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ShowTime’s Bullshit – An Aptly Named TV-Show

During my lazy time this weekend I watched an assortment of episodes from the Bullshit tv-series starring comedians/magicians Penn&Teller. I think the show is really entertaining and that you can actually learn a little bit about various persuasion techniques (something most marketers are interested in) by watching the show. But I wouldn’t recommend that you take everything said on the show as facts or, even worse, base your own opinion on it.

I wouldn’t be surprised if this particular Showtime production could be used in class as an example on how to affect people’s thinking without them really realizing what is going on. In (the current season) of the Bullshit show, the attack on your mind begins right with the opening credits. Words like “trick, science, belief, clarity, intellectual” and finally “TRUTH” are displayed prominently throughout. In this simple way they are priming you to take what is to come as the pure and simple, undisputable facts.

If you have ever watched this show for even a few minutes you can easily draw the conclusion of what it is that you – the viewer – is promised to get when you “buy into” this tv-show; you will instantly be able call other people on their bullshit. With all of the charisma of Penn Jillette you think you will also – as all your friends no doubt watch in deep admiration – be able to promptly label someone who holds another opinion an ignorant asshole.

In short, you become a member of a select group of well informed and smart people who are more or less immune to people who try to sell you snake oil in one form or another.

Because you know better.

After watching several episodes of Penn and Tellers Bullshit show I must confess, it is extremely easy to be more or less brainwashed by these guys. That is why I think it is important to remind yourself that some of it is as much an illusion as the magical acts this same duo entertain people with in Las Vegas.

A Sleight of hand  on “the truth”

The tv-channel I normally watch this show on was, by one of my friends, aptly named as “man tv”. He came up with that because it is a channel broadcasting a multitude of shows that (supposedly would) appeal especially to men. You know, like fishing, cars, the world’s most dangerous police videos, be your own carpenter, extreme sports etc.

It is easy to see how Penn and Teller instinctively appeal to such and audience. Many men would probably want to be a little bit like Penn Jilette themselves. And hey, these guys take every opportunity to say “fuck”and show off bare tits! And they certainly aren’t prepared to take shit from anyone…

They probably have won many men over to their cause right there, and imposing their own views on their audience after that is like taking candy from a baby.

I must confess, I don’t really know what the “crack research team” on this show are or how they work. But a plain fact is that much of what is presented in the show has nothing to do with truth. It is certainly a spin on the truth, but it shouldn’t always be taken at face value.

Don’t get me wrong – I love to see and hear Penn make absolute stooges out of people dealing with new age medicine and the like as much as the next guy. But we should remember that this show is entertainment more than anything else, and in some regards the cases presented often really make Fox news appear as “Fair and Balanced” by comparison.

Here’s an example:

In the episode of “Nukes, Hybrids & Lesbians”, there is a segment that seems to try and “prove” that hybrid cars exist mostly for the purpose of cashing in on people’s guilty conscience. But what facts do these truth seekers present to support this? Well, in essence they picked up a Toyota Prius and stated the following:

  1. You can’t fit a shitload of luggage in this car
  2. According to the butch lesbian test driving it, it has poor acceleration; it does 0 to 60 mph in 12 seconds (it is supposed to be able to do it in 10.9 seconds, by the way) which is much worse than a Corvette, Mini Cooper or a Harley Motorcycle
  3. The (supposedly) lesbian women hired to test drive the car didn’t manage to get an impressive mileage out of the car

In addition they also managed to “prove” that an editor of a Hybrid Car magazine actually didn’t know very much about cars and technology overall.

Okay, so all of that was presented in a very entertaining way. But what did we walk away with that actually makes any sense and proves that hybrid cars are bullshit? To be perfectly honest, absolutely nothing!

Ruling out what is essentially a car engine technology based on how much you can fit in the trunk of a particular car model is about as relevant as trying to determine the processing power of a personal computer by how big its case is.

Comparing acceleration of a car intended for mundane, day to day transportation to that of a Corvette is simply childish. If you wanted a meaningful comparison it would make more sense to compare it to a Toyota Avensis of about the same size that, according to the manufacturer, does 0 to 60 mph in 12.2 seconds. So the hybrid is actually faster. And both cars have more than adequate performance for the use they are intended for – both a Mini Cooper and a Corvette are grossly overpowered for most people’s needs, and the Harley is a bike and not a car.

As for the mileage, I don’t think you have to be overly chauvinistic to think that two preoccupied (with each other, the filming etc.) women in a car they are not used to didn’t perhaps manage to pull the optimal mileage out of said vehicle. According to the manufacturer, the Prius averages 4.3 Liter per 100 km (remember, I’m European) which is a very decent figure for a contemporary car of its size. The Avensis I compared to earlier has an average consumption of 7,2 Liters per 100 km.

Determining (or at least making it appear as) that the Hybrid Car magazine editor was an incompetent, hypocritical asshole says nothing about the hybrid technology itself. Basically it is the very common logical fallacy of “guilt by association”. In the Bullshit episode it served as a sleight of hand, just like in a magic trick.

For the record, I can say that I personally am not convinced that the dual engine idea of hybrid cars is a very good one. Mainly because it is expensive and unnecessarily elaborates things. There is also the question of what happens to the old batteries in these cars, but since Penn and Teller didn’t do more than briefly mention this I am pretty sure that those “assholes” over at Toyota in fact have a kick ass recycling program. ;-)
So in conclusion – even though I am no hybrid car fan myself – the Bullshit program’s take on hybrids actually contained more manure from a male cow than the car concept they where trying to ridicule.

Why The Above Doesn’t Matter

But I’m pretty sure that many viewers actually believe that Hybid cars are just bullshit, because they saw it on Penn and Tellers show. And that isn’t because they where right (in truth they where way off), but because they have the skill to present their case in such a manner that we – the viewers – want to believe them. I mean, they are the cool Penn and Teller – why wouldn’t we think like they do?

They do everything in their power, and in their case that is quite a lot, to make us think the same way they do. For example, why on earth do you think they signed up two (supposedly) lesbian women for test driving the car?

I can’t be 100% sure of course, but I think a logical reason was that they wanted the viewer to make the (false but common) association to the notion that “women are the worst drivers”. The way the mind often works, it is thereafter not that difficult to transfer that negative emotion on the car (technology) being discussed. If you further make the women lesbian, you have tossed a useful distraction into the mix that a person skilled with words can use to throw the viewer off from noticing that all you are saying is really completely irrelevant bullshit.

Or how about this line: “Speaking of licking, let’s see how our lesbians are doing”.

It may also be the case that lesbians are somehow considered even worse drivers than heterosexual women, therefore augmenting the desired effect even more. Along with the comparisons to Corvette and Harley they also manage to create an image that the Prius indeed, at the very most, is a car for chicks. Certainly something “a real man” wouldn’t want to be caught dead in the driver seat of.

After all, if even the butch, poor woman driver, lesbian said that the car was shit – how on earth could it be any good?

That last part of this post is the only part of this post that I currently have no way of backing up. But you can rest assured that the creators of the Bullshit tv-show are very knowledgeable in how they in fact can manipulate you in very similar ways to what I just described.

They are magicians – their profession is to make you think you saw things that actually never happened.

In other words: they positively make you crave their bullshit.

26 Responses to “ShowTime’s Bullshit – An Aptly Named TV-Show”

  1. Piotr Tekiela says:

    So you are a little environmentalist who got his feelings hurt because they bashed your ugly car, that’s cute. But I’m gonna have to disagree with you completely especially the part about your language. There is one key theme you have missed in there show and that is the libertarian philosophy. You keep saying things in your blog like they force you to watch the show, change the channel. That is what they are trying to tell you its ok to think what you want watch what you want and say what you want as long as you don’t try to force this upon others because they may think what you have to say is bullshit from there perspective. Not that the world is bullshit and I’m the greatest that’s exactly who they are speaking off, people who feel their way is the only right way to do things. Also the whole idea of this man channel concept, seems you don’t understand scientific thinking you are assuming that all men fit into a certain stereotype that we as men are all the same, how every ignorant on your part. As for your hybrid technology car, they call them bullshit experiments you know why because they aren’t meant to prove anything yet you took it seriously. Plus, you think this show is brainwashing people, what would you say to news channels. If you can name me one news channel that isn’t pushing an agenda and using tricks to do it, well my friend you take the cake. Wake up, these aren’t really tricks of the mind they aren’t doing anything more than anyone else to show their viewpoint, plus I love how you try to explain cognitive psychology when it is obvious you have never opened a book on the topic, you are persuading people using the same technique they do, so tell me what does that make you, no not an asshole but a hypocrite.

    • a says:

      Um, you’re a dumbass. Stop with your libertarian bullshit. A great deal of what people do affects other people. I shouldn’t have to put up with you if you’re a polluting, smoking motherfucker.

    • I totally agree with the article and it seems like you are backing it up by trying to bully your opinion across without any evidence and just a lot of trash talk. You are perfect for the show.

  2. Mike says:

    Well, maybe they should rename the program the “libertarian propaganda show” then…

    It is a while since I wrote this post, and in retrospect I think I (perhaps inspired by the show in question) used unnecessarily strong language in some of the segments. I do not habitually label people things like “ignorant assholes”, but on the Bullshit show they do. Tongue in cheek perhaps, but nevertheless.

    That said, I think Piotr mostly makes baseless and stereotypical assumptions about me as a person based on this one post.

    I stand by my main points that a lot of the things that I have seen on this show is merely a certain spin on the topics in question, and that they are rather good at making their target audience believe in what they are saying.

    As Piotr points out it is certainly not the only program to do so, as virtually all media people always presents their stuff from a certain angle.

    That was never disputed in my original post. However, having a story angle is not automatically synonymous with making “a spin” on the truth. Good journalists usually fulfill the criteria of objectivity.

    • I think “ignorant assholes” is appropriate since Penn and Teller try to label people as ignorant assholes it really shows who they are.

    • Buffalobill says:

      Im gonna go ahead and point your “bullshit” in regards to the segment penn and teller did on the prius. The Toyota Prius is exactly how they portrayed it. A product sold to consumers with a guilty conscience seeking to ascertain a “holier than thou” attitude. Much like organic food.. Now throughout history there have been many cars that get gas mileage far superior to that of the prius. in 1938 charles nelson poque invented a vaporized fuel system (has a US patent look it up) which achieved 200 MPG ON A FORD V8! sound ridiculous? well its not. it was recorded and is 100% factual. in more recent history mercedes has released diesel cars that get up to 50mpg on the highway. The technology we posses with the internal combustion engine is advanced to the point where gas and diesel V8, V4,V6, and I6 motors are the most efficient powerplants on earth. Electric cars are costly to build and make little power for what has to be put into them and require great amounts of electricity. Electricity is one of the dirtiest energies on earth almost all of it still comes from coal burning and other harmful energy creating techniques. not from “green” sources. in fact a very small amount of energy is produced and used from “green” sources. Although this is easy to forget when you can buy your prius and feel like you have done your $40K part to help the enviroment and whilst you continue to do things like waste water on pools and extravagant lawns and buy the new model smartphone every go around(which by the way are produced from some of the most toxic and difficult to extract minerals on earth). People are so ignorant it makes me sick. Do your research on energy, vehicles, and powerplants before you make yourself a steadfast baseless opinion and act like you are better than everyone else and that your saving the world. Im sure nobody will read through this but for those of you that have gotten this far i urge you DO YOUR RESEARCH

      • Mike says:

        Whoa – hold your horses there Mr. Buffalo! Nowhere in this post did I say that hybrids ARE great cars and/or the solution to our environmental problems. In fact, I literally said I DON’T think hybrids are a great solution.

        This post was really meant to be about persuasion tactics, not a stance on hybrid cars per se. Besides looking up a couple of official performance stats I didn’t make a single factual claim about hybrid cars.

        It is now several years since I watched this episode, but from what I remember P&T didn’t emphasize the same arguments you covered (how clean is the electricity that electric cars use? conventional cars can also get great mileage etc). And even if they did, that doesn’t change the fact that they also used well documented persuasion tactics like sexual distraction and biased samples.

  3. the Kid says:

    Reading this it is clear that you are extremely bias and chose to believe what you want to believe. You make no valid points.

  4. Mike says:

    And you my friend, managed to make no point at all.

  5. Dud says:

    I agree, penn and teller are mostly bullshit. They get the stupidest person to take up the other side of the argument. And get some semi compentant person for the side argument to make themseleves look good. The Shows Libertarian Bullshit.

  6. robert says:

    I watched a P&T B.S. clip on global warming and it seemed obvious from the start that the B.S. was coming from P (or is it T?) I can’t really stand to watch stupid bully sophistry so I don’t think I will be watching anymore of their programme. What I have noticed is that people believe what they want to believe. I don’t know if it is so much an artful persuasion as it is an excavation of an already existing belief system.

    I once saw an entertaining TV show on branding and marketing one segment of which featured a marketing/philosopher who was selling “The Code” which was basically supposed to be the language, (not limited to verbal,) of current human desire which could be exploited to sell stuff. This was a serious business with representatives from household corporate names in anxious attendance of its unveiling. He was credited with marketing of the Hummer by its appeal to the reptilian brain.

    What I find so depressing about the interchange you had with plotr is how there is no communication taking place. I think that maybe human culture has two poles, maybe they are masculine and feminine but they are not strictly sex linked. On the one hand you have the need to dominate and on the other you have the need to collaborate, hierarchy vs consensus. I feel like we live in a world with two kinds of people that you could describe negatively as those who are afraid of being dominated, that see society as a zero sum game in status, and those who are so afraid that if everyone doesn’t agree or feel good that they are evil.

    The “debate” on environmentalism seems to often break right along this fault. Notice how Plotr calls you a “little environmentalist” and says condescendingly how you “had your feelings hurt”. I would say this is very much the argumentative style of adolescent males. (The bullying banter used to try to sort out who has dominance.) On the other hand environmentalisms abuse by green washing and green guilt marketing exploits the weakness of a more feminine personality in the same way that fashion preys upon adolescent girls fears of ugliness and social criticism of anything but passivity.

    It seems to me that we live in a masculine world. (Which would you rather be; a bitch or a prick? P & T have always been aggressive and confrontational I believe. It seems natural that they would be libertarians as I would argue that individualism is a masculine value.

    I just realized I have gone on way to long, sorry. Anyway have a good day.

  7. Mike says:

    Robert, I think you make several interesting points – particularly the use of “excavation of an already existing belief system”.

    I agree that this is what manipulators of all sorts often try to use to their advantage. Because an audience that you already “have in your pocket” doesn’t really need to be persuaded in the first place. We listen to (and buy from) those we like, it’s that simple.

    This was what I was (somewhat ambiguously) hinting at with my anecdote about my friend calling a particular tv-channel “man tv”, and that many viewers probably somewhat admire Mr. Jilette for his bluntness.

    But you expressed the point much more clearly. :-)

  8. robert says:

    Here is a link to an interview with the “code” diviner that I mentioned.

    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/persuaders/interviews/rapaille.html

    I don’t know if just jealous of successful people but I find him repulsive. I feel like he is dressing up in intellectual clothing what natural salesmen have intuited since forever.

    Its kind of you say I expressed myself clearly, I personally feel I have a predilection for gas baggery.

  9. Bruce Gorton says:

    For me the one that pushed me over the edge towards “This is bullshit” with P&T was the gun control episode.

    Basically it was the moment where you had a guy say that he didn’t think women would want to have their equality depend on owning a gun.

    Penn went off about how the guy was a smug asshole and how its easy to say if you’re not a woman – but hang on one minute here.

    Penn, by doing this, essentially made the assumption that women want to live in a society where not being armed equals a big old “rape me” sign stapled to your back. Penn, in actual fact, is the smug asshole in that exchange.

    Oh, and I happen to live in SA where there are plenty of guns around. Doesn’t seem to have stopped rape happening out here.

    Then you have the whole admiring tone with a woman who has five guns dispersed around her property “just in case”.

    Because you know, wig shops are such infamous targets for bald criminals. Lex Luthor must be shaking in his boots.

    And note I am not saying guns lead to violence or any of that. The stats are mixed enough for me to think there isn’t a correlation one way or another.

    And screw it the basic closing argument, “The right to bear arms is to give us the ability to overthrow the government if we have to.”

    Yeah, nice masturbatory fantasy in a country where the government has a fair grasp of the communications networks you would use to organise, has satellites that can track you wherever, and spends more on its military than just about any other country in the world.

    And lets not forget the nukes, jets, tanks and other military hardware that is financially out of reach for just about any would-be-revolutionary.

    Suuure that gun of yours can take down the government Penn.

    • Mike says:

      Thanks for the comment Bruce.

      I remember seeing the gun control episode a couple of years back. And indeed, it was very much built around the same concept as virtually every other Bullshit episode I have seen.

      As for the whole gun control issue itself, I’m just glad to live in a country where I don’t have to bother with that particular debate ;-)

  10. BudWheizzah says:

    “A kick ass recycling system”

    Isn’t that what GM said about their program when they started putting their electric cars in landfills in the late 1990’s? I cannot trust anything a carmaker says about being “green” anymore since I saw the covert report on GM’s treatment of electric car disposal in the 90’s.

    Given Toyota have entered wave after wave of recalls, I don’t see how they’ll sustain a proper, expensive recycling program. I just don’t buy it – yet.

    Also, as for P&T BS, I took in what I felt was the only real intentional message in the episode: Hybrid cars drag around two drivetrains. It’s inefficient and overly complex. It’s an already defunct system. Time for electric cars and a transparent, goverment monitored recycling program.

    • Mike says:

      Good points.

      Personally I am hoping that some of the fuel cell technologies being developed will see a commercial breakthrough sometime soon.

    • Emilio Dumphque says:

      My wife’s nine year old Prius has never needed to recycle any batteries. Apparently they’re better than pundits expected. As to the dual drive-train issues, we’ve been using similar systems in all our locomotives for many decades! See that old “Streamliner” barreling down the rails? Diesel-electric! P&T are simply wrong about this, and hybrid cars are everywhere today, saving lots of gas so our troops won’t have to risk their lives to steal more!

      • Mike says:

        Good to hear that you are satisfied with your Prius. I still think that fuel cells will eventually be the way to go, but for now hybrids are certainly a very valid alternative.

  11. zingster says:

    If you pay attention to the show, they say several times that their show is extremely biased. They usually call themselves out on a lot of their own bullshit. As a matter of fact, they wanted to do a series finale called the bullshit of Bullshit! that picked their own stuff apart. They don’t force you to watch. Nor do they claim to be experts. They are just opinionated people who are trying to expose their beliefs. It’s hardly brainwashing. It’s only entertainment, and it should be taken as such. Now, the real brainwashing comes from the media. They ARE claiming to be experts. They aren’t forcing you to watch but they aren’t giving you choices for where to get your news either. It’s either sift through it online on your own or take what they feed you. You are either uninformed or misinformed no matter how you look at it. Let’s not forget that entertainment isn’t their job, it is Penn and Teller’s. When entertainers begin to be compared to a “serious” news organization whose function is to serve and inform the people, that is when it becomes evident that there is a real problem. We either have really informed entertainers or really twisted news organizations. My money is on the latter

    • Mike says:

      I don’t recall claiming that you are “forced” to watch…

      It would be interesting if someone did an experiment of how the average viewers perceive P&T – do they think they are making valid points and factual statements or that they are just full of, well, you know what.

    • The show is biased and it’s also misleading.

  12. Ted says:

    I cant say that I agree with you on most points, though they are completely valid. I like the show because they show things that really are complete and utter bullshit. One of my favorites was global warming. The world cycles naturally, and our impact on the global temperature is almost negligible. On the other hand, we are experiencing rampant climate change that is causing massive problems worldwide. Or recycling, which many of us already knew from common sense is not all its cracked up to be. It damages the environment far more to reprocess materials than to simply make more due to all the work that has to go into retrieving and reprocessing the old materials. They themselves have said that many of their shows were skewed by showtime to make them attractive to viewers, but they did always try to tell it from all sides.

  13. The real show that got me was the one on WalMart. They find these hicks who hate WalMart to represent all the anti-WalMart people and then go on to call small business owners lazy and claim that there would never be jobs in that community without WalMart. Didn’t people eat food and buy things before WalMart? Why just because WalMart is hiring people does that make people assume that WalMart is “providing” the jobs? They are making the jobs low wage jobs. Business owners are not lazy and they have an oppourtunity to make profits which go back into the community usually. Instead WalMart pays everyone the minimum and takes all the money to their profit books. I don’t see the Waltons going around buying stuff in the communities they have WalMart stores in. The whole episode is just BullShit. (period)

  14. Mike says:

    Yes, they are quite the spin doctors aren’t they. Particularly when it comes who gets to labeled an “expert” or a ignorant prick on any given show. In some episodes they are happy to (more or less) go with scientific consensus on a topic, while on other topics they for some reason chose to go with the one guy (that usually have been proven wrong on numerous occasions) that says it isn’t so. I’m not going to make it a factual claim, but to me it seems very probably that P&T are simply in the pocket of big business. I haven’t seen the Walmart episode, but is sounds like a great example.

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