Articles

An open letter to Penn & Teller about their appearance on The Dr. Oz Show

An open letter to Penn & Teller about their appearance on <em>The Dr. Oz Show</em>
OzPT

 

Dear Penn & Teller,

I really don’t want to say this, but I feel obligated to. I’m afraid you screwed up. Big time. (Of course, if this weren’t a generally family-friendly blog, where we rarely go beyond PG-13 language, I’d use a term more like one that Penn would use to describe a massive fail, which, as you might guess, also starts with the letter “f”; I think he’d appreciate that.)

I’m referring, of course, to your appearance on The Dr. Oz Show one week ago (video: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4). Before I begin the criticism, let me just take care of the obligatory but honest statement that I am a fan. I’ve been a fan for a long time. Indeed, I remember seeing you guys perform in Chicago back in the late 1990s when I was doing my fellowship at the University of Chicago. I’ve also seen you in Las Vegas a couple of times, most recently a couple of years ago (see pictures below) at TAM. The two of you have become skeptical icons, through your association with James Randi and over the last several years through your Showtime series Bullshit!, which is advertised with the tagline, “Sacred cows get slaughtered here.” And so they did for the eight seasons Bullshit! was on TV. When you guys were on, it was a thing of beauty to behold, both from the standpoint of entertainment and skepticism.

 

Gorski with Penn
Dr. Gorski at the TAM 7 Penn & Teller Show in 2009.

 

Dave at Penn's party 2011 at TAM
Dr. Gorski at Penn Jillette’s Private Rock & Roll Bacon & Donut Party at TAM in 2011 preparing to do great harm to his coronary arteries. He hated it so much that he went again during TAM 2012.

 

That’s not to say that you’ve always gotten it right. In fact, sometimes you’ve gotten it spectacularly wrong, such as when you “debunked” the health hazards of secondhand smoke and were ultimately forced to admit your error in a sort of “notpology” in which you retreated to the excuse that you were dealing with the evidence as it existed at the time of the taping of that show. I can’t help but note that that excuse doesn’t help you, because the evidence indicating that secondhand smoke is harmful to health was overwhelming at the time you were taping your show; even using your excuse, you were still wrong. At least you did ultimately more or less admit that you were “probably wrong.” Less forgivable is your anthropogenic global warming denialism, to which you dedicated an entire episode of your show, complete with numerous shopworn anti-AGW denialist tropes, including the spectacularly easily refuted myth that scientists were predicting an ice age. To my knowledge, you have never admitted you were wrong about that. A few years ago I recall seeing a video of Penn from TAM 6 saying that global warming is probably happening but, when it comes to the question of whether human activity is causing it, he retreated to the rather obvious dodge of, “I don’t know!” Then, during a panel in TAM 7 (the first time I ever went to TAM), I remember Penn again saying “I JUST DON’T KNOW!” (Capital letters intentional, as I remember Penn practically yelling at the audience.) That was the closest I’ve seen either of you come to admitting error on the science, but I have seen you use another common AGW denialist technique of substituting insults directed against Al Gore for real argument.

Aside from these skeptical missteps, more often than not you do get it right. For instance, you’ve taken on a whole host of skeptical topics and done great work on topics as diverse as ESP, PETA, cryptozoology, detoxing, and the like. Indeed, there is some really great science-based stuff in your episode on “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), such as reflexology, magnet therapy, chiropractic, and others. For instance, you guys were nothing less than spot-on great when you decided to deconstruct the antivaccine movement a couple of years ago. You started that episode off with one of the best visual aids to explain herd immunity and the efficacy of vaccines I’ve ever seen, and I applauded you for it. (In the interests of full disclosure, I must point out that one of your producers did interview me, as well as a few people I know, as part of the background for that episode, although I had nothing to do with that brilliant introduction.) In general, you’ve been very good when it comes to quackery and various CAM therapies. (But I repeat myself.) That’s why it puzzles me to no end why you would lend your considerable talents to Dr. Oz, who has had credulous episodes on all manner of rank quackery and even worse.

What sort of quackery am I talking about? Well, did you know that a few short episodes before the one in which you appear, Dr. Oz did a long segment that praised homeopathy, bragging that his family has been using it for generations? Here’s a direct quote:

Despite long-standing skepticism by the medical community because of lack of evidence more and more people, even some of your own doctors, are intrigued by the effectiveness claims of homeopathic remedies on their patients. Could homeopathy be the gentlest and best medicine for you and your family?

What would you call a question like that? I think I know.

In that episode, Oz featured a naturopath named Lisa Samet, who according to him has been practicing homeopathy for 20 years, who told Oz that her practice is made up mainly of people who are “fed up with conventional medicines,” such as antibiotics and the like, that “manage symptoms but don’t treat the real cause.” Like homeopathy does! Think about it. After all, the central premise of homeopathy is “like cures like.” Dr. Oz even admits that. The “like” in this principle refers to symptoms. That’s right. Homeopathy is designed to treat the symptoms, not the cause! Yet you will hear homeopaths and naturopaths pontificate endlessly about how “Western medicine” supposedly doesn’t treat the cause. This naturopath does that and more, claiming that homeopathy is “holistic,” treats the “whole person,” and that it treats the root causes of disease. It was utter nonsense, of course, but it was utter nonsense given the imprimatur of Dr. Oz himself. There’s even a video of Samet repeating the same quackery, going on about how homeopathy is natural, “treats the cause of disease and not the symptoms,” and talking about how succussion (shaking) “liberates the forces” in the remedy that heal. She even spews the “nanoparticle” pseudoscience that homeopathy quacks have been pushing lately, to the alternating fury and mockery of chemists everywhere. Oz even had Samet put together a “homeopathic starter kit” for his audience, in which she recommended homeopathic belladonna for fever. Why? Because belladonna, undiluted, will make you feel sick and feverish. Not only that, but she recommends a 200C dilution. Remember, each “C” dilution is a 1:100 dilution. Thus, a 200C dilution represents two hundred 1:100 dilutions or 1:(102)200 or 1:10400. Given that the number of atoms in the known universe is thought to be between 1078 and 1082, as you know, this is a truly ridiculous level of dilution.

It is, as you would say, Bullshit!

But that’s not all. It’s bad enough that Oz routinely features all manner of quacks on his show. He also loves the dubious weight loss products, even at one point skirting the edge of medical ethics with a dodgy “clinical trial” of green coffee bean supplements. Oz also features worse. For instance, he’s featured quacks such as:

  • A faith healer named Dr. Issam Nemeh, who is an anesthesiologist from the Cleveland area who for some reason decided that he’d rather be a faith healer.
  • Joseph Mercola, who runs one of the largest “alternative health” websites on the Internet and promotes every nutty idea from antivaccinationism to cancer quackery such as a guy named Tullio Simoncini who thinks that all cancer is really a fungus—because it’s white, I kid you not—and that the treatment for all cancer is to inject baking soda into it and a woman named Hulda Clark, who, before she died of cancer, thought that all cancer was caused by a liver fluke and promoted a “Zapper” (which looked like a Scientology E-meter) as the treatment for all cancer.
  • Psychic mediums such as John Edward and “Long Island Medium” Theresa Caputo. In the case of the psychic mediums, Oz gave them free rein to do their cold reading schtick on his show as a means of “healing” anxiety and other conditions.

This is in marked contrast to the very first episode of your series, Talking to the Dead. Seriously, I urge you to watch John Edward’s appearance on Dr. Oz’s show (here) and Theresa Caputo’s appearances (here and here). With your knowledge of how cold reading works, I’m sure you will be as outraged as I was that Dr. Oz would feature such psychic scammers on his show, much less how he would use selective editing to make it seem as though a real psychologist sees value in using someone like Edward as if he were a useful therapist or that he would discuss the question, “Could your anxiety be a psychic gift?” with Caputo.

I think I know what you would call that question, too.

All of this brings us to your appearance on Dr. Oz’s show. I can’t for the life of me figure out what you thought to gain from it other than exposure to Dr. Oz’s audience of millions. Certainly it didn’t do anything for your reputation, nor did it in any way promote your professed mission. Worse, what bothered me about the show almost as much as two skeptical icons lending their names to a daytime swamp of nonsense was that the segment was just so pointless and the “myths” debunked by Oz so completely banal (that is, if they are even “myths” at all). If you swallow bubblegum, does it take seven years to digest? Seriously? Does anyone actually believe this “myth” anymore? Did anyone ever really believe it? I didn’t even believe it when I was a kid back in the 1970s! Oz’s producers and writers really scraped the bottom of the barrel with that one. Moreover, I can’t for the life of me figure out how the magic trick Teller did (the old trick of swallowing needles and thread and regurgitating the thread with the needles threaded on it), as entertaining and cleverly performed as it was, had anything to do with “debunking” this myth. The advertising in the run-up to the show billed this as a show that debunks myths that “even your doctor believes.” I’d like to find the doctor who actually believes this one.

