Debunkers' Delight: Penn & Teller, Sullum, Sokal, Waite, and New Atlantis

Related articles

The most frequent complaint about us skeptics is that we're party-poopers. How much more fun the world would be, say the non-skeptics, if only we all believed in unicorns, psychic powers, God, or panhandlers who really just lost their wallets and only need a few cents for bus fare back home.

  • Luckily, the skeptical magicians Penn and Teller, with their highly valuable Showtime series Penn & Teller: Bullshit!, are doing a great job not only of unmasking various charlatans and gullible spreaders of mumbo-jumbo but of being a lot more fun than their numbskull targets. It doesn't hurt that they've mentioned a couple of American Council on Science and Health head honchos in flattering ways, noting our president, Dr. Elizabeth Whelan, as a source for their bit about exaggerated secondhand tobacco smoke risks and praising ACSH director and Nobel-winning agricultural scientist Norman Borlaug as well, as the greatest man who ever lived.

    In an episode called "Eat This," debunking anti-biotech crusaders, Penn Jilette summarizes Borlaug's role in the so-called Green Revolution (not to be confused with the rise of the green banner of Islamic fundamentalism, nor the rise of the Green Party): "Norman Borlaug is an amazing man who changed the world...At a time when doomsayers were hoppin' around saying everyone was gonna starve, Norman was working. He moved to Mexico, and he lived among the people there until he figured out how to improve the output of the farmers. So, that saved a million lives. Then, he picked up his family and moved to India, where in spite of a war with Pakistan, he managed to introduce new wheat strains that quadrupled their food output, so that saved another million...When he won the Nobel Prize in 1970, they said that he had saved a billion people...Unfortunately, the humanitarian efforts of people like Dr. Borlaug are undermined by Greenpeace and other assholes."

    Penn and Teller can be offensive, and this culture needs them badly.

  • Skeptics about the government's ongoing war against drugs aren't too popular, either, though cautious critics are becoming a bit more acceptable: people who say that the drug war is well-intentioned, perhaps salvageable, but not very effective in its current form. ACSH as a whole has no official position on the drug war, but I'm willing to say that this new wave of criticism is progress of a sort as is the current Canadian move to decriminalize marijuana, which will make it much more popular with tourists from its southern neighbor. But Reason editor Jacob Sullum's new book, Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use, goes farther.

    Sullum makes the simple, obvious, and utterly taboo case that most people who use drugs enjoy it and don't end up being junkies, violent offenders, or burdens on society. He opens with a description of a highly successful CEO who did it all while smoking large amounts of marijuana, notes that most people learn moderation (as with alcohol) because of its practical benefits rather than legal threats, and outlines the statistics that suggest America has many, many drug users, of which only a tiny percentage become addicts.

    We at ACSH have sometimes taken issue with the attitude common among conservatives and libertarians, including Sullum, that smoking is not a true health crisis because it is a voluntary behavior (we note numerous overlooked negative health effects and millions of deaths from smoking, voluntary or not). It is fascinating, though, to read Sullum's account of how virtually every disfavored substance, including cigarettes, has at some point been the target of hysterical claims that users will be turned into mindless, jobless, amoral zombies. Henry Ford and other philanthropists published pamphlets a century ago warning that "cigarette fiends" have no future, since they quickly lose their ability to hold down a job or function in society (cigarettes have dire enough physical effects without adding this sort of propaganda to the mix).

    It seems that fear of a zombified populace may just be perpetual, always shifting to the latest dangerous-new-drug-on-the-horizon: marijuana, then crack, then ecstasy, and so on. (Senators Biden and Leahy were frightened enough about ecstasy to lead Congress in effectively outlawing large informal dance parties raves on the grounds that they are often sites of drug use.) Sullum counters such fears with statistics showing that marijuana users, for instance, appear to have about the same average income and work output as non-marijuana users. Our stereotypical picture of drug users as zombies the picture eagerly spread by the government results partly, suggests Sullum, from the fact that only the handful of dysfunctional hard cases ever come to our attention. If one cocaine user loses his job, gets arrested, or ends up sleeping in an alley, we may hear about it on the evening news, but we won't hear about the hundred others who went about their business and lead ordinary lives. Any substance, such as alcohol, can be used with varying degrees of responsibility. Some people like skeptical magician James Randi (my childhood hero and an inspiration to Penn and Teller) will go the teetotaler route, eager to avoid the slightest impairment of their rational faculties. But as Sullum reports, Randi recognizes that he shouldn't impose his decision on others. Would that most people showed as much restraint controlling their personal behavior without feeling the need to control others'.

