Home > Critical Thinking, Geek, Media, Reviews, Skepticism > Penn and Teller: Bull*%&! Episode 1: “Talking to the Dead”

Penn and Teller: Bull*%&! Episode 1: “Talking to the Dead”

Hello dear readers!

Tonight I want to start a project that I’ve wanted to do for a while now because I think there’s a lot of potential to have some interesting discussions. Penn Jillette and Teller, two of my favorite illusionists, put together a daring kind of show in which they took controversial topics and discussed them from their unique perspective. Sometimes this created shows in which their political ideology trumped science (like the global climate change episode), but other memorable times we got episodes in which they created one of the best visual metaphors for vaccines to date.

If you haven’t seen this series, I encourage you to do so. And one of the first things you should keep in mind (apart from the warnings about nudity and language) is that this is a show about skepticism, and applying skepticism even to the skeptics. The show is called Bullshit! for a reason–the two hosts may be peddling it, and it’s important to call even them out.

Of course, when doing so it’s important to be tactful.

To be fair, I don’t think I was kicking him when he was explaining that he made missteps. It’s hard to convey what you mean on the internet, much less in 140 characters. In case Penn ever sees this post, I want to apologize for the tone–but I was offering an honest critique of the show, not trying to put him down.

With that said, I want to start a “rewatch” and a review of the first episode, entitled “Talking to the Dead.” It’s the first show of the series, and it sets the tone and makes an introduction.

Original Air Date: January 24, 2003
Production Code: 101

The show opens with Penn talking to a prop headstone belonging to Houdini, which is very apropos to the topic and the show itself. Houdini is perhaps the most famous illusionist in history (his name is even an idiom!), and I’m sure both Penn and Teller find inspiration in his life. There’s a lot of humor in the show, which is a necessity because, often, they’re dealing with controversial and difficult topics in the show. Penn, for instance, will say, “See, it’s easy to speak to the dead,” after speaking to the prop headstone as if Houdini was listening to him.

One thing that stands out to me is that Penn admits that they have dealt out bullshit, but that they tell people that they lie. I think that this is particularly why the show works–and it reminds me very much of the work of James Randi, who made his mark by exposing people like Uri Geller as bullshitters. Who better to expose bullshit but bullshit artists themselves?

And in case you’re wondering why the show is called “Bullshit,” Penn explains it is for legal matters; apparently, calling people con artists and quacks will open you up to legal action, whereas saying they’re full of it is a-okay. Admittedly, after watching this episode I’m a bit leery of calling any bullshitter a fraud, but just talking about who they are and what they do is more than enough to get the point across.

So obviously this episode is about people who claim that they can communicate with the dead. It’s important to note that I’m a scientific skeptic and I don’t believe that ghosts or spirits exist, and even if they did, they probably have more important things to do than sit around and talk with us boring idiots all day. But there are certainly powerful emotional reasons for people to buy it–perhaps they miss loved ones, or can’t move past the grief of losing a life partner. These feelings are very understandable and they’re human. We should be empathetic to these people because we’ve all lost someone close to us.

And that’s why the people that take advantage of people in grief need to questioned. If they’re exploiting people, and lying to them, they should be exposed.

I have to agree with Penn when he says that they’re not interested in the money that psychics who claim that they can communicate with the dead are taking from vulnerable people–what matters is that they desecrate the memories that the people hold of their lost loved ones. How are people influenced by exploitation of those memories, and is it harmful? As Penn says, the only thing we have left of the people who leave us behind are our memories of them–more valuable than the money that they take.

Penn also introduces the Center for Inquiry, a group that is famous for its pro-science advocacy and fostering skepticism toward supernaturalism. What’s perhaps most useful is that they list and explain a number of methods that are used by performance artists and psychics to connect with their audiences. The first method is “cold reading,” which is described as a way of fishing for information “while giving the impression that you’re getting this information from some supernatural source…”

Psychics will make a lot of guesses, and eventually hit upon something that’s accurate. It’s a version of the sharpshooter fallacy. The psychics will make many misses, but what are remembered or stressed are the hits that they make. And if you’re a psychic with a TV show, you’re going to be incentivized to edit the show such that the misses are, well, missing.

There is also “hot reading,” in which the psychic gives very detailed or accurate answers, and this is accomplished when they’ve done some prior research or have spied on the people in the audience. It’s kind of a despicable cheating, but for unsuspecting people it’s probably a bit overwhelming. It’s pretty easy to accomplish by putting microphones in waiting areas, or planting people in the audience to suss out information as if they’re just people there to watch striking up a conversation.

I suppose if you’re going in knowing what the show is about, and appreciate a good illusion, there might not be a problem with it. I love watching magicians fool me with illusions, so why not enjoy a good psychic show? There might not be a reason to be so critical if they’re not exploiting vulnerable people and if they come clean about the tricks they use.

Perhaps the most obvious is the “shotgun approach,” where the psychic takes advantage of a large audience and plays the odds. It’s likely if they just throw stuff out at an audience, they’ll chance upon a member who has some connection to a random name they throw out. For example, “does anyone here know an Ed? Edward? I’m getting a name that starts with an E.”

I think that method is kind of ingenious, actually. The audience participates actively–if they hear something that they can relate to, and get involved, they’re probably more willing to be fooled. “Yes, my uncle’s name was Ed!” It’s like the psychic has made a personal connection–and can channel this uncle to them. And when the audience appreciates this by, say, applauding, it reinforces the belief that it’s real. So, in effect, the audience member will supply the information and fill in the blanks, essentially doing the job for the psychic.

I think one of the highlights of the episode is when people involved in the Bullshit show aren’t allowed to bring their cameras into a John Edward live show, and they’re asked to leave the premises. I think that’s pretty revealing, actually–anyone’s skepticism alarm should be raised as soon as they’re disallowed from observing or recording such performances. If anyone could actually speak to the dead as psychics, why wouldn’t they want as many people to see that as possible? What would they be so afraid of? Why not let skeptics bring in their video recording devices? Prove that you can actually do what you say you can?

I think what I appreciate so much about this episode is that they not only list the methods that psychics use, but that they avoid attacking the people who go to the psychics. That’s very important: we’re all vulnerable, and sometimes we all fall for bullshit, but we don’t move past that and do better when people make fun of us and criticize us for our mistakes. We need to empathize with these people–try to help them deal with their grief without making empty promises and bullshitting them.

Penn closes the episode by saying, “You don’t heal a broken heart by pretending its not broken.” Indeed. The showmanship of a psychic is no true balm for the wound of a lost loved one.

Bullshit gets off to an auspicious start by exposing what is essentially an obvious target for skepticism, and it does it in an empathetic and clever way. If nothing else, it provides a good starting point for further research into psychics and people who claim that they can talk to the dead.

The next installment of this series will focus on Episode 2: “Alternative Medicine.” I’m actually looking forward to that one.

Next Episode

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