Next up was the question, “Does the ‘G-spot’ exist?” Again, as entertaining as the three cup/three ball trick used to “debunk” this “myth” was, I fail to see how it had anything to do with this particular “myth,” which Oz ultimately concluded not to be a myth at all. Never mind that it’s at best far from certain that the G-spot exists as a distinct anatomic entity. Indeed, the latest study I saw on it was based on the dissection of the cadaver of an 83-year-old woman, and there wasn’t even any histological analysis! Even worse was Oz’s use of a spot on the hard palate that, or so he says, is the analog of the G-spot in the mouth, a moment that led Penn to say in a most cringe-inducing fashion, “I love you, Dr. Oz.”

Finally, there was the segment in which Oz recommended learning juggling to keep your brain “young.” While it’s true that keeping one’s mind active can probably help delay the onset of age-related cognitive and memory decline and it’s also true that remaining physically active helps keep both the body and mind in good shape, Dr. Oz, true to form, cherry picked a single study from three years ago that showed that learning juggling appeared to increase grey matter in specific areas and generalized it to claim that you can basically keep your brain young forever. Would that it were true!

Look, I get it. I get how one’s political views can lead one to fall prey to rejecting certain conclusions of science, as you have at times in the past with AGW science and the question of whether secondhand smoke is a health hazard. I understand, and can forgive and forget if the error is admitted and corrected. What I have a harder time understanding is appearing on the show of someone like Dr. Oz, who promotes everything you guys purport to oppose, promoting chiropractic, psychic mediums, faith healing, and, yes, The One Quackery To Rule Them All, homeopathy (the last of these appearing less than a week before you did). Yes, I realize that you two are entertainers and comedians, but even so, surely you can’t be unaware of how Dr. Oz promotes the most ridiculous quackery, “integrating” it with real medicine to the point that it’s sometimes hard for any but a hardened promoter of SBM to tell the where the quackery begins and the real medicine ends. (I would point out, however, this is not the case for homeopathy, psychics, or faith healing, where it’s all quackery.) Indeed, a mere week or two before your appearance, Michael Specter published an excellent article in The New Yorker discussing Dr. Oz’s rather fast and loose relationship with science, in which Oz was quoted as saying:

“Medicine is a very religious experience,” he said. “I have my religion and you have yours. It becomes difficult for us to agree on what we think works, since so much of it is in the eye of the beholder. Data is rarely clean.” All facts come with a point of view. But his spin on it—that one can simply choose those which make sense, rather than data that happen to be true—was chilling. “You find the arguments that support your data,” he said, “and it’s my fact versus your fact.”

Steve Novella called this the Oz Manifesto. My alter-ego called it going back to when religion and medicine were one. Whatever you call it, it was clearly a postmodernist assault on the very scientific basis of medicine.

Speaking of Dr. Novella, what you did is not at all like what our fearless leader Steve Novella did a couple of years ago when Dr. Oz, apparently feeling the pressure, decided to take on his critics. Steve acquitted himself rather well, certainly as well as any skeptic could be expected to in such a hostile environment. You, unfortunately, did not, and I can’t see any useful educational purpose served by your having appeared with Dr. Oz and placed your lips metaphorically firmly on his posterior.

We all make mistakes. You’ve made them. I’ve made them. We all make them. The key to recovering is to admit them, correct them, apologize for them if an apology is warranted, and move on. You’ve done it before and had even promised to finish Bullshit! with an episode entitled The Bullshit of Bullshit! in which you pointed out where you had gotten it wrong. Alas, your show ended before you could do this episode.

In that spirit, as disappointed as I am, I still hope that you realize your mistake of not just appearing on Dr. Oz’s show when everything Oz stands for is counter to what you stand for, but actively serving his message, admit that mistake publicly, and move on. I don’t know what you were thinking when you agreed to be on The Dr. Oz Show, but I do know that it was a huge disappointment that did not serve skepticism or science-based medicine. If you don’t believe me, talk to your friend and mentor Randi. Ask him to watch your segment and read this letter, which contains copious links to examples of what I’m talking about with regards to Dr. Oz’s support of quackery. Have him watch the links to videos of Oz promoting quackery, psychics, and faith healing. I suspect he’ll probably agree with me.

As much as it pains me to write this, you two screwed up. It’s time to own up to it.

Sincerely,

David H. Gorski, MD, PhD, FACS
Managing Editor
Science-Based Medicine

Posted in: Faith Healing & Spirituality, Homeopathy, Public Health, Science and the Media

Leave a Comment (89) ↓

89 thoughts on “An open letter to Penn & Teller about their appearance on The Dr. Oz Show

  1. Marc Stephens Is Insane says:

    Not to mention that Oz had a “medical intuitive” named Tony LeRoy on the show just a few days before P & T. He “diagnoses” illness that regular doctors have had trouble finding by “visualizing” the affected organs. Oz ran a contest awarding viewers “readings” with this guy.

  2. David Gorski says:

    Oy. I missed that one. There’s just so much nonsense on The Dr. Oz Show I can’t keep up with it all.

  3. Krebiozen says:

    Dr. G.,

    a woman named Hulda Clark, who, before she died of cancer, thought that all cancer was caused by a liver fluke and promoted as “Zapper” (which looked like a Scientology E-meter) as the treatment for all cancer.

    Hulda Clark promoted two wacky gadgets, one a supposed diagnostic tool called a synchronometer, which is a kind of radionics device that does look a bit like a Scientology e-meter, and the other a gadget for treating illness which she called a zapper. The zapper simply passes a small alternating current through the body, allegedly killing parasites etc.. Since neither of them could possibly do what she claimed it is of no real importance, but as an aficionado of crank gadgetry I thought it perhaps worth pointing out, for the sake of accuracy.

  4. idoubtit says:

    Dr. Gorski: I applaud your integrity. I’ve seen Penn screw up many times and not many people will call him out because he’s their “celebrity” friend and don’t want to get on his bad side. This was a fair critique. We all should own up to our missteps.

  5. Janet says:

    I’m glad right now that I never gave much credence to Penn and Teller and always thought them as much the purveyors of bullshit as those they exposed. I think you are naive to think that they have any real interest in education. Their appearance on Oz’s show is simply exposure–a career/publicity move. They are “entertainers”, nothing more and their politics seem to take precedence over skepticism.

    Randi has the magic thing in common with them, but I would hope that he would disavow them, or at least their appearance on Oz. If not, it would be kind of like Dawkins looking the other way about Bill Maher’s woo-ish inclinations when he got that award from the Dawkins Foundation.

  6. ConspicuousCarl says:

    This was one of their worst performances. They went on the show of a bullshit artist, and:

    1. They didn’t argue against his bullshit.
    2. They contributed to his bullshit with their segment.
    3. Artistically, it was terrible because some of the integration of their tricks with the message made little/no sense. Yes ladies, your vagina is like a ball of aluminum. I was going to write a list of gross reasons why, but I’ll leave it at “much cheaper after WWII”.

    The only part I liked was right after the saw trick when Oz asks a stupid question.

    But maybe you should actually send your “letter” directly to Penn in case he is one of the people who think “open letter” sounds a lot like “crackpot” and tend to avoid reading them.

    1. David Gorski says:

      Actually, the open letter was sent to Penn’s PR person.

  7. skeptoidlistener says:

    As others have said, more and more skeptics are questioning the reasons behind associating with popular figures and events and if it’s good for skepticism, which is a good development. The Skepchicks recently asked if supporting Dragon*Con skeptrack was a good move, for example.

