I came upon a very interesting Rational Wiki article on Penn & Teller. This pair has bugged me for a very long time — especially after their ideological defense of Walmart. Their libertarian views skew everything they do. I generally have a problem when rich and successful people promote libertarianism. It is like someone who’s won a war saying, “Now let me explain why monarchy is the best form of government…” These are guys who had all the advantages of public education, unions and public sector jobs (Jillette’s father was a prison guard), and a safety net that allowed them to risk failure in a field where most fail. Yet now they have convinced themselves that it was all about them, and now they don’t want no stinking government to interfere with them — even at the cost to later generations having the same support that they depended on.
But the duo is interesting in that they are strictly rational when it comes to looking at claims like UFOs or ghosts, but when it comes to politics, they’re hopeless. On their show Penn & Teller: Bullshit! they couldn’t touch on anything even remotely associated with politics without falling into the ideologue’s trap: they started with their conclusion. (In fairness, their approach to UFOs and ghosts is probably just as predetermined — but those subjects have the advantages of having had actual scientists look into them.) Then their arguments were nothing more than setting up straw men to knock down and cherry picking data.
They were most notoriously wrong about global warming. Now a real skeptic looking into global warming would, I know know, talk to a scientist? Maybe James Hansen would have something to say on the issue. But Penn & Teller are far too smart for that! They went to the source of the best information on climate change: the Cato Institute. Because when you want objective information, the best place to go is to people who are ideologically committed to the science saying a particular thing. And even better, go to people who are ideologically committed in exactly the same way that you are! That way you can filter any actual information through that prism.
Okay, so that was back in 2003. There was little reason to doubt global warming then, but it was more understandable then. But in the years since, Jillette has only provided apologias for his previous positions. According to Rational Wiki, “In later interviews, Penn stated that anthropogenic global warming was probably real, but claimed that he was talking about not knowing whether ‘the whole package’ (ie the need for government intervention, presumably as opposed to a self-correcting market) was real.” But that’s not true: the duo was clearly making the case that all conservatives were making then, “We don’t know so we shouldn’t do anything!”
Further, Jillette (and Teller too, I assume) has only shown that he is doing the global warming denial steps. They are: (1) There is no global warming; (2) There is global warming, but humans aren’t the cause; and (3) Humans are causing global warming, but there is nothing we can do about it. There’s nothing rational about that. It is just, “I don’t want to believe and so I won’t.” And that makes him as rational and skeptical as your average fundamentalist Christian.
In 2008, the duo did an episode attacking the idea of carbon offsets. At that point, only loons were denying global warming. And there they were complaining about the most conservative response. Rational Wiki pointed out that in the episode, they used Argumentum ad Gorem, or Gore’s Law: “As an online climate change debate grows longer, the probability that denier arguments will descend into attacks on Al Gore approaches 1.” But what do you expect from a couple of libertarians? Rational argument?!
When it comes down to it, Penn & Teller will argue that they are just entertainers, “Just a clown! Just a clown!” But if that’s the case, why not step out of the skeptical movement? Why pretend that you are speaking the truth and not just pushing your own self-serving ideology? Why not stick to what you actually know? I would argue that the reason is because both these men are so deluded that they can’t even see their own biases. The same thing can be said for the New Atheist movement generally. And that’s probably why the New Atheists continue to admire them as their own.