Penn & Teller, the famous magical duo-turned-Amazing Randi-esque debunkers, have an ambitious new show airing on Showtime. Penn & Teller: Bullshit! is an excellently conceived program targeted at skewering various forms of anti-intellectual pseudoscience, exposing money-hungry conmen and the ignorant beliefs they feed on.
The first episode, focusing on John Edward, James Van Praagh, and their ilk, who profess to be able to talk to the dead, was excellent. They dummied up their own cold-reading psychic, and had him stage a demonstration reading. At the end, he had the audience (who, like most people, are already more than halfway ready to believe) eating out of the palm of his hand. When he dropped the bomb that it was all a load of hooey, the audience applauded, but was visibly disappointed.
The second episode, I’m sorry to report, was not nearly as good. Penn & Teller bit off way more than they could effectively deal with in a 30 minute show dealing with “alternative medicine.” Yes, everything they covered was in fact bullshit. Reflexology is bullshit. Magnet therapy is bullshit. New Age chiropractic medicine is bullshit (even if the actual practice has been shown to have some benefits…just not for the bullshit reasons they give for it. Same thing with reflexology, actually. I’m sure a nice foot massage would indeed make me feel better, but not because of some malarkey about meridians.)
But what I saw in the show seemed to be this:
1) Show a couple of whack-job quack “doctors.”
2) Show a couple of gullible fools.
3) Show Penn self-righteously abuse 1) and 2).
I want to see detail. History. Science. The evidence for WHY this stuff is bullshit is certainly there. Why not use more of it? The only thing remotely explanatory in the whole show was the scientist saying “we just aren’t made of magnetic stuff,” and another guy saying “reflexology meridians just aren’t there.”
C’mon. Surely they can do better than that.
There’s just too much “alternative medicine” quackery to cover adequately in just one show. Perhaps they should have split it up into two or even three episodes.
See, I know that skeptics are already convinced. By and large, we’ve seen the evidence that it’s all bullshit. And I know that hardcore believers will never be convinced that it doesn’t work. So there you have the two extremes.
Somewhere in the middle, though, are the Undecided Masses…those people who might be persuaded to turn their noses up at this chicanery – but only if they can be reasoned with. Only if they can be shown the evidence. Only if they can be educated.
I have to give episode 2 a C- at best. It was long on the preachiness, long on the abuse, long on the “preaching to the choir” factor, and very, very short on actual analysis.
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