    Penn and Teller disappoint me with their Dr Oz appearance and I am similarly disappointed that George Hrab has allowed his podcast to be shown on the network of No Agenda’s Adam Curry, who supports anti-vaccination conspiracies, as recently as 2012 —

    http://380.readnoagenda.com/

    “Adam Curry: So anyway, there’s all kinds of interesting documents floating around and there’s uh, I got a set this up. This is, of course, about the Leroy Fifteen. Which, interestingly enough, has expanded to almost twenty. And, um, these are the girls, for those of you new to the program, who all of a sudden develops ticks uh, Tourettes Syndrome-like ticks, and I’m kind of an expert in that because I have that. Although I don’t have that much of the yelling dirty words in public thing, but I have all the rest..
    And, I’m quite convinced it’s, because it’s girls, because they’re in school, because they’re of the perfect age. And because, I’ve been following this Gardisil HPV vaccination for such a long time, I am absolutely convinced that this is an adverse affect to Gardisil… And the media, who of course, are whores of the pharmaceutical industry. If you just watch television and just pay attention to commercials, it’s all pharmaceutical ads. Almost everything is related. Every other break you’re gonna have, maybe every break, you’re gonna have an pharmaceutical advertisement.
    So, they have to cover this up. And the media is complicit in this and now I can start to prove this. But, the first thing that they are doing is they are trying to discredit anything that points towards Gardisil and what’s interesting is that, in the document I am about to share with you, they have not tested any other vaccination. Where I think that it is very fair to say, maybe we should check for Swine Flu, or the flu vaccine, because it seems those are being handed out for free like candy everywhere. They didn’t even test that so it’s kind of, you know, jumping out off any page that they are only checking for one vaccine and nothing else.”

    If you’re an entertainer or not, it is still not in the best interest of skepticism to lend your credibility and audience to exposure and profit these kinds of promoters.

  8. kathy says:

    Is there anywhere on the internet one can look up ratings of shows, past and present ratings that is? I was wondering if a drop in ratings had prompted this move. Kind of like jumping the shark.

  9. mousethatroared says:

    I guess I wasn’t a fan of Penn and Teller even before this. I started watching Bullshit on Netflix a few years ago. At first I enjoyed it because the subject matter and blue language (I guess when you are with a 3 and 5 year old all day, the absence of adult expletives gets to you). The first few shows I watches I enjoyed, but then the second hand smoke episode and the reparations episode…I began to get the feeling that they were starting out with their conclusions (ones that were adequately controversial) and finding the evidence to fit. On the other hand, maybe I just didn’t like Them cause they weren’t agreeing with me. I have to consider that.

    Just to give them the benefit of the doubt, iI suppose it’s possible that they signed on to the OZ show with promises that they were going to get to do something more substantive and the producers pulled the rug out from under them…Still wouldn’t make me a fan, though.

  10. David Gorski says:

    Is there anywhere on the internet one can look up ratings of shows, past and present ratings that is? I was wondering if a drop in ratings had prompted this move. Kind of like jumping the shark.

    Actually Bullshit! was not renewed and has been off the air for a couple of years, but P&T do have a new show, Penn & Teller Tell a Lie on the Discovery Channel. It actually looks fairly entertaining, although I haven’t seen an episode yet.

  11. Linda Rosa says:

    To give Penn & Teller a break on the second-hand smoke issue, it appears that a usually reliable source at the American Council on Science and Health led them astray.

  12. David Gorski says:

    I’m afraid that the ACSH is not a very reliable source on a lot of issues, particularly environmental, dietary, and chemical issues, and it does not surprise me in the least that P&T used it as a source:

    http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2010/05/10/the-presidents-cancer-panel-steps-into-i/

    http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2010/05/11/disingenuous-responses-to-straightforwar/

    http://effectmeasure.blogspot.com/2005/08/petition-from-hell.html

    http://thepumphandle.wordpress.com/2007/06/14/acsh-attacks-animal-science-on-carcinogens/

    http://effectmeasure.blogspot.com/2004/12/pedal-edema-from-congestive-thought.html

    http://scienceblogs.com/denialism/2007/10/24/toxins/

    http://scienceblogs.com/angrytoxicologist/2007/11/09/asch-is-a-joke-no-really-like/

    http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/index.php/everything-we-eat-causes-cancer/

    In fact, here’s the link to the Daily Show bit, Little Crop of Horrors. I strongly recommend that everyone watch it. I no longer trust ACSH as a source on anything having to do with environmental issues, and that includes secondhand smoke. Let’s put it this way. An organization whose president goes on and on and on about “chemophobia,” referring to it as an “an “emotional, psychiatric problem,” thus in essence accusing her opponents of being mentally ill, is not an unbiased source, particularly when her organization cherry picks data and basically, with the exception of tobacco (for which the ACSH’s statements on smoking are fine), always takes the side of industry. (I do, however, note that of late the ACSH has been backsliding on secondhand smoke; there are examples in the links above of its publishing articles by well-known “smokers’ rights” cranks on its website.)

    As an aside, a few years back I was once invited to be on the board of scientific advisors for ACSH. I turned them down politely and told them why I was refusing. I’ve also suggested to people whom I know who are on the ACSH board of advisors that it’s probably not a good place to be.

    BTW, I’d love to know who that “usually reliable source” was. :-)

  13. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

    I was always more a fan of the nudity on Bullshit! than the language. I can swear on my own, thanks very much!

    This goes back to my opinion that True Skepticism(TM), what ever that means, should be about referring to the experts. It’s not about making up your mind, it’s more like what Snopes tends to do – go to a real expert and find out what they think. For the love of Dog, don’t try to make up your mind on the data yourself, talk to the person who has spent several decades of their adult life living, breathing and swimming in the actual data. They’re going to understand it far, far better than you will. The more I learn about anything, the more I realize how little I know in comparison to an actual scholar. At best a skeptic can probably address the usual tropes trotted out by deniers, but certainly they can’t do justice to what a genuine expert could.

  14. mousethatroared says:

    WLU
    “I can swear on my own, thanks very much!”

    Well sure, but what fun is it? ;)

  15. “I can’t for the life of me figure out what you thought to gain from it other than exposure to Dr. Oz’s audience of millions.”

    What’s wrong with that? It’s called show business. Skeptics have to feed their families too (and crews, and podcast cohosts).

    “Certainly it didn’t do anything for your reputation, nor did it in any way promote your professed mission.”

    Bullshit. Assuming Penn’s mission is anything more than being a celebrity and selling his show (which is 100% fine), by going on Dr. Oz he reaches out to an audience that would otherwise completely miss out on anything skeptical. What have you done on this scale lately?

    “If you swallow bubblegum, does it take seven years to digest? Seriously? Does anyone actually believe this “myth” anymore?”

    If I saw this on SGU or the NESS blog feed, I’d tend to agree. But this is an uneducated audience: kids, people who never went to high school, people who never gave a crap. These are not skeptics, not even a little bit. Maybe you were a precocious nerdy kid who saw through everything by age seven. Penn was too, if you believe his stories. But not everyone comes out of the womb a skeptic.

    “The advertising in the run-up to the show billed this as a show that debunks myths that “even your doctor believes.” ”

    Penn and Teller are not responsible for Oz’s advertising team. They’re responsible for their own words and actions (Teller is either lucky or smart to have chosen to play mute, because that basically leaves only his actions to be responsible for.) Oz is going to advertise bullshit whether or not Penn and Teller are on his show. They can’t change that. What they can do is go on, be funny, entertaining, a little bit smart, and spark an interest in their own show, which is far more skeptical.

    “Even worse was Oz’s use of a spot on the hard palate that, or so he says, is the analog of the G-spot in the mouth, a moment that led Penn to say in a most cringe-inducing fashion, “I love you, Dr. Oz.” ”

    I agree that Penn should have done better with a response. But now that the show is aired, let’s go over his possible responses that would not have been edited out. “BULLSHIT!” is gone right away. “I I I I [stuttering left in] don’t think that’s right mister doctor” would not have survived the cut. And I think Penn is expressing what he genuinely feels at that moment. Oz has just pointed out a G-spot in the mouth, and whatever you might say about its reality, that’s the kind of thing Penn finds really sexy. I’ve learned this about Penn: if you want to throw him off his game, it doesn’t take much, but something sexy like “there’s a G-spot in your mouth” ought to do it. And anyways, it’s a spontaneous, unscripted show. If you want the perfect answer, either get Richard Dawkins, or have Penn write himself a script.

    “I can’t see any useful educational purpose served by your having appeared with Dr. Oz and placed your lips metaphorically firmly on his posterior.”

    One: it doesn’t have to be educational. Within our vast skeptical society, we have tools other than direct instruction. Two: there is no two. I was going to try and pick out an educational nugget, but I don’t really need to. Except this: your tired old mythbusting knowledge is some kid’s first introduction to skepticism.

  16. dandover says:

    This reminds of when Neil deGrasse Tyson once dedicated not just one, but *two*, episodes of his “StarTalk Radio” podcast to an interview with Bill Maher. The episodes were titled, without even a hint of sarcasm, “Real Science with Bill Maher”. Yuck.

