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Penn and Teller: Bullshit

By Dave Owen, September 2006

"Penn & Teller: Bullshit" (www.pennandteller.com/03/ontv.html ) is a television series which sets out to debunk one or more new topics each week. In the firing line have been everyone from psychics to recyclers.

The premise is excellent. It can only be a good thing when well-known celebrities attempt to test popular myths and expose those which do not stand up to scrutiny.

The main problem with "Bullshit" is that Penn and Teller seem to adopt the same attitude which so discredits their opponents. "We are completely right and everyone else is completely wrong" is an approach which just doesn't fit well for an investigative series. What's more, Penn and Teller are sometimes wrong. For example, in the episode about the Bible they incorrectly quoted at least one Bible passage — this is inexcusable in the context of the program.

Penn & Teller tend to be quite absolute in their condemnation of whatever it is they think is bullshit. When tackling recycling, they grudgingly admitted that aluminium cans could be economically recycled but that was their only concession. Their thesis was that "Recycling is bullshit". Whilst I agree that much of the recycling movement is flawed, I don't feel that Penn and Teller made a good case for dismissing the whole idea. In addition, this episode was very narrow in it's focus. Their main argument against recycling was that the economics are not valid. While this may be the case, there are many other reasons to encourage recycling which were not even mentioned. Just because recycling doesn't save as much money as some people have claimed, doesn't make the entire concept bullshit.

The show is certainly in-your-face and unapologetic. On one hand, calling your series "Bullshit" and being very black-and-white does have some appeal. I respect the passion these guys bring to the war against flakery. The show stands out in the TV listings far more than your average dry investigative series. It's a double-edged sword though. Penn & Teller claim to be on the side of rational science but by adopting the "bullshit" angle they give the appearance of being guilty of the gravest scientific sin: Lack of objectivity.

Penn & Teller will probably argue that they don't pretend to be neutral and have no desire to be so. Fair enough but I would argue that their credibility is damaged by their extremely one-sided manner.

Any comment on this series wouldn't be complete without mentioning the swearing. I don't have any real issue with the use of "foul language" and I can accept that it has a purpose in adding impact. Unfortunately Penn & Teller overuse this tool to the point where it has no impact at all, and in fact becomes a distraction. Saying the "F" word in every second sentence renders it impotent.

I would like to consider "Bullshit" to be a much-needed antidote to popular mythology but I can't quite find it in my heart to do so. I'm afraid this series needs to take a closer look at itself before claiming any sort of moral or scientific superiority.