60 Minutes Meets South Park

Over Thanksgiving, had the chance to watch a few episodes of a Showtime program I didn’t know existed: Penn & Teller’s Bull—-.

No magic, just the two of them doing a sort of commentary/documentary on subjects like drinking water, alternative medicines, alien abductions, parents who go overboard trying to perfect their children, the dangers of second-hand smoke, etc. A quick intro, then they launch full-gale into debunking the hell out of the day’s topic. They’re both hard-core rationalists, and they miss no opportunity to make the most gullible consumers and believers look like absolute fools.

Example: Parents spend millions on the Baby Mozart series of CDs and tapes on the belief that listening to classical music will make babies smarter (confession: we own one of these discs). But there have been no less than 16 studies attempting to verify the claim, and the net result is that classical music has almost zero measurable effect on childhood intelligence. In fact, the study that originally asserted the claim was performed on adults and had nothing to do with babies whatsoever. Not to mention the fact that the effects in that study lasted only 15 minutes. They then interview the person who wrote the original paper on the subject — a classical music scholar — and not even he believes that classical music has any effect on childhood intelligence.

In another segment, they invite parents into a setting where they’re told that infants are confused by the fact that they wear diapers and bibs while their parents don’t; the parents all willingly put diapers and bibs over their street clothes and stand patiently as another adult “flies an airplane” of baby food into their mouths. At the end of several hours of humiliation, the parents say things like “I’d recommend this program to any new parent, it definitely helped me think outside the box.”

Case study: P&T find a family that installed a TV and VCR in their infants’ room in order to play a “learn to read early” video as the children played. The TV was installed when the kids were six months old, and the kids were now two and a half. Priceless footage of the guy who invented it showing the children slates of words that had been hammered into them for two full years. He points to the word “elephant” and the child says “truck,” and so on. The kids bat nearly zero in word recognition.

The key to “Bull—” for me is in how well P&T rebut the power of anecdotal evidence. Anyone can find research showing that magnetotherapy or chiropractics is scientifically unsupported. But you can also find seemingly reasonable people who “swear by” the healing power of this or that without even trying.

To make a point about gullibility, Penn and Teller go into malls with a man in a white lab coat to convince consumers to wear an utterly absurd helmet with four flex-arms dangling horseshoe magnets (which they’ve carefully demagnetized in advance). The consumers then walk around in the mall reporting on how they “definitely feel an opening of energy, a loosening of the pain,” etc.

The priest in the white lab coat holds almost religious authority in our culture; people will believe just about anything coming from anyone who speaks with conviction. Taking it to extremes, P&T use the same fake scientist to tell mall-goers that snail mucous contains restorative lipids. The consumers lay down on their backs as garden snails are attached to their faces, crawl over their lips and into their eye sockets. Later, faces covered in snail trails, the subjects tell the camera that their skin feels younger, more supple; that their crows’ feet have magically disappeared…

In the alien abductions piece, they buy a $15 “Anal Beads” vibrator from a sex shop, spraypaint it silver, and hand it to an attendee at a UFO convention, who proceeds to tell the camera how vastly superior this alien technology is to anything found on earth, and that the device is commonly inserted into the nostril of the abductee. These are very special TV moments, to be held and cherished.

Biggest complaints about Bull— : A) Penn swears too much, B) They insult their subjects, and C) Penn is strident and whiny. All of which have the effect of diminishing their own credibility and keeping their work from reaching a broader public. Still, fascinating to watch.

Music: Zero 7 :: Salt Water Sound

3 Replies to “60 Minutes Meets South Park”

  1. I am a big fan of this show (or any debunking show for that matter, ie “mythbusters”).

    I can understand your 3 complaints. I think that extreme skepticism naturally leads to cynacism. All three of you complaints are based in cynical behavior.

    More amazing to me is how little sticking power these shows have. You would think the examples of logic would lead people to use logic in other situations and environments but it never does.

  2. As for studies regarding the development of childhood intelligence, I recall that the only factor considered significant from human development studies is body/body contact.

    West African children, for example, develop language complexity at the same rate as European children, even though parents generally do not speak to their children the same way they do in Europe or here, i.e. encouraging speech. What is significant, however, is how much time an infant is held close to an adult’s body.

    As for therapeutic practices, Andrew Weil has observed, that instead of trying to rule out the placebo effect, scientists should be trying to figure out how to rule it in.

    New modalities in medicine usually have a high success rate at the beginning of their introduction, when there is a lot of unspoken optimism on the part of the physician. Later, after some failures, the success rate usually declines.

    Penn and Teller have merely shown that as humans we all generally want to believe in healing. That is not something to be ridiculed, I think, but rather something to be harnessed.

  3. As entertaining as P&T’s cable show is, it’s no substitute for a nice long subscription to the Skeptical Inquirer and a membership in CSICOP, whose work seems all the more important now that the faith-based presidency has been renewed for another 4-year, 24/7 run. http://www.csicop.org/

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