Penn & Teller and Climate Change: How "Dumb" Is It to Say, "I Don't Know?"


On her Lab Notes blog Newsweek science columnist Sharon Begley recently took magician, skeptic, and long-time friend of reason, Penn Jillette to task for saying, "I don't know" in response to a question about what he thinks of global warming.

Both Begley and Jillette were participants at James Randi's gathering of skeptics, The Amazing Meeting 6, in Las Vegas last month. In her blog post "Penn & Teller, and Believing in Dumb Things," this is how Begley describes what happened:

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.

In Rashomon fashion, Jillette offers a different take as he explains in an op/ed over at the Los Angeles Times today. According to Jillette:

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.

Jillette goes on to ask:

Is there no ignorance allowed on this one subject? … 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?

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.

Whole Jillette op/ed here.

P.S. Trying to put this blogospheric tempest in context, I did a desultory search for video of the TAM 6 session but couldn't find it. Can any H&R readers offer some help here?