Magicians Penn and Teller are whizzes when it comes to performing offbeat, weird, funny and gross sleights of hand and other tricks. But they’re neither scientists nor fair and objective journalists (not that many of today’s so-called “mainstream” journalists are either). So it pays to view their scam- and myth-debunking efforts with a healthy dose of critical thinking.
Case in point: their Showtime channel program, “Bullshit!” I’ve watched most of the early episodes, and they’re highly entertaining, because that’s what Penn and Teller are: entertainers. But their fact-checking and analyses can leave much to be desired, as when — for example — they “debunk” global warming with the help of libertarian think tanks like the Cato Institute ,.. without turning to real scientific sources like say, oh, NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Their 2004 episode slamming recycling has been garnering big Internet traffic and lots of social networking hits … presumably because a lot of people take glee in seeing enviro-minded hippies put in their place. There are a few problems with the episode, though:
Recycling is B.S. … Except When It’s Not
After spending about 15 minutes making the case against recycling — it’s unnecessary, we’re not running out of resources, it costs more than it’s worth, it creates pollution — Penn and Teller acknowledge, yeah, it makes sense to recycle aluminum cans and other metals. So recycling isn’t entirely B.S., even in their eyes.
(The photo accompanying this post, by the way, is of cow dung cakes drying in the sun. In places like Punjab, India, where this picture was taken, even B.S., apparently, is not B.S. but a valuable source of fuel and fertilizer.)
Everything is Relative
At one point in the recycling episode, Penn and Teller rail on about the pointlessness of recycling plastics, which they say will make sense only when “there’ll be money for street people in picking up plastic.” You know what? There is … in the poorest slums of India, Bangladesh and other developing countries. It’s not that there’s no money in recyclables … it’s that a couple of pennies doesn’t make much difference to the average U.S. resident, which that amount could mean the difference between eating or not for a seven-year-old rag-picker in Mumbai.
The Times, They Are a’Changing
To bolster their arguments, Penn and Teller cite a 2004 study on recycling myths by Clemson University economist Daniel K. Benjamin. Benjamin identifies myth number five as this: “We squander irreplaceable resources when we don’t recycle.” And then, he continues, “What about non-renewable resources such as fossil fuel? Here, too, there is no reason to fear that we will run out. Despite repeated forecasts by the federal government and others that we shall soon run out of oil, it hasn’t happened. Indeed, as we continue to use more oil, the standard measures of proven oil reserves get larger, not smaller.”
Reading that today, in mid-2008, does any part of that paragraph strike you as, um, a bit off? (Hint: $147 a barrel crude.)
Recycling is Just One Piece of the Puzzle
Finally, I’ll grant the magical duo this: “recycling” alone isn’t the answer to our environmental and resource challenges. “Reduce” and “reuse” are also critical. By making plastic bottles that are thinner and lighter, for example, beverage companies could use 30 percent less resin and save about $1.5 billion on year on raw materials. And if the U.S. could start imitating some parts of Europe, we wouldn’t need to recycle … we could simply refill.
Of course, there will still always be some people who think refilling, reducing and reusing are B.S. too. Sigh.