    As far as I know, Dr. Tyson never owned up to that mistake. It will be nice if Penn and Teller do. Another podcast I sometimes listen to is Penn’s Sunday School. It’ll be hard to not be reminded of Dr. Oz the next time I listen to it. Yuck.

  17. David Gorski says:

    And anyways, it’s a spontaneous, unscripted show.

    You really believe that about The Dr. Oz Show? Then you’re more naive about television and the entertainment business than you accuse me of being.

    In any case, when I wrote this I expected that there would be at least one comment like yours. Fair enough. My answer is simple and practical: If P&T are, in fact, pure entertainers and don’t wish to be held to the standards of skeptics by skeptics, then they shouldn’t promote themselves as skeptics among the skeptical movement through their tight connection with JREF and Penn’s frequent pontificating about skeptical topics at TAM and elsewhere. (Did I use the words “skeptic” and “skeptical” enough? ;-) ) Problem solved, the disappointment of skeptics gone.

  18. Jacob V says:

    @dandover: NTD has been on Bill Maher’s HBO show I think more than a couple of times. And on two occasions when I watched the show NDT specifically made remarks confronting Bill’s anti-science as anti vaccine views. NTD and Maher appear to like each other and it was my impression that this was a topic they had discussed off camera at some length. The frustration I have with P&T and Maher is that they are not somewhat skeptical, they are mostly skeptical, but with very large and bazaar blind spots that are in areas where there can be real harm caused by the promulgation of their views.

  19. Quill says:

    One of the problems of fame is that the information given to the famous is increasingly suspect as people tend to tell them what they want to hear. Just as Oz has a staff to cater to him I would imagine that they catered to P&T’s desires and made it all sound like it would be good, only to have things done to suit the needs of the show and not the guests.

    Then again, of all the things on this show, gum and needle tricks? Eh? Scraping the bottom indeed. Kind of sad when heroes fall.

  20. Janet says:

    Josh T. makes a point, and I considered that approach, but it’s a lot like being a shruggie about sCAM–you leave the door open to harm.

    P&T are guilty of no less than choosing a piss poor way to promote their new show, or whatever they were promoting. But then, I wouldn’t go on Oprah (or Oz) for anything in the world–including to feed myself. Making a living is all well and good, but personally, I intend to keep doing so ethically (and skeptically).

  21. windriven says:

    What exactly is the bar here? Seems to me that Dr. Gorski took about the right tone: Penn & Teller have done a lot of good for skepticism. A few moments of apostasy does not erase years of positive contribution. They probably should issue a public dope-slap to themselves. But if they don’t – get over it.

    Echoing Josh Treleaven, Penn Jillette is not the pope of skepticism, he and Teller are entertainers. Good on them that they manage to weave lots of quality skepticism into their schtick. But the schtick – and the following that it has built – comes first. Without that following no one would give too hoots what Teller doesn’t say. ;-)

    If you plan to let Penn Jillette do your thinking for you the shame is yours not his. Watch Penn & Teller to be entertained and, hopefully, to stimulate your own thinking. Or don’t. But don’t complain when every outing doesn’t result in the slaying of a dragon, just exactly as you’d like to see it slain.

  22. Narad says:

    Actually Bullshit! was not renewed and has been off the air for a couple of years, but P&T do have a new show, Penn & Teller Tell a Lie on the Discovery Channel. It actually looks fairly entertaining, although I haven’t seen an episode yet.

    This is also gone. It ran for six episodes in 2011. The ratings look to have been tepid.

  23. mousethatroared says:

    Windriven – If we can’t gripe about entertainers, who can we gripe about? I mean, we’ll only have politicians left and that gets so dull.

    IMO – P&T are just not funny enough to be exempt from griping. But then even my personal gods, Stewart and Colbert, get the occasional criticism in our household.

  24. Newcoaster says:

    A good piece David, and once again, thanks for watching Dr Oz, so I don’t have to ! I’d be curious if there is any response.

    I have become increasingly uncomfortable with P&T’s association with the skeptical movement. I enjoyed the first few seasons of Bullshit!, but then they started getting repetitive, and the gratuitous scatology and nudity just seems very juvenile after a while. They made some good points on many topics…but I couldn’t show any of the episodes to my family !

    P&T are both active members of the Cato Institute, and it is clear from many of Penn’s statements and rants, that libertarianism is his driving ideology…not skepticism. I too was at my first TAM in 2007 when Penn onstage tried to dodge the question of whether he believed in AGW and that gave me pause. (Remember that Randi , a close friend of P&T, himself also expressed doubts on the topic until a few years ago. )

    While magicians like Randi have been important founding members of the skeptical movement, and P&T may reach audiences otherwise unexposed to skeptical ideas, I think we have erred in letting them play too large a role in the public face of skepticism by deferring to their celebrity.

    The skeptical movement is now getting large enough that schisms are starting to appear. I guess that is a good thing, it does show we are growing, but I hope we don’t become a parody of religion and we spend more time arguing amongst ourselves over what makes a “true skeptic” than in educating the gullible.

  25. windriven says:

    @mouse

    Griping about politicians is too easy. Even the few whom I dislike the least are barely worth kvetching about. We sometimes set unrealistically high bars for people like Watson and Penn yet idiotically low bars for those who most directly shape our futures. I can’t think of a single currently serving politician of national stature whom I would award better than a C+. Current polling suggests that I’m overly generous.

    By and large I find the Watsons and Penns far more honorable and trustworthy and effective.

  26. Sawyer says:

    Since science-based medicine relies on well-defined criteria for what works and what doesn’t, maybe we need to set some rigid standards for science-based public relations. How do we measure the effectiveness of someone promoting skepticism when they venture into the land of Oz? Most of us probably agree that Steve Novella did a good job but where do we draw the line? It’s easy to tear Penn and Teller apart after a poor appearance, but what standards should we have ahead of time and how can we see if they’re working?

    What percentage of people watching Dr. Oz will eventually find their way to the world of science based medicine thanks to Penn and Teller’s appearance? It’s undoubtedly pretty low, but it’s not 0%. If a dozen Dr. Oz fans discover Bullshit on Netflix and accept the science on vaccines, is that mission accomplished for Penn and Teller?

  27. Composer99 says:

    Totally on topic:

    Penn Jilette looks like a Klingon in the 2009 photograph.

    OK, so that maybe wasn’t pertinent.

    So here’s some commentary that is:

    IMO while it is true that Penn & Teller are entertainers, perhaps entertainers first and foremost, it is also true that:
    (1) (As far as I can see) they are ensconced deeply in the skeptical movement, such as it is (e.g. speaking spots at TAM!);
    (2) They have built their reputation up, in part, by calling out BS, often BS that is much less “cranky” or even menacing to some of the material Dr Oz has endorsed.

    To appear on Dr Oz’s show as they did is contrary to their public personas. If Penn & Teller were just operating as magicians, without the skeptic slant to their show(s), maybe it wouldn’t matter. But skepticism is a big part of their schtick. So it does.

    In addition, as a brief survey of whatistheharm.net can show, Dr Oz endorses quackery that causes real harm to people, even if only financial if nothing else.

    IMO it reflects poorly on anyone who goes to Oz’s show and doesn’t at least try to challenge him on that (although of course it reflects all the worse on Dr Oz himself).

    I think Dr Gorski’s open letter is on point by raising these concerns.

  28. lizditz says:

    Found this wandering about:

    one surreal story — came in from Dr. Pieter Cohen, a general internist at Cambridge Health Alliance and assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. He appeared on a 2011 “Dr. Oz” show that you can watch here, if you don’t mind the ads….
    Now to more recent history: Dr Cohen was invited onto the Dr. Oz show to discuss the “hCG diet,” a crash diet aided by shots of the pregnancy hormone hCG. He assumed that he would be partnering with Dr. Oz “to help Americans realizes that this is another fad and potentially dangerous,” he says. Because in fact, there have been “a dozen randomized controlled trials to show that it doesn’t work, it’s no different than injecting salt water. The risk issues come down to the very restrictive diet” of only 500 calories a day, which can cause gallstones and other problems.

    But no….

    “I had a sense that things might not be going as planned when I got off my Amtrak train from Boston and walked over to the studio, and I saw the stretch Hummer with ‘Dr. Emma’ and over a dozen of her patients popping out. (‘Dr. Emma’ was the HCG doctor who Mehmet had invited to be on the show.) So when she popped out with all her slim patients, I thought the show might be going in a different direction.

