Picturing Justice, the On-Line Journal of Law and Popular Culture

Christine Corcos


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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.

Feature article

Magic, Consumer Advocacy and Law

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 experiments.

So 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 problem.

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 Books, 1989).
Penn and Teller, How to Play in Traffic (NY: Boulevard Books, 1997).
Penn and Teller, How to Play With Your Food (NY: Villard Books, 1992).
Quackwatch website

Posted December 18, 2003

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