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Bullshit!

[Warning, contains swearing]

If you’re a news junkie like I am, you’ll spend a lot of time reading stories from around the world (and their related discussions on message boards), and you’ll read every column inch of anything printed. And if you do that, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the world is full of bullshit – and that a lot of people are taken in by that bullshit.

Sometimes, it amuses me – so the news that US “let’s not tell the kids about sex” abstinence programmes have caused an explosion of bum sex and blow jobs had me laughing like a drain, even though I know it’s a serious issue – and other times it depresses me, such as when I read about religious nutballs (of whatever creed) shouting down the grown-ups or when I see respectable magazines flogging premium rate psychic hotlines to the depressed and desperate.

A good example of the tide of bullshit is the Daily Mail newspaper, whose womens’ pages are often filled with new age nonsense and whose covers – particularly at weekends – pose provocative questions based on whichever book the paper is currently serialising. Mail readers could save themselves a great deal of time and effort by using the word “no” when they read these cover lines and then buying something else. For example:

“Does a secret bible code predict the future?”

No.

“Did a race of advanced aliens build the Pyramids?”

No.

“Are angels watching over us?”

No.

And so on. And it’s not just the Mail, either. We have TV programmes on nutrition whose “expert” got their qualifications from a mail order university. We have endless alternative health sections in papers and magazines whose advice is bollocks at best and dangerous at worst. We have endless programmes about alien abductions, strange mysteries, conspiracy theories… and then, we have Penn & Teller.

I don’t know much about Penn & Teller, other than seeing their occasional magic trick on the telly. But I was channel-hopping last night and discovered Penn & Teller: Bullshit!, which is arguably the greatest television programme ever made.

Last night’s episode (it’s currently airing on satellite channel FX289) was about getting the perfect body, and featured the usual array of ab-rollers, body building supplements and so on. Cleverly, P&T let the people hawking these products hoist themselves by their own petards: the fitness expert explained that due to genetics, very few people could reasonably expect to become magazine cover models; P&T then cut to the expert’s book, You Too Can Be A Magazine Cover Model. They filmed supplement sellers explaining that Glucosamine helps build muscle (it doesn’t, it’s for tendons and ligaments) and offering potentially lethal nutritional advice, they took the piss out of abdominal exercise machines, and they hammered the point home that while exercise and good diet are good things, the fitness industry is selling an impossible ideal – and making stacks of money from it.

What makes P&T’s programme so