I like Penn&Teller, the magicians and debunkers of pseudoscience and general inanity. I regularly use clips from their show in my critical reasoning class, despite cringing every time Penn indulges in his “fuck this” and “motherfucker that” exercise in free speech (it distracts the students from the real point, not to mention the always lurking possibility of an administrator asking me about the appropriateness of foul language in a philosophy class). Heck, I even recently went to Vegas to see them in person, had a photo taken with Teller, and managed to tell him (to his surprise) about how my students enjoy stimulating discussions triggered by the duo’s antics.

But as we have learned recently from the Atheist Alliance / Dawkins Foundation / Bill Maher fiasco, “skepticism” is sometimes too broad a label, as someone can be properly skeptical in politics but not about pseudoscience (Maher), while someone else may be great at debunking astrology and magnetic therapy, and yet also unable to shed some huge blinders when it comes to politically charged issues. The latter is, unfortunately,
Penn&Teller’s case, as made excruciatingly clear by the 2008 (season 6) episode “Being Green” of "Bullshit!" I just watched it last night, and I found myself wanting to call up Penn to let go a few expletives of my own. Fortunately, I don’t have his phone number.

Penn & Teller have been very good at showing that just because one is concerned about the environment it doesn’t mean that one can think critically or act rationally. Their demonstration of well meaning environmentalists signing up to ban the “dangerous and ubiquitous” chemical known as dihydrogen monoxide (i.e., water) is priceless. In “Being Green” they pull off some of the same useful cautionary tales by showing how easily people can be duped by “green guilt” into all sorts of nonsense, like walking around with gravel (for which they paid real money) in their pockets in order to feel “connected with the earth.” Even more disturbingly, the episode raises some serious questions about large scale exploitation of pro-environment sentiment by web-based companies selling “carbon offsets” that are calculated in ways which the companies themselves have a hard time explaining.

But you know even our smart debunkers are running out of arguments when they choose to introduce former Vice President and Nobel winner Al Gore as an “asshole.” Again, there may be some legitimate criticism of Gore’s arguments and even tactics, but to give him the same treatment Penn & Teller usually reserve for real assholes, like con artists who sell snake oil to gullible people, just seems the kind of ad hominem attack that reflects badly on the attacker.

And going back to the issue of carbon offsets for a moment. It is one thing to alert people that they need to look into the companies that offer them, how the offsets are calculated, and how they are used. But
Penn & Teller explicitly compare these offsets to the indulgences to avoid hell that were sold by the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages (and which eventually helped bring about Martin Luther’s Reformation and the rise of Protestantism). I admit that it is funny to see P&T in medieval church garments, but really? Do they seriously mean to imply that the two are on the same level?

Hell doesn’t exist, and the Vatican is a corrupt operation for making money and inducing misery (as Penn & Teller themselves masterfully showed in a more recent episode of their series), but we really are fucking up (to use Penn’s florid language) with the environment, and it is no joke.

Except, of course, that
Penn & Teller’s libertarian blinders simply do not allow them to accept something that is so obvious to anyone who looks at the data and listens to the actual experts in atmospheric science: yes, Penn, global warming is happening; and yes, Teller, a good part of it is caused by human beings. Instead, the best Penn & Teller can do is to resuscitate a television weather man from the 1970s to assure us that global warming is a myth. And of course we have the predictable appearance of a guy from a libertarian think tank (the Cascade Policy Institute), who has no credentials that we know of, except being President of said think tank. (Note to self: create own think tank and declare yourself President. Make sure to have web site and business card. No thinking is actually necessary.) Needless to say, no one with a knowledgeable alternative viewpoint is presented during the show.

Instead, our libertarian heros keep telling us to relax, enjoy life, and drive SUVs, despite showing at the beginning of the episode a good number of frightening examples of all too real environmental destruction. Even Penn and Teller, however, have limits. Right at the end of the show, Penn enters a confessional (again with the Catholic Church!) and admits that he isn’t sure that there isn’t global warming, and that he isn’t positive that humans don’t cause it. But he tells us that even if that were true, heck, nobody knows what to do about it, so once again, go out and party all night long, because somehow technology and the god of free markets will solve every problem for us.