Bulls–t In "Bulls–t"

First of all, don’t get me wrong – I’m a fan of Penn and Teller’s show Bulls–t, which I was alerted to by Mihai here, here, here, and here. Anyway, they take on all sorts of cranks and scumbags out to dupe people for a quick buck. And I think they’re doing a great public service with the show.

However, I am a little bit suspicious about some of their tactics – I don’t think they’re above a little BS themselves. For example, in the episode about enviromentalism, they took on an enviromental group called Rainforest Action Committee (or something like that), and made quite a big deal of the fact that their spokesperson was, well, let’s say “uninformed”. But it begs the question – why bother with this group in the first place? If you want to demonstrate that a lot of young, idealistic college students are misinformed and deluded, that’s fine. But if you want to get a statement from environmentalists, wouldn’t the natural place to start be Greenpeace or the WWF (who are prominently mentioned and criticized in the show)? Or Al Gore, for that matter? Someone who can actually make a coherent argument, for better or worse? Naive college kids are just straw people.

What got me suspicious, though, was when they brought The Cato Institute, a “a non-profit public policy research foundation headquartered in Washington, D.C.”, in. Not that I have any specific beefs with Cato, but what the hell are they doing in P&T’s show talking about the environment? Ah, yes: “today, there is no greater impediment to American prosperity than the immense body of regulations chronicled in the Federal Register, and academic analysis has documented the economic inefficiencies engendered by the regulatory state.” This is from Cato’s “Regulatory Studies” page.

Of course! All those pesky regulations that tell corporations to clean up their shit are hurting American prosperity! And it’s Cato’s mission, as a political group, to stop all that nonsense. Come to think of it, Cato’s office was pretty nice. I’m sure cash flow is not a problem for any think-tank arguing against legislation – they’re probably the darlings of every major corporation in America.

I only noticed the Cato thing because P&T brought in Cato again in their episode on second-hand smoking, arguing against the regulation of smoking in public places. Now, I personally benefit from that, being a non-smoker, and able to go to a club without smelling like crap. And there’s no shortage of evidence showing that first-hand smoke is one of the worst things you can voluntarily do to your body – from emphysema to mouth/tongue/throat/lung cancer (anywhere that stuff touches) – it’s dangerous. So second-hand smoke probably isn’t a whole lot better, considering it’s the SAME SMOKE. But Cato’s agenda is anti-regulation, and apparently P&T (and/or their writers/producers/directors) have the same agenda. Why else bring Cato in for two episodes in the first season alone?

Again, I think P&T are doing a great service with this show, showing plenty of things as the BS that they are. But just like everything else, you have to take some of the things they say and portray with a grain of salt. Because just like the people in their sights, they’re pushing an agenda, and they’re running the show.

–YY

p.s. As a side point, P&T use testimonials as evidence against the harmful effects second-hand smoke (a older, healthy bar owner in New York). But they rightfully dismiss the testimonial as any sort of proof in their other shows, because it’s useless information. Individuals are not reliable to convey the state of their body, and even if they were, this particular man may have a built-in defense against SHS that others don’t have. Or not – you just can’t tell without real scientific data.

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