislators
to deal with as well. To the extent that a legal solution is
advisable, Penn and Teller's presentations are too short to explore
the pros and cons. They are highly intelligent individuals and
clearly understand that answers to questions of fraud and/or
self-delusion are not easy, but their enthusiastic devotees may
not, and non-devotees who might otherwise be convinced that problems
exist may be put off by the simplistic arguments. To the extent
that the Penn-and-Teller positions are presented by attractive
and articulate folks on the one hand and the anti-Penn-and-Teller
positions by befuddled, money-hungry or deranged individuals
on the other, the game also seems rigged. But then, Penn and
Teller are magicians.
Disappointingly, some of the
better arguments consist of logic hidden under four letter words,
as if profanity were necessary in order to get the viewer's attention.
People who watch Penn and Teller's Bullshit are of two
types: the converted and the willing to be converted. Of these
two groups, the latter is likely to be put off by the profanity.
Of those in the former group, only a few are likely to enjoy
lewdness; the others either listen past it, or like me, tire
of it very quickly.
Perhaps I am expecting too
much of a half-hour show. The hosts can't present all the philosophical,
sociological and legal problems attendant on the regulation of
products that fall neatly in neither the food, nor drug, or supplement
category, for example. That is a regulatory mess that even lawyers
don't always understand. The best they can hope to do is to attract
attention to one of the most virulent intellectual plagues of
our time: the lack of critical thinking that permeates modern
U. S. society. What I would like to see is evolution: the evolution
of one or two of these presentations into a serious two hour
program on the reasons behind the First Amendment protections
of shows like Crossing Over With John Edward, for example.
While Penn and Teller effectively point out that fraudulent mediums
flourish on the nation's airwaves and that the legal system seems
incapable of dealing with them, they don't have the time to explain
the difficulties in regulating this kind of speech in a nation
with a First Amendment, nor can they fully explore the extent
to which victims of frauds and misinformation they discuss are
responsible for their own victimization. Penn and Teller could
deepen and sharpen the debate by extending it by inviting along
some thoughtful commentators and by giving them more airtime
than such folks currently get on talk shows and pseudo-investigative
programs. The issues Penn and Teller raise are important; with
magical assistance even lawyers and scientists could make them
fascinating as well.
I'll go on watching the show;
Penn and Teller's fresh approach to pseudoscience, fraud and
the general ridiculousness of the human condition entertains
me mightily, although the four letter words wear me out. Besides,
I'm partial to Teller.
David L. Faigman, Legal
Alchemy: The Use and Misuse of Science in the Law (NY: W.
H. Freeman, 1999).
Robert Park, Voodoo Science: The Road From Foolishness to
Fraud (NY: Oxford University Press, 2000).
Penn and Teller, Cruel Tricks for Dear Friends (NY: Villard
Penn and Teller, How to Play in Traffic (NY: Boulevard
Penn and Teller, How to Play With Your Food (NY: Villard
Posted December 18, 2003