Penn & Teller, and Believing in Dumb Things

There is definitely something to be said for holding a science meeting in Las Vegas, especially when the subject of the meeting is skepticism about pseudoscience and the paranormal. When I took a break from listening to the scholarly papers on people’s gullibility and the psychological basis for the belief in weird stuff, I strolled through the ubiquitous casinos and saw, yup, people believe in things (like the possibility of beating the house) for which there is little to no basis in reality.

The (almost) annual "Amazing Meeting" is put on by the James Randi Educational Foundation. Randi, of course, is the magician who has put his expertise in and knowledge about illusion and fooling people to good use in debunking claims of the paranormal, most famously showing that Uri Geller was not bending spoons with his thoughts:

In that fine tradition, psychology researcher Richard Wiseman has posted YouTube videos of how “magic” card tricks work, and at the conference last weekend persuaded the magician Teller (the silent half of Penn & Teller) to explain how “mentalists” (appear to) bend spoons.

My small contribution was a talk arguing that skeptics should not count on the press to enlist in their debunking crusade, something that also extends to the fight between evolution and creationism. So as not to bore you with the whole 30-minute speech, let me just say that my basic argument was that people believe weird things because of emotion, something no number of magazine and newspaper stories on the solidity of the science behind evolution (or the lack of evidence for homeopathy, psychic phenomena et al, as I also discussed in a column last year), is going to change. Add to that the public’s antipathy toward the press, and there’s no way the press can help the skeptics’ cause.

I’ll write more about the meeting eventually, but for now I can’t get something out of my mind. Penn and Teller did a q&a with the audience the day before Teller alone spilled the beans on spoon bending, and one question yielded a surprising answer. Someone asked Penn whether he still believed that man-made climate change is bunk, as he has said more than once. Penn's basic answer was: I loathe everything about Al Gore, so since Gore has been crusading against climate change it must be garbage.

Now, Penn & Teller’s terrific “Bull****,” now beginning its sixth season on Showtime, has debunked psychics such as John Edward, feng shui, acupuncture and other forms of pseudoscience and the paranormal. But here was Penn, a great friend to the skeptic community, basically saying, don’t bother me with scientific evidence, I’m going to make up my mind about global warming based on my disdain for Al Gore. (Both Penn and Teller are well-known libertarians and supporters of the libertarian Cato Institute, which has been one of the leaders in spreading doubt about global warming.) Which just goes to show, not even the most hard-nosed empiricists and skeptics are immune from the power of emotion to make us believe stupid things.

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