    And sure enough, I would find myself, not so long afterward, sitting on stage — and actually, in a sad sort of way, it was a fascinating experience, because there I was, watching a new fad be born.

    Go read the rest of the article at http://commonhealth.wbur.org/2013/02/surreal-harvard-dr-oz-show

  29. DugganSC says:

    Personally, my favorite Penn & Teller show is their “Fool Us” which aired in Britain. Simple premise, magicians come up and perform a trick. Penn and Teller watch from the audience, so extra cameras or other viewpoints. At the end of the trick, they try to guess how the trick was done. If they fail, the magician got to take one of Penn & Teller’s spots in Vegas. I think they only got fooled maybe four times in the first season, and largely by fast handwork rather than anything more complicated. Still, very entertaining.

    I’ve seen a few episodes of P&T’s Bullsh!t. I’ve occasionally pointed the exercise, recycling, and “stranger danger” ones to people. Entertaining to be sure.

  30. mousethatroared says:

    windriven “Griping about politicians is too easy.” That may be why it becomes dull. Oh come on, you know Penn and Teller thrive on this stuff, stirring everything up. If no one fussed, they’d be out of business.

  31. Sialis says:

    I’m new to the skeptic scene so I’m not even going to butt in and try to define how I think a “true skeptic” should behave, including whether they should make appearances on Dr. Oz. In general, what I admire about skeptics is that they seem to be very analytical and pay close attention to the details. Details are important, especially when it comes to medical care. So are listening skills. If these skills define a “true skeptic”, then I’m all for them, but in any case, I think that these skills help define what makes a good physician.

    I read this blog for the medical information. I get sound medical information here. This is one of the last places I can turn for such information. It certainly is difficult to get decent quality medical care where I live. I am tired of doctors, chiropractors and acupuncturists trying to read my energy and carry on conversations with my organs, asking them if they are ill and in need of healing or balance. The last darn thing I want to support or donate money to is someone needing medical healing treatments from John of God or anyone else like him. Don’t even mention ASEA to me, unless you plan to plug your ears. Reiki sounds relaxing, but it just doesn’t cure any serious physical diseases, either. Basically, I’m tired of all the medical bullshi!t I get slung at me every day and much of it from leading medical institutions in the United States. So, I read this blog for the sanity check and to know I’m not the only person who has such opinions and expectations from medical care.

    It seems to me that there are at least two arguments going on here. What is a “true skeptic” and whether anyone, skeptic or otherwise, should be supporting and promoting Dr. Oz.

    No ethical minded person, physician or otherwise, should be doing anything to drum up support or viewers for Dr. Oz. No one, nada, zip. He is making a mockery of the medical profession by the bogus treatments that he supports. He says he doesn’t directly endorse any products, well, Bull Sh!t on that too. He is a scathing snake oil salesman that is slithering just this side of the law.

    No one should appear on his show to promote their own business. No one should support Dr. Oz, period. His show should be cancelled and his medical license to practice in New York and anywhere else should be revoked. He is not practicing evidenced-based/science-based medical care. He is exploiting the naive and he is aiding others who do the same. He is in show business – not medicine.

    Making a living is all well and good, but personally, I intend to keep doing so ethically (and skeptically).

  32. Linda Rosa says:

    DGORSKI: “BTW, I’d love to know who that ‘usually reliable source’ was.”

    Mon Dieu! I think I should have said “allegedly reliable source.”

    It was back in 2003 when Penn & Teller interviewed ACSH’s president Elizabeth Whelan on their second-hand smoke show.

    At that time, a number of anti-quackery activists thought exceedingly well of ACSH; in 2002 I was being pressured (without effect) not to sue ACSH and it’s editor for plagiarism because ACSH was considered such a fine pro-science organization.

    My point is that with that sort of high esteem being expressed for ACSH at that time, I can’t fault Penn & Teller for using ACSH as a source. And perhaps I feel a kinship in that we were both screwed by ACSH.

  33. windriven says:

    @mouse

    “you know Penn and Teller thrive on this stuff”

    I never meant to suggest that they couldn’t take the criticism. I’d even agree that they thrive on controversy (hence nudity, f-bombs, etc.). As PT Barnum (allegedly) noted, “there’s no such thing as bad publicity.”

    @Sialis

    “how I think a “true skeptic” should behave”

    You really hit the nail more squarely than did I in my first post. Are we going to start referring to “Movement Skeptics” and SINOs? Skeptics In Name Only? That has worked out really well for the Republicans, hasn’t it?

  34. Linda Rosa says:

    My correspondence with Glenn Alai, spokesman for Penn & Teller:

    Dear Mr. Jilette and Mr. Teller,

    I just saw your appearance on the Dr. Oz Show. Can you explain how this happened?

    “World-famous magicians Penn and Teller join Dr. Oz to debunk the health myths you and your doctor believe.”

    Scratching my head,
    Linda

    —————-

    Linda-

    It was a tough call.  We’ve done many shows with people whose views are VERY different from ours (Oprah, Glenn Beck to name two). It was also a way to reach an audience very different from our great fan base.  The content of the show was negotiated to fit P&T’s sensibilities and now provides them with some comic fodder for their shows and when they attend skeptic conventions.

    We hope you understand it was a hard choice and sometimes being seen in front of a crowd that would not normally subscribe to their beliefs and views can crack open the door to ethical, sensible and critical thinking.

    [Glenn Alai]

    ——————

    Dear Glenn,

    A “hard choice,” you say. Since there was not an iota of challenge to Oz’s quackery, I can only conclude that Oz offered an irresistible pile of moolah that could buy Penn & Teller body and soul.

    “A crack in the door”…”comic fodder.” I don’t think anyone who has seen the show is going to buy that.

    With the best of Mr. Jillette and Mr. Teller at heart, I recommend these dear fellows own up to their mistake and atone for it by donating their Oz Show earnings to some organization that works to end quackery. Otherwise that thumb-sucking-”I-love-you-very-much-Dr-Oz” scene may haunt them for a very, very long time.

    Sincerely,
    Linda

    =========

    Linda-

    Penn & Teller were not paid for their appearance on the show beyond obligatory union fees.

    [Glenn Alai]

  35. mousethatroared says:

    @windriven – Okay, now I get your point more clearly. It’s not about the criticism, it’s about having some sort of skeptical loyalty requirement, eh?

  36. Sawyer says:

    Since science-based medicine relies on well defined criteria for what works and what doesn’t, maybe we need to set some criteria for science-based public relations. How do we measure the effectiveness of someone promoting skepticism when they venture into the land of Oz? Most of us probably agree that Steve Novella did a good job but where do we draw the line? It’s easy to tear Penn and Teller apart after a poor appearance, but what standards should set have ahead of time, and how can we see if they are working?

    My number one question would be this: What percentage of people watching Dr. Oz will eventually find their way to the world of science based medicine thanks to Penn and Teller’s appearance? It’s undoubtedly pretty low, but it’s not zero. If a dozen Dr. Oz fans discover Bullshit on Netflix and accept the science on vaccines, is that mission accomplished for Penn and Teller? How do we objectively determine when lending credibility to a quack outweighs the benefit of engaging even a small number of fans?

  37. David Gorski says:

    It was back in 2003 when Penn & Teller interviewed ACSH’s president Elizabeth Whelan on their second-hand smoke show.

    I forgot about that. I haven’t seen that particular episode in a long time.

  38. Sawyer says:

    OOPS! Feel free to edit out one of my posts. Internet went out and I didn’t realize the first one went through

  39. mousethatroared says:

    Actually, I kinda want Sialis to go on Oz. But only if there is an ironclad contract that they will leave the mic on.

  40. PJLandis says:

    Off topic, but somebody just got quoted over at National Review…

    http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/340167/political-science-ari-n-schulman

  41. Sialis says:

    Actually, I kinda want Sialis to go on Oz. But only if there is an ironclad contract that they will leave the mic on.

    LOL! I would love to, but the timing is not good for me right now. I did offer to accompany Dr. Gorski to speak with President or Mrs. Obama about related matters. If he is willing and if anyone can arrange such a meeting, I’m in for sure.

  42. David Gorski says:

    Yeah, no problem. Barack and I are tight. :-)

  43. Newcoaster says:

    @Sawyer

    ” Most of us probably agree that Steve Novella did a good job”

    But Steve was so constrained by the format and the editing, that I really don’t think even he made much of an impression on the typical Oz audience member, and while he did a good job under the circumstances, he came off as just a token skeptic. And that is one of the more erudite, experienced and knowledgeable members of the skeptical community.

    The point has been made repeatedly, that P&T are entertainers, and perhaps we are just expecting too much from them. They had an entire segment featuring themselves, and they just tried to be entertaining, not thought provoking, challenging or educational.

    They blew it.

  44. annappaa says:

    antibiotics and the like, that “manage symptoms but don’t treat the real cause.”

    Um. How do antibiotics not treat the real cause of a bacterial infection?!

  45. windriven says:

    @mouse

    ” it’s about having some sort of skeptical loyalty requirement, eh?”

    More like ideological purity, but yes, that is what rankles a little. I am reminded of an e e cummings poem (though he intended this in a rather different context) that concludes:


    americans(who tensetendoned and with
    upward vacant eyes,painfully
    perpetually crouched,quivering,upon the
    sternly allotted sandpile
    –how silently
    emit a tiny violetflavoured nuisance:Odor?

    ono.
    comes out like a ribbon lies flat on the brush

  46. Lytrigian says:

    Um. How do antibiotics not treat the real cause of a bacterial infection?!

    Don’t you realize that bacterial infection is only a symptom? The real cause is alkalinity. Or unbalanced chakras. Or an over-accumulation of warm, damp qi. Or…

    On-topic, yes, P & T are “just entertainers”, but as others have pointed out, they’re entertainers who represent themselves as shining the light of truth on systematic deceptions. That’s the whole foundation for their act, where they show how the magic is done. That’s was the entire premise of “Bullshit!”, which purported to be factual but in fact offered extended apologia for their own personal opinions. Thus we had a show on how gun control was “bullshit”, how a connection between diet and exercise and body weight was “bullshit” — this even involved Teller pretending to have a weight problem on the same order of magnitude as Penn’s, when he patently does not — how second-hand smoke as a pollutant is “bullshit”, and others.

    Not one of these programs was prefaced with, “We’re just entertainers! Don’t take use seriously!” They showed every sign that they were presented in all seriousness. When presenting themselves as skeptics before a skeptical audience, they plainly expect to be taken seriously there too. Now suddenly they appear with Oz in a way that can be seen as supportive, and they’re “just entertainers”? They can’t have it both ways.

  47. Narad says:

    Off topic, but somebody just got quoted over at National Review…

    In a piece that turns around and trots out Vickers et al. as support for acupuncture, no less.

  48. Narad says:

    Um. How do antibiotics not treat the real cause of a bacterial infection?!

    Samet is a homeopath, so there are no actual diseases, just disruptions of the Vital Force. In her own words,

    It is not easy to master the art of homeopathy. Actually, it is far more difficult to prescribe a good homeopathic remedy for someone than to write a prescription for prednisone or antibiotics, for example, or suggest a mixture of herbs or some vitamin supplements. While some relief may be experienced from any of these therapies, deep healing will not occur in any comparable way to what is experienced with the correct homeopathic prescription

  49. mousethatroared says:

    windriven – hehe – okay, I guess I can’t entirely disagree, when you put it that way.

  50. ConspicuousCarl says:

    Linda Rosa:

    From his response, it sounds like Glenn Alai is focused more on defending their choice to go on the show at all (not necessarily bad), and missing the fact that their content was nonsense (very bad).

  51. HDCase says:

    @windriven

    Why should there NOT be an expectation of ideological purity in the skeptical movement? The idea that a “skeptic” celebrity would lend their reputation to a purveyor of complete and utter claptrap indicates that they may not actually BE a skeptic – rather, that they’re just an entertainer riding the wave of the movement. Every movement has its bandwagon-riding hangers-on and those who seek to profit from the movement, and P&T seem to fall into the latter group. Good on them for the times they’ve promoted skeptic ideology, but the simple fact is that people *do* accept their words uncritically *because* they’ve become famous as supposed “skeptics”, and *not* calling them out for when they support someone like Dr. Oz harms the movement as a whole.

    Comparing a goal-oriented movement like skepticism to a political party is apples & oranges. For a more apt analogy, how about we compare it to the Occupy movement? If someone who gained fame as a promoter of the Occupy mindset were to suddenly start appearing as a spokesperson in HSBC ads, I would think – hope, even! – that the movement as a whole would be willing to say “they do not speak for us, and have in fact broken from our goals”. Far from asking Scotsmen to abstain from sugar in their porridge, this is a call for anyone who promotes themselves as skeptic to abstain from literally professing their love for someone who embodies everything the cause works against. Saying that a skeptic who supports Dr. Oz may not be a skeptic is no different than saying that an atheist who prays might not be an atheist. Ideological purity is not the bad word you make it out to be.

  52. windriven says:

    @HDCase

    “Why should there NOT be an expectation of ideological purity in the skeptical movement?”

    Oh my, who gets to decide who is pure enough? When only the pure, and then the purest of the pure, and then those of virgin birth are worthy, what you have is a clericy, not an intellectual movement dedicated to the pursuit of truth.

    I am happy to have a skeptical movement that embraces everyone who self identifies as a skeptic – or even a skeptic wannabee. The philosophy of science is robust enough to withstand a few sins and a few stumbles along the way.

    “The idea that a “skeptic” celebrity would lend their reputation to a purveyor of complete and utter claptrap indicates that they may not actually BE a skeptic”

    Heretics! Apostates!

    Yeah, they effed up. Would you like to take away their ID cards and magic decoder rings? Shall we ignore the years of good work because they consorted with an intellectual prostitute? That sounds like Wahhabi skepticism to me. No thanks.

    “Ideological purity is not the bad word you make it out to be.”

    Ideological purity is the refuge of the intellectually in-bred. Have a little confidence in the philosophy. It has been attacked by far stronger characters than Mehmet Oz and it has taken the errors of greater intellects than Penn Jillette is stride.

  53. windriven says:

    @HD Case

    The Occupy Movement? Really? What real estate is currently under occupation? They’ve even been run out of downtown Portland, OR. I’d laugh if it wasn’t so sad.

    The Occupy Movement never amounted to much more than inchoate rage. Some of the underlying principles … some of the underlying principles … were well worth fighting for. But the Occupy Movement as it existed in fact (as opposed to some idealized fantasy) was more akin to the Luddites than to skepticism. It is one thing to shriek about the banksters and the 1 percent – and there is a lot there to shriek about. But that is quite different from offering up a political economy that addresses those concerns while promoting the public weal.

    Skepticism, scientific philosophy really, is an elegant machine tuned to discover truth. The Occupy Movement was a tale, full of sound and fury, amounting to nothing. The Occupiers were filling the headlines with noise while little Timmy Geithner was off giving hot and cold running, ahem, back rubs to the very clowns who collapsed the world economy. Yeah boy, those Occupiers really know how to get it done.

  54. Narad says:

    I am happy to have a skeptical movement that embraces everyone who self identifies as a skeptic – or even a skeptic wannabee.

    By this yardstick, I’m excluded.

  55. Davdoodles says:

    “Actually, it is far more difficult to prescribe a good homeopathic remedy for someone than to write a prescription for prednisone or antibiotics, for example, or suggest a mixture of herbs or some vitamin supplements.”

    That may be because there’s no such thing as “a good homeopathic remedy”.
    .

  56. mousethatroared says:

    I don’t consider myself a skeptic, but just from observation, I thought that skepticism avoided ideology, much less ideological purity.

  57. mousethatroared says:

    HDcase “For a more apt analogy, how about we compare it to the Occupy movement? If someone who gained fame as a promoter of the Occupy mindset were to suddenly start appearing as a spokesperson in HSBC ads, I would think – hope, even! – that the movement as a whole would be willing to say “they do not speak for us, and have in fact broken from our goals”

    That analogy would work great if you could name such a person. Except you chose a movement that made it a point to remain basically leaderless and without formal organizers and spokespeople.

    I’m sure you can find other movements that would fit better. But it does raise a question. Why did Occupy make that choice? Is there something about that choice that would apply to skepticism?

    If you have leaders, some people want to follow them without thinking. If you have rules or standards, some people will automatically fall in line. What is a movement based on questioning the status quo to do?

  58. dandover says:

    @PJLandis:

    Off topic, but somebody just got quoted over at National Review…

    http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/340167/political-science-ari-n-schulman

    Thank you for that. It helps to put the current topic of Penn and Teller into better perspective. Here we are bickering about what these magicians should or shouldn’t do, how high we should set the bar, whether we should have some minimum level of “ideological purity” … blah blah blah.

    The Tom Harkin piece helped to remind me that all of the above is really, really, small beer compared to the fact that we taxpayers have had billions of our dollars spent disproving quackery.

  59. DugganSC says:

    On a side note, the “exercise and diet” episode was primarily about how most exercise facilities and specialized equipment are borderline scams where they promise the body of Arnold for anyone regardless of body type, and also about how ignorantly the exercise facilities were pushing supplements, something near and dear to the editors here. And honestly, nothing they said there really rang all that false. Most of us don’t have the bodies to turn into a fitness magazine person. We can lose weight. We can gain muscle mass. But the sort of toned bodies that are paraded about as the goal are as much a matter of good genetics as they are the exercise and diet.

  60. LovleAnjel says:

    P&T’s new Discovery show only had a half-dozen episodes, which aired over a year ago. I don’t know if it’s been contracted for a full season or not. I watched all of them at the time – they tell 7 stories, one of which is fake. The fake story is revealed just before the end credits.

    Finding the fake does not depend on skepticism – prior probability, understanding of science, knowledge of logical fallacies, heuristics and perceptual mistakes are absolutely useless. Finding the fake depends on noticing some small detail in the background. One example was the presence of a ’70s-era microwave in a surgical suite. I liken it more to Highlights magazine than true skepticism.

    If this is the show they’re trying to promote, I can see why they didn’t take care about Oz.

    I was highly disappointed to hear they wen ton Oz and did such a ham-fisted job. They should be ashamed.

  61. UncleHoot says:

    “This goes back to my opinion that True Skepticism(TM), what ever that means, should be about referring to the experts. It’s not about making up your mind, it’s more like what Snopes tends to do – go to a real expert and find out what they think.”

    I think this brings up an issue that we could arguably argue about for a long time. But the problem, here, is that there are some experts who, for example, have spent their entire life looking for Sasquatch. They may have amassed some interesting physical evidence in support of its existence: hair samples, DNA, and lots and lots of footprints. They may believe whole-heartedly in the existence of Sasquatch. Perhaps they have even seen it with their own eyes. They may point to hundreds of other sightings. Could all of these people, some of them police, doctors, and other professionals, over all of these years, truly be wrong about what they have seen? The skeptic’s answer should always be “Yes.”

    Further, there are no “anti-Sasquatch” experts that I am aware of. There aren’t any experts who have spent their entire lives trying to disprove Sasquatch’s existence. If we come to a point where the vast majority of National Park Rangers believe in Sasquatch, and the United States recognizes it as a protected species, should the skeptic change his position?

    For me, it’s not just about deferring to the experts, even if they have spent their entire lives in a pursuit. It’s about reviewing the evidence base, and reviewing the experts themselves. There can be a lot of incentive to come to the wrong conclusion.

  62. jre says:

    You didn’t mention my favorite example of P&T’s credulity when it suits their politics — their positive presentation of John “the dog ate my research” Lott as an expert in firearms research. A pity, really, since they missed a golden opportunity with their interview:
    PENN: Now, Professor …
    LOTT: Yes?
    PENN: … may I call you Mary?

  63. David Gorski says:

    Oh, dear. Brian Dunning’s timing is truly horrendous, isn’t it? :-)

    http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4349

  64. Chris says:

    I’m sure that P&T being on Dr. Oz’s show will turn up in a future Skeptoid episode!

  65. windriven says:

    Interesting that Dunning bemoans the whiteness of his list yet Neil Degrasse Tyson wasn’t on it. Top 10 lists are necessarily subjective and therefore likely controversial. I’m going to choose to believe that he phoned this one in while partying hard in Jamaica.

  66. Chris says:

    windriven, Dunning was clear that he limited the choices to those celebrities who were not actual scientists at first with this statement:

    Note that I chose not to include people whose profession is science or who are otherwise famous because of their work in that area.

    Dr. Tyson first profession is as a scientist, which he still is at the Hayden Planetarium.

    Though it is still awesome that he is stepping into Carl Sagan’s footsteps. And now I get to reminisce about one of the first dates I had with my hubby, which was seeing Dr. Sagan give a talk on campus about what to expect on the first Viking Mars lander in 1976.

  67. HDCase says:

    @windriven

    Wow. That…that was certainly a lot of histrionics, rage, and political bashing, yes it was. Nice to know I can’t count on anything resembling a rational or even civil response from you.

    @mouse

    You actually illustrated exactly what I mean, though – the Occupy movement on the whole was very adamant in saying “no, we do not have ‘spokespeople’, so stop identifying people as such”. When “public faces” of movements speak as if speaking for the movement as a whole, movements cringe. An acquaintance of mine recently mentioned that a supposed “LGB (but definitely not T)” public policy advocacy group in the UK is doing more to harm the LGBTetc movement than some of the worst fundamentalists and fascists that march against gay rights!

  68. windriven says:

    @Chris

    My bad. I read the list, not the blog entry. Thanks for pointing out my error.

    I’m envious of your having heard one of Sagan’s lectures. What a giant. He is one of the influences that pushed me from math to physics.

    @HDCase

    Histrionics? Rage??? Political bashing????? Methinks the commenter protests too much … and against straw men. If you disagree with my argument, counter it with your own. But the ad hominem suggests that you can’t mount a compelling one.

    And kibbitzing in on your comment to mouse, your anecdote about your acquaintance is just that, an anecdote. So what? Every movement draws spokespeople, some ‘authorized’, some not. You seem starry-eyed about movements without leadership yet you want to control who can and who cannot speak for those movements. The cognitive dissonance is killing me.

  69. Jan Willem Nienhuys says:

    a 200C dilution represents 200 1:100 dilutions or 1:10^2 x 10^200 or 1:10^400.

    No.

    It shoud be

    a 200C dilution represents 200 1:100 dilutions or 1:(10^2)^200 or 1:10^400.

    10^2 x 10^200 equals 10^202

  70. windriven says:

    @JWN

    Quite so, but apropos of … ?

    I suspect your comment was posted to the wrong thread.

  71. ConspicuousCarl says:

    windriven:
    Is it ever really the wrong thread to bash homeopathy?

    Everyone else:
    This skeptical theory argument is interesting, but the bottom line is that Penn and Teller really crashed the bus here. It’s full-blown unskeptical support of a total madman. They used neither layperson skeptical approaches nor deference to standard scientific knowledge. They didn’t even use shady sources to support their own views. They went on the show of a known lone lunatic to nod their heads at whatever crap he said.

  72. BillyJoe says:

    When P&T was first shown on Australian TV, I watched the first few episodes to see if I should recommend it to my less sceptical friends. Instead I stopped watching it myself. So let’s just say I’m not totally surprised at what’s happened here. Either they are not genuine or they let their biases get in the way of their scepticism.

  73. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

    When P&T was first shown on Australian TV, I watched the first few episodes to see if I should recommend it to my less sceptical friends. Instead I stopped watching it myself. So let’s just say I’m not totally surprised at what’s happened here. Either they are not genuine or they let their biases get in the way of their scepticism.

    Though probably true, it’s questionable whether to really call P&T out on this. Everybody lets their biases get in the way of their skepticism. The history of science is the discovery of the myriad ways we can fool ourselves. There is no such thing as pure, true skepticism, just topics with varying evidence bases and different people interpreting those bases. The “right answer” is always conditional, couched in caveats, and interpreted by flawed humans. The best solution in my mind is to do our best to subject all claims to scrutiny and try and keep each other honest. We won’t ever truly succeed, but at least we’ll probably do better.

    Of course, that being said – this article is doing that very thing to P&T. I see it in terms of the opposite of “let he who is without sin cast the first stone” in that it’s more like “everybody get a stone and pay attention if someone throws one at you”.

    Geez, second Bible quote in a week.

    Anyway, this week P&T get called out, next week it might be someone here, the week after Ricky Gervais might say something amusing yet stupid. The best we can manage is lurching forward together.

  74. estockly says:

    So is seems like the modern skepticism movement is becoming like a religion, without all the hocus pocus.

    Think about it. Two of the “priests” of the movement are now being accused of some form of heresy for consorting with the “prophet” if you will, of another church. It would be like a Catholic bishop celebrating mass with Mormons.

    Is the movement also developing schisms? There certainly seems to be a divide along the feminist related issues.

    As for the topic, the thing is Dr. Oz has a huge audience. Penn & Teller, not so much.

    They have much more to gain in terms of promotion and validation by going on his show than he does by having them on his show.

    Also, they’re not in science or medicine, they’re in show business. And in show business, going on Dr. Oz was a wise decision.

    ES

  75. mousethatroared says:

    “When “public faces” of movements speak as if speaking for the movement as a whole, movements cringe. An acquaintance of mine recently mentioned that a supposed “LGB (but definitely not T)” public policy advocacy group in the UK is doing more to harm the LGBTetc movement than some of the worst fundamentalists and fascists that march against gay rights!”

    Hmmm – I wonder if ants have this problem. They always seem so organized.

  76. BillyJoe says:

    “Also, they’re not in science or medicine, they’re in show business. And in show business, going on Dr. Oz was a wise decision”

    That’s your opinion.
    They have an audience amongst sceptics. Maybe this will actually backfire on them.
    Please let us know the turn out at their next gig.

  77. Jan Willem Nienhuys says:

    @windriven

    The computational slip of the pen has been repaired; it was right in front of

    Given that the number of atoms in the known universe is thought to be between 10^78 and 10^82, as you know, this is a truly ridiculous level of dilution.

    To put the dilution factor even more in perspective: 10^110 is about the dilution factor of the volume of 1 hydrogen atom smeared out over the volume of the entire visible universe (more precisely: a ball with a radius equal to the comoving distance from Earth to the edge of the observable universe).

    If the homeopaths are to be believed, that is. The 200C is usually a Korsakov dilution. This means that a glass with the stuff inside is filled and emptied. What remains on the wall is supposed to be one percent of the contents. But no one has ever checked that,
    and there is almost certainly no thorough mixing between the solution clinging to the wall and the refill. If you fill a glass with a solution of KCl, it takes extremely aggressive cleaning to remove all traces of potassium from the glass. Or so I am told. Maybe it’s different with the kind of stuff homeopaths dilute, but don’t bet on it.

    If it’s a non-Korsakov dilution, you’ll have to use a new and never used bottle for every dilution. And alcohol, not water. That’s a lot of bottles and alcohol.

  78. If you’re using a plate of bacon to try to find your oral g-spot, you’re doing it all wrong. I have a (distant) family member whom I’ve watched use this specific stratigraphy: biscuits (3? 4?), pile o’ scrambled eggs (3? 4?), sausage patties (3? 4?), bacon like a blanket lovingly covering it all, and wait for it….. gravy.

  79. Composer99 says:

    IMO the defence of Penn & Teller with reference to their being entertainers, or being in show business, falls flat because of something I noted upthread:

    In addition, as a brief survey of whatistheharm.net can show, Dr Oz endorses quackery that causes real harm to people, even if only financial if nothing else.

    Dr Oz, after all, is also an entertainer and in show business (in the context of his TV show). And yet this site (and others) quite rightly criticize him because his endorsements provide credibility and legitimacy to quackery that harms people physically, psychologically, temporally, and financially. Why should Penn & Teller be exempt from criticism, just because they’re entertainers, or because show business?

    Dr Oz’s show endorses harmful practices. Real people get hurt by this stuff. Assuming Penn & Teller aspire to be ethical (or at least, aspire to be perceived as straight shooters who tell it like it is), their failure to challenge Dr Oz on this point is worthy of criticism.

  80. Jeff1962 says:

    The best solution in my mind is to do our best to subject all claims to scrutiny and try and keep each other honest.

    Careful. Doing that will get you called a denier.

  81. @Jeff1962,

    100% agree. But Gorski is a liberal douche, so it’s no surprise he has to lump global warming in with health science.

  82. ConspicuousCarl says:

    Without arguing any other points, I don’t think Gorski’s LD status is the reason why global warming is included on this page. Whether or not the real answer to these issues is known to better-informed people, Penn and Teller don’t know and yet were happy to crank out content which had a strong potential to support false positions. Douchebaggery probably plays a role in the slant applied to those criticisms, but it is not necessary for bringing them up.

  83. David Gorski says:

    But Gorski is a liberal douche, so it’s no surprise he has to lump global warming in with health science,

    Uh, no. The science is not a matter of “liberal” or “conservative.” The science is the science on AGW, and it’s quite clear.

  84. kathy says:

    One or two are saying that P & T appearing on this show is justified because it may sway a few towards skepticism, and have called for figures as to how many.

    However, to make a reasonable judgement call, one needs to compare any such figures with how many are swayed the other way. How many fence-sitters will get off on the Woo side of the fence, because they see a well-known skeptical figure appearing on the Dr Oz Show?

  85. Matt Roman says:

    I couldn’t disagree more with this blog entry. How can you say it is a bad thing to expose such a demographic to skepticism? If anything they should appear more on shows like this in order for so many believers to have a means of access to skepticism. Maybe some of those Oz viewers appreciated P&T enough to watch their show Bullsh!t and begin to question their surroundings and what they are told. Perhaps one of them was even converted over to a skeptical outlook on the universe. If P&T were to be anywhere, they should be on the Dr. Oz show!

    In that regard I think you really missed the positives of them being on the show. Your hate of Dr. Oz was so strong that you just got upset by them joining the dark side rather than seeing this as a kind of covert ops espionage scenario. Instead you just post a very lackluster post for SBM, if I may say so myself. So many words explaining Oz’s history is only a waste of the readers time. Pointing out their past mistakes and diminishing their credibility. P&T are people to be proud of; their daily live show being a spectacular magic show that says directly, “miracles are never real,” “psychics like sylvia brown take advantage of those in vulnerable situations,” “cold reading can be done by anyone,” and many other bold skeptical points to the engaged audience. This kind of teaching is priceless for skepticism. Yet you tarnish their reputation with this post. Shameful.

    I attended their show two nights ago in Vegas and approached them about their appearance on the Dr. Oz show. As always, they met the audience afterwards for autographs and some quick chit chat. I told them that I respect them for their skepticism and I thought there was nothing wrong going on the show. Being apart at the time, they each gave me their own take on this.

    First, Teller was the one I approached with this. There was a sparkle in his eyes when I said that. He explained that there was a lot of nutty stuff on that shot. He looked surprised about this. It was as if he didn’t realize that the show was so nutty at the time. He also explained that there was a lot of demands they made to allow that segment to air, including the complete removal of another segment that included pseudoscientific ideas. Some other guest to the show never had his segment air, at least on their episode, because it went against their ideals.

    Afterwards I said the same to Penn. His eyes fixed on me when I said my little spiel like on no other guest. He was less informative and only said, “yeah I heard there was some nut out there on the internet that got upset about it.” I responded, yeah it was David Gorski, and he said “I don’t know who that is.” So I guess his PR rep didn’t really give relay this blog to him. Either that or he just grouped you in with the rest of the doubters and kooks on the internet and didn’t even bother reading what you have to say. I don’t blame him – the quality and very point of this post was a huge miss. Actually, I’m rather happy he didn’t read this because it spared him a faint bit of negativity, and we all know how much of that there is out here on the WWW.

    ps- what’s one case report’s absence of histology on an old woman have to do with a G-spot and Oz/P&T’s credibility?? It seems like you were really reaching here to prove a point. Not that it pertains to my above post, but if you ever explored your sexuality with a woman, you would know that it exists and is the main means of producing a female ejaculation. Upon arousal it is especially tactile and swollen, and it is right about at the spot where Dr. Oz explained it was. This is one of those rare things in life that I don’t need scientific evidence for because I personally have reproduced a hot swollen g-spot and its after effects in multiple women. But keep looking for detailed scientific evidence for it instead of just finding out for yourself like many of us others have been doing for years! :)

  86. Chris says:

    Matt Roman:

    Your hate of Dr. Oz was so strong that you just got upset by them joining the dark side rather than seeing this as a kind of covert ops espionage scenario.

    It is not hate, but rather frustration at Dr. Oz forgoing his medical training to promote nonsense. This is also being noted by some others at his university. On a recent This Week in Virology podcast, Dr. Racaniello posted two “picks of the week” articles in the show notes that were critical of Dr. Oz. The discussion on Dr. Oz continued into the next week’s podcast.

    The consensus is that Dr. Oz is no longer practicing physician one should get medical information from. Especially for promoting miracle drinks, cures, diets (the HCG diet!), and magical mystical hand waving like Reiki.

  87. Narad says:

    Not that it pertains to my above post, but if you ever explored your sexuality with a woman, you would know that it exists and is the main means of producing a female ejaculation.

    Ah, lacking the requisite anatomy, I have not “explored” my “sexuality” in this regard, but I have “explored” the relevant anterior wall on plenty of occasions with no soap. The phenomenon appears to be highly idiosyncratic, making assertions such as yours rather extravagant. (A brief survey of my male friends yields two positive respondents, each with one example out of an average of 10 partners.)

Comments are closed.