  • The cloning of Dolly the sheep in 1997 set off a wave of conservative lamentations about the dehumanizing, unnatural potential of biotechnology. Unholy alliances were formed between the likes of conservative William Kristol and leftist-environmentalist Jeremy Rifkin aimed at stopping the cloning, stem cell research, and, in Rifkin's case, the re-engineering of plants. Though conservatives often lamented that the technology was progressing too fast for out ethical thinking to keep up, it was mainly conservative thinking with its underlying assumption that things and people ought to stay the same that had a hard time keeping up. (Libertarians, by contrast, were mostly delighted at the new possibilities opening up.) It is a good, healthy development for the entire culture that the quarterly The New Atlantis has appeared described by editor Eric Cohen (one of the few people, I should note, who is an associate of mine and of William Kristol) as a neoconservative science and technology journal.

    In his introduction to the first issue, Cohen concedes the complexity of the issues involved. The New Atlantis, whether one agrees or disagrees with its writers, should provide a useful forum for working out thoughtful conservative positions not only on biotech but on military technology, health policy, online privacy, and other issues. I predict that in the process, it will become apparent that some contributors such as Leon Kass, bioethicist and advisor to Bush hold anti-technology views that can't be sustained under robust critical assault. The rest of us simply don't share his horror at drug-enhanced memory or genetically-enhanced muscles, and at that point he has little more to say to those who don't already share his prejudices (and sometimes he's just factually in error, as when he suggests that technology leads to homogenization, when in fact all experience suggests that on balance it leads to greater and greater variety and new options).

    But it will be very interesting to see where the dialogue in New Atlantis leads. How much detail can anti-tech conservatives go into, for instance, about their belief that death is an essential component of the good life before they start sounding like ghouls? How sophisticated a dialogue can exist on these matters when people like New Atlantis editor Yuval Levin argues that such topics ought really to be taboo? [UPDATE: Levin writes in to say that his main point was that this taboo should be overcome; meanwhile, another neocon group, AEI, holds a conference on biotech on 6/12/03.] How seriously should we take an argument like that of contributor Gilbert Meilander (a theologian and one of Kass's fellow Bush advisors) that altering human DNA is like randomly scrambling the sentences of Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea and expecting it to remain meaningful? We'll see. I'm inclined to agree more with the contributors who say that the future will eventually bring humanity's replacement by robots at which point, I suppose, we won't need a bioethics journal, nor a website called HealthFactsAndFears (I'm on the side of the robots, of course).

    In the meantime, I wonder if the anti-biotech conservatives by wallowing in vague, moralistic language about human nature and society in order to guilt-trip us all into agreeing with their policy recommendations aren't risking becoming the victims of a hoax like the one that physicist Alan Sokal pulled on leftists in 1996, when he wrote a nonsensical article and got it published in Social Text by larding it with jargon from fashionable literary criticism? A hoax conservative anti-biotech argument would require references to the ancient Greeks and the Pope instead of Lacan and Derrida, but it shouldn't be hard to whip up, perhaps with a title like "Retaining the Fundamental: Cystic Fibrosis as an Essential Human Travail."

  • Finally, on a more serious note, it's nice to see a well-reasoned, carefully researched and footnoted volume like Michigan State University professor emeritus Donald E. Waite's Environmental Health Hazards: Recognition and Avoidance( being distributed. Without making political or philosophical arguments, Waite outlines the real menaces, mostly natural and occasionally man-made, that threaten health and briefly but effectively explains away some of the scare stories about, say, DDT or electric and magnetic fields that get media attention to the detriment of real threats such as malaria and hypothermia. As I said recently of the excellent booklet Misconceptions about the Causes of Cancer (, this is a volume that addresses the cold, hard facts about environmental health despite the immense temptation to deploy heated rhetoric instead. The world could use more textbook clarity and less fulminating.

    All the texts above, I must note, have one thing in common: They are better than the volumes of New Age nonsense I had to cart across the ocean recently as a favor for the friend who put me up in London during the recent risk conference I addressed there. Ironically, my HQ during the decidedly pro-science gathering was a household chock full of volumes on energy healing and astral projection, and I could hardly refuse to cart over a few additional volumes of the stuff from America when I was getting free digs out of the deal. Perhaps I should feel a bit like an "enabler" despite my repeated efforts to talk my friend out of believing in such things but plugging the fine items above helps put my conscience at ease.

  • line

    June 6, 2003

    Dear ACSH:

    I think that Penn and Teller are excellent magicians, but when they bully people on stage in their idiotically-named show, they cross the line into pure snake-oil salesmanship. Is harassment considered science?

    After all, it was Friedrich Hayek (one of my personal heroes) who warned of the dangers of the abuse of science. When you use specious industry-funded studies to prop up your "science," you are corrupting the process.

    Science has created great advances like the silicon chip, but it has also created the atomic bomb. It is up to enlightened citizens, in a never-ending quest for the truth, to decide these issues for ourselves. If biotech companies create killers like SARS, should they not be held accountable for their actions?

    There are also great mysteries that cannot be explained by science, like life after death. But maybe they will be, someday. There are many very effective alternative health treatments that "mainstream" science scoffs at, but they have been used successfully for thousands of years and by ancient cultures. What credibility does "mainstream" medicine have, when it kills millions of people per year? Surely balance is warranted.