Penn & Teller BullS***!: Learn What a Labyrinth Is Jillette!

As a skeptic, it’s hard not to like Penn & Teller’s Showtime show BullS***! But it’s also hard to avoid the fact that the show often skimps on the skepticism and science in favor of some seriously self-righteous ranting. The result is a product that’s hit-or-miss when it comes to factual matters and honest debate, but nearly always dead on when it comes to satire.

Their recent episode “Being Green,” in which they poke fun at some truly loopy enviro-hype, is a perfect example. There’s plenty of utterly ridiculous “carbon consciousness” cults and other such fluff out there, all well deserving of a critical eye and a derisive snort. But as is often the case, Penn mixes his bombastic, disdainful style with sloppy science and sometimes even just plain ignorance. He starts the episode, for instance, with the grossly misleading trope about how scientists were predicting an ice age only 30 years ago.

But it’s not the big controversial issues that best illustrate this problem: it’s the sometimes little things that he gets wrong that turn into blowhardery.

As far as I’m concerned, his real crime comes during his otherwise side-splitting coverage of an alt-med therapist who claims to treat the “eco-anxiety” experienced by some truly hapless goofs. After handing her patients “river rocks” and asking them to explain their feelings about their mother, Earth, she takes them on a spiritualized walk through a labyrinth with Jillette’s narration mocking her every step of the way.

But in the midst of it Jillette says something that’s just unforgiveable: (paraphrasing) “That’s not a labyrinth! A labyrinth has choices! This is just a boring walk to nowhere!”

Uh… no, technically it doesn’t. Didn’t the Muppets teach you anything, Mr. Jillette?

6 Responses to Penn & Teller BullS***!: Learn What a Labyrinth Is Jillette!

  1. the other adam says:

    Classical skepticism claims that we can’t know anything about anything, regardless of any evidence. I find a lot of people who call themselves skeptics are just as irrational and loopy and fixed in their opinions as the terminally credulous or solipsistic.

  2. Bad says:

    You’re thinking of universal skepticism. Skepticism as we mean it today means approaching all claims critically: demanding evidence, subjecting them to open debate and criticism from any angle one can think of, and so on. While you’re right that it’s perfectly possible to think of yourself as a skeptic and yet be dogmatic and credulous, the key is that skepticism is a methodology, not a particular view or conclusion.

    There are plenty of people who have no business calling themselves skeptics. And plenty of good skeptics that apply skepticism well a lot of the time, but fail to do so some of the time. But the method is what matters, not whether or not everyone can live up to it always.

  3. bitchspot says:

    Unfortunately, Bullshit has really turned into, in a lot of ways, a platform for Penn’s personal political and philosophical beliefs and not so much about blowing ridiculous claims out of the water. In a lot of episodes, he just makes claims that are unjustified and IMO unjustifiable simply to put his opinion across. Further, they always set up the side they disagree with in the most unfavorable light, I’m surprised anyone in their right mind would ever agree to be on the show considering how they treat people.

    I don’t know that I can say that Penn and Teller are skeptics, they’re just vastly opinionated people with a TV show that know how to stack the deck in their favor on screen.

  4. TobiFromBavaria says:

    He should have said maze instead of labyrinth, from what I see from a quick glinch at the Wikipedia article!? Ah come on, that’s not nitpicking, that’s picking crumbs!

  5. Bad says:

    Maybe, but the problem is that Penn made such a big deal out of it himself: he was the one insisting that the woman didn’t know what a labyrinth was and making fun of her for it. When you take on the roll of debunker, let alone the roll of a ridiculer to boot, the bar for how serious and problematic your own mistakes are gets a little higher, I think.

  6. Brutus says:

    I was initially excited by the show Bullsh**! But as the episodes and seasons stacked up, it seemed like Penn & Teller picked their targets a little too easily (there are some real wacky people out there) and became more interested in fulminating over misguided souls than exposing the truth behind the claims of charlatans. It’s hard to know who’s writing and crafting the show, considering how Penn’s blowhard style overwhelms everything. He seems to believe, as do most news opinion shows, that if you shout loud enough you can win an argument. Many of the things the show offers as fact I appreciate and am sympathetic to, but the entertainment value definitely suffers when Penn is on his soapbox and the targets of his bile are so clearly chosen and set up for failure.

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