Mythbusters and Bullshit   1 comment

There are no doubts about it, for the last decade, of the different type of  shows that has attempted to popularise skepticism, two of them have got much more attention than the rest. Mythbusters, and Penn and Teller’s Bullshit. Except that there’s really only one of them that actually is skeptical of nature, whilst the other appears to be as dogmatic as any tele-evangelist show I’ve seen.

Let’s start with Mythbusters. The idea of the show is to take a specific myth – almost any myth – and see if it matches reality. Almost anything goes, and their sources are near endless, as there are thousands and thousands of myths to explore that can be tested. And that’s the thing: They -test- the myths. They use science.

Now, at this point, I’m sure there are someone who says “they’re not doing science”. I agree that in the sense of making actually new scientific discoveries, or using discoveries to make new appliances, they’re not doing that. But I didn’t claim they were doing science, they are using science, in that they apply well-known scientifical principles and applications to Myth X, to see if those principles agree with the myth. Their rigour could be better at times, and sometimes their experiments have flaws, to be sure, but most of the time, their tests does the job.

Penn and Teller aren’t doing  much testing in their Bullshit. Well, sometimes they show off a few magic tricks to make a point, but what they basically do is trying to tell you the Holy Truth. Or at least that’s what it appears like. And in order to deliver this truth, they yell. Well, Penn yells, to be accurate. A lot. Dragging up facts and factoids to shout into the camera as a “reply” to whoever they had just interviewed. Sure, it does sound like an impressive strategy at first, except that when one thinks about it, there are often several questions left unanswered. The facts they pull may sometimes lack a context, or sources, and in general, one gets the feeling that they are using their show to do their own version of the infamous Gish Gallop. And that leaves me with a bit of a bad taste in my mouth after watching, even when I agree with them. Especially when I agree with them.

The biggest difference in these two shows is basically that Mythbusters doesn’t treat the myths with contempt. In fact, they have exlaimed many, many times over the years “I was wrong”. And even when they are right, they have shown that they did take the myth seriously enough to test it properly, instead of just dismissing it with a “that’s not possible”. They are, in two words, not condenscending.

I’d like to add in a third show called “The Real Hustle”, a show which depicts real situations on how scams and frauds are commited, by scamming ordinary people. And if you’re trying to tell me that “they’re not real, they’re all staged, with actors”, then please don’t. I do not know if they are really scamming ordinary people or not, and more importantly, I do not care either. As far as I’m conserned, as long as the situations they depict have actually happened (and I believe they have), it doesn’t matter to me whether they’re being completely realistic with their re-enactement. The point is to show the scams themselves.

Anyway, with that out of the way, I like The Real Hustler. Like Mythbusters, it doesn’t talk down to the audience. It doesn’t assume you have to be stupid to be scammed. Quite the opposite, it tells the story that everybody can be scammed, and the only way to know is to have the knowledge about how the scams work. Knowledge that they share with you. Penn doesn’t act like that, for sure. Seeing his program, you often get the feeling that only morons believe in X, and the only reason they believe in X is that they are morons. And you don’t want to be a moron, do you? No? So listen to Penn tell you The Truth, and you won’t be a moron either.

Nobody likes to be called a moron, of course. But the use of this tactic to get agreement is invalid, dishonest, and stands a pretty big chance of backfiring. One of the reasons that homeopaths are still so popular is because they are good with people skills. They listen to their clients properly, they care for him, and in the end, they manage to sell their fraudulent products much thanks to this. While the doctor may be rather direct, and give you prescription before almost shooing you out because his job isn’t – at least not in countries with universal healthcare – to sell something, it’s to treat diseases. And strictly speaking, you don’t directly need people’s skills to treat diseases.

I have a feeling Penn is like that type of doctor. He  doesn’t think he needs people skills to share his skepticism with the world, he’s just using his facts as a way of  treating it of the disease “stupidus maximus”, preaching (yes, preaching) his particular brand of hellfire and brimstone. And I for one think he’s wrong with that approach. As Terry Pratchett once said, in a footnote in the book Monstrous Regiment: The company of those seeking the truth are infinitely more preferable to those who think they have found it.

As a final note, I realise that my comments are a bit out of date, since one of these shows are no longer being produced. And while this isn’t really evidence of anything – because TV ratings can’t be said to be based on logic – it’s possibly a bit telling that Bullshit stopped after only a few seasons (and I for one remain skeptical to the claim that they ran out of subjects to rant about), while Mythbusters is still making new stuff, as well as having their old stuff on eternal reruns.


One response to “Mythbusters and Bullshit

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. I’d forgotten all about The Real Hustle. That’s a great show. I watched it a few times when I was in the UK the first time around, but I don’t think it plays in the US (at least, I never saw it on there). I tend to agree about Bullshit, in that it seems to be aimed at people who agree with them in the first place. I mean, I find Penn and Teller really amusing, but I imagine if I was someone who believed in one of the subjects of their show, I’d feel put on the defensive from the start, which is not a great way to get people to come around to your way of thinking.

    Mythbusters is undeniably awesome. 😀

    Shannon Humphreys

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: