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[Mind Games:] Penn & Teller – "Bull****" artists – get ready to change their "skeptical" stance on climate change

July 5th, 2008 4 comments

There’s an interesting bit of arm-twisting, self-deception, defensiveness and reluctant position-shifting going on in the libertarian science skeptics crowd, and Penn and Teller seem to be letting the social pressure help clear their minds.

At James Randi‘s gathering of skeptics in Las Vegas last month (The Amazing Meeting 6), apparently both Penn and Teller very reluctantly conceded in response to audience q & a that they now “don`t know” whether or not “global warming is Bull****“, but that they certainly hate Al Gore.

After being mocked and criticized by Sharon Begley (Newsweek science columnist) for “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” and for illustrating Begley’s talking point at the meeting that our beliefs are often NOT based on reason (says Begley, “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.”), Penn Jillette offered up a rather whiny response at the LA Times (in an op-ed defensively titled “Climate change? Once more, ‘I don’t know’; Being honest about not knowing enough of the science to make a judgment isn’t the same as an outright denial”):

During our loose Q&A period this year, someone asked us about global warming, or climate change, or however they’re branding it now. Teller and I were both silent on stage for a bit too long, and then I said I didn’t know.

I elaborated on “I don’t know” quite a bit. I said that Al Gore was so annoying (that’s scientifically provable, right?) that I really wanted to doubt anything he was hyping, but I just didn’t know. I also emphasized that really smart friends, who knew a lot more than me, were convinced of global warming. I ended my long-winded rambling (I most often have a silent partner) very clearly with “I don’t know.” I did that because … I don’t know. Teller chimed in with something about Gore’s selling of “indulgences” being BS, and then said he didn’t know either. Penn & Teller don’t know jack about global warming … next question. …

Is there no ignorance allowed on this one subject? … You can’t turn on the TV without seeing someone hating ourselves for what we’ve done to the planet and preaching the end of the world. Maybe they’re right, but is there no room for “maybe”? There’s a lot of evidence, but global warming encompasses a lot of complicated points: Is it happening? Did we cause it? Is it bad? Can we fix it? Is government-forced conservation the only way to fix it?

To be fair (and it’s always important to be fair when one is being mean-spirited, sanctimonious and self-righteous), “I don’t know” can be a very bad answer when it is disingenuous. You can’t answer “I don’t know if that happened” about the Holocaust.

But the climate of the whole world is more complicated. I’m not a scientist, and I haven’t spent my life studying weather. I’m trying to learn what I can, and while I’m working on it, isn’t it OK to say “I don’t know”?

I mean, at least in front of a bunch of friendly skeptics?

Of course, given the tricks that we play on ourselves, it’s entirely possible that Begley did not accurately capture the gist of Penn and Teller’s remarks, but even if they both said they “don’t know” at TAM6, it’s a lack of knowledge that rather curiously didn’t prevent them from spending the past five years mocking climate change concerns.

Ron Bailey, science correspondent for Reason, another libertarian climate skeptic who prominently changed his mind two years ago, summarizes here, where he quotes from both Begley and Penn.  Bailey both schools and chides Penn, while acknowledging that there is ample room to debate policy:

Is it happening? Did we cause it? Yes, the balance of the evidence is that it is happening. Is it bad? Relative to what? Can we fix it? Maybe. But at what’s the best way to do so? Are immediate deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions necessary? Some analysts don’t think so. Government-forced conservation? Perhaps there is another way. Skepticism is certainly merited when it comes to proposals that aim to solve global warming.

Finally, is it OK to disdain Al Gore? Sure it is. But even an annoying self-important scold can be right sometimes.

It seems to me that Penn and Teller’s defensiveness clearly signals a shift in their position from broad disagreement with global warming, both on science and on policy, towards conceding the core of the science while focussing on policy.

It’s interesting that apparently that their shift was motivated not by a desire to be right on the science – after all, they have prominently mocked others on climate change without even seriously bothering to address the scientific evidence – but because of pressure from other skeptics who have already changed their own minds.

It’s also interesting that Penn and Teller, who are not known for showing much concern for the feelings of those whom they mock and ridicule, are essentially saying to their fellow skeptics, “hey, this criticism from friends hurts our feelings”.  It’s very interesting that while they talk about their friends they are careful to put Begley at a distance, referring to her as “one of the non-famous, non-groovy, non-scientist speakers” (a nice case of misdirection, since even if Begley is less famous or groovy than Penn and Teller, they certainly aren’t scientists either) and complaining that SHE is the one who is “one is being mean-spirited, sanctimonious and self-righteous”. Hey, that nerd Sharon Begley is being MEAN to us! they say.

Yep.  So while Penn and Tell grudgingly concede that maybe all of those AGW “religionists” might be onto something, they need to downplay their own change of mind by continuing to disdain Al Gore, and by directing their ire at that b*tch, Sharon Begley.  Not particularly noble, but a change of mind nonetheless.

This may dishearten others who passionately believe that puny man with his fabulous technology and booming numbers can’t possibly influence the Earth’s climate, but I predict that many will find ways to distract themselves from Penn and Teller’s shift, such as by attacking Sharon Begley and the evil MSM.