Thursday, September 29, 2005

Skepticism for the Converted

There are a lot of Skeptic sites on the web but there seem to be few for those self-described as Gullible.

Anyway, I wouldn't even bother to write this review here except that I went searching for comments on Penn & Teller's Showtime program Bullshit and was sort of amazed at the overwhelming preponderance of positive commentary the program has inspired. I have always enjoyed P&T, including their underloved movie Penn & Teller Get Killed (especially the stunning casino sequence), but after perusing the back of the DVD of the first season at the Taos video store I had an I-don't-want-to-be-the-one-to-bring-this-home feeling about Bullshit. However, when my wife Marci spotted it I was secretly thrilled because I could watch it without in any way being responsible for my own viewing. (Go ahead, immolate my pathetic self). We got the first disc and were all excited.

I should say here that I've always wanted to go on and on about how, judging from the things they write, most of those who call themselves Skeptics with a capital S are pretty boring thinkers. You know how most Atheists can't stop thinking about God, in rather the manner that most homophobes can't stop thinking about homosexuality? Well, Skeptics who can't stop thinking about psychics and UFOs are pretty much in the same boat, except that psychics and UFOs lack the universal relevance of God and homosexuality.

The excuse - and let's get right to Penn & Teller on this because they have this in spades - is that the Skeptics are concerned terribly terribly about all the poor souls who are being duped and all the money that is going to charlatans, and that their work is therefore incredibly important to the maintenance of civilization and not, say, an unhealthy and trivial control freakdom verging on mania.

What this means is that you won't see Skeptics - or Penn & Teller - going after stuff that really costs money like privatization or the pharmaceutical industry. Not only because it isn't as much fun for them, but because so many Skeptics (and definitely Penn & Teller) are capital-L Libertarian capital-B Believers in the Scientific Method. Which means their skepticism stops when they get to their own back door.

This is such a shame. It is a great failing of the Skeptic movement. Penn & Teller talk about following the money constantly, but they follow itty bitty money around. Worse, they actually seem to think they don't have core assumptions of their own.

All of this, really, I could have guessed without seeing the show, but the show is so very terrible that it doesn't, in fact, make a good case for a criticism of the American Skeptic movement (despite the rabid support it receives from Skeptics).
The program looks slapped together. Incredibly, Penn & Teller give very little time to rational argument of any kind, evidently regarding rational argument as boring - there is about as much logic on this program as you are likely to see on Bill O'Reilly, and a good deal less than on the Home Shopping Network. The show's basic strategy is not argument but a succession of talking heads, most of which we are to understand are stupid or deluded or lying and a few of which we are to understand as truth tellers. The Cato Institute Is Not Full of Motherfuckers, No Sirree!!! We shall direct no skepticism at the Cato Institute, who we are sure are never funded by tobacco companies and even if they were.

P&T's notion to go ballistic with the bad language, (shocking!) calling everybody motherfuckers, etc., aside from being bad form, is lame entertainment, and Penn J. I must say is not the most able swearer I've seen - he comes off, oddly, as a prig when he says righteously stunted things like "these people are motherfuckers." Everybody on the web seems very impressed by Penn's explanation that he is much safer, legally, using these terms than calling people liars or hoaxers or frauds, for which P&T (and Showtime) could be sued. Far be it from me to suggest to people ways in which they might sue people, particularly "cool" people like Penn & Teller, but couldn't that explanation Penn gives in the first episode that he'll be using "motherfucker" as code for "fraud" be used by a smart lawyer against them later?

Monday, September 12, 2005

Is It Time Yet?

Is it time to start talking about third parties and protest votes and such again? Almost but not quite? Way past time?? Too far away from the '06, from the '08?

Something nobody has even acknowledged was the way that people who voted Nader in 2000 mostly - overwhelmingly, actually - supported Kerry in 2004 in a grand gensture of goodwill. They noted the support, yes. They fudged on the motive.

The reason nobody acknowledged it as a gesture of goodwill was because of a little bit of political wisdom. It makes no sense to acknowledge and plead thanks for something that has been given away, easy. Voters who realize that they've traded away their vote for absolutely nothing are likely to feel cheated. But this isn't just political wisdom either. It works in business transactions too: render that which is actually negotiable invisible.

The way this transfer of allegiance was officially viewed was as a massive "coming to senses," a sudden influx of reason amongst the previously foolishly idealistic, a sudden desire not to be insane. As such it could be dismissed. As such it could be implied to be permanent, too.

To dwell upon this gesture of goodwill as what it really was - a gift of a vote to a guy and a party that had done nothing to deserve it except not be George W. Bush and the Republican Party - would possibly have alerted those doing the gifting that in fact they had asked for nothing - except victory.

They didn't get victory. So was that "coming to their senses" a permanent shift after all? Or will they actually ask for something in exchange for their vote next time?

Friday, September 02, 2005


Times like this where the news is so bad (New Orleans) give me this absurd feeling of agitation where I go about thinking up arguments as if this really matters. Of course in times and places arguments do matter, but it feels megalomaniacal to me too and inevitably from listening to people talk on the radio, I imagine what I would say on the radio. How can this not feel megalomaniacal?

In such a spirit of agitation I rented the movie The Corporation and it is just the thing - a terrific documentary. Corporations might not have anything directly to do with the mess in New Orleans, but the worldview that supports them sure does.

But this movie got me thinking about something that I haven't really wanted to look into, whether that wondrous and suddenly easily available product "Cabot Sharp White Cheddar" which is available not just at a cool place like Trader Joe's but at the I-admit-it-I-buy-stuff-there-too behemoth Wal-Mart, whether Cabot is as "Natural" a creamery as the name "Cabot Natural Creamery" would imply. Whether they use bovine growth hormone, which we tend to frown on around here since we don't really want our two pre-pubescent girls sprouting breasts by age eight.

Apparently Cabot does use bovine growth hormone on everything but their products that are explicitly labeled "organic." If I hear otherwise I'll let you know. In the meantime I got on their website and sent them this letter. I hope you can feel my pain when I speak of giving up their products. I don't have much hope of getting them to feel my pain, but the revocation of my almighty consumer dollar (in my case "consumer dollar" should definitely always be singular) alone won't be noticed. Cabot's Sharp White Cheddar, available for about the same price as mediocre Monterey Jacks of all sorts, is one of those poor man's culinary miracles. Not anymore though:

Dear Cabot,
I have been very excited to be able to buy your sharp cheddar at Wal-Mart locally. Since you list yourself as a "natural" creamery I assumed that your products are free of bovine growth hormone. I actually thought that you just didn't advertise not having rbgh because Wal-Mart wouldn't stock some product that makes their other products look unsafe. I thought, well, if I buy products at Wal-Mart that buck the trend toward crazed unsustainability, that I am influencing in a way America’s largest retailer towards such products and away from others that are more a part of the problem. I should have known better.

Let me assure you that I am a real consumer, not someone who is part of any organization (not that that would make me "not real," just that this is an inspired letter by one agitated consumer, not part of an orchestrated campaign). It is with great regret that I tell you that I can't buy your very tasty products any longer.

Only morons who are actually stupid enough to believe that just because products are approved for sale in the United States they must be safe continue to use milk with bovine growth hormones.

I'm very sorry to tell you this because I really like the way your cheese tastes. If you will stop using this stupid technology I will go back to buying your cheese, pronto.

Regretfully --- Vic Perry

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