Penn Jillette Bashes Newsweek's 'Non-scientist' Sharon Begley

Newsweek's Sharon Begley, who earlier this week had the unscientific gall to blame the Midwest floods on global warming, continues to offend more and more people with her every keystroke.

The object of her current disaffection, comedian/magician Penn Jillette, isn't taking her affront lying down. In fact, he published a response at the Los Angeles Times Thursday to her recent attack on his global warming skepticism.

To set this up, here's what Begley posted at her Lab Notes blog last Friday concerning June's "Amazing Meeting" conference sponsored by the James Randi Educational Foundation (emphasis added throughout, h/t Reason):

Penn and Teller did a q&a with the audience the day before Teller alone spilled the beans on spoon bending, and one question yielded a surprising answer. Someone asked Penn whether he still believed that man-made climate change is bunk, as he has said more than once. Penn's basic answer was: I loathe everything about Al Gore, so since Gore has been crusading against climate change it must be garbage.

Now, Penn & Teller’s terrific “Bull****,” now beginning its sixth season on Showtime, has debunked psychics such as John Edward, feng shui, acupuncture and other forms of pseudoscience and the paranormal. But here was Penn, a great friend to the skeptic community, 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. (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.

This didn't sit well with Jillette who chose to set the record straight about what happened in Vegas last month (emphasis added):

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.

The next day, I heard that one of the non-famous, non-groovy, non-scientist speakers had used me as an example of someone who let his emotions make him believe things that are wrong. [...]

Later, I was asked about a Newsweek blog she wrote. Reading it bugged me more than hearing about it. [...]

Is there no ignorance allowed on this one subject? I took my children to see the film "Wall-E." This wonderful family entertainment opens with the given that mankind destroyed Earth. 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?

Yes, Penn, as far as folks like Begley are concerned, this is a moral imperative. In fact, this paragraph in her blog post about the meeting in Vegas says it best:

My small contribution [to the conference] was a talk arguing that skeptics should not count on the press to enlist in their debunking crusade, something that also extends to the fight between evolution and creationism. So as not to bore you with the whole 30-minute speech, let me just say that my basic argument was that people believe weird things because of emotion, something no number of magazine and newspaper stories on the solidity of the science behind evolution (or the lack of evidence for homeopathy, psychic phenomena et al, as I also discussed in a column last year), is going to change. Add to that the public’s antipathy toward the press, and there’s no way the press can help the skeptics’ cause.

Hmmm. I thought it was good for members of the press to have a healthy skepticism. I guess this isn't the case when they're acting as an advocate for their own political beliefs, right Sharon?

Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard, Associate Editor of NewsBusters, passed away in March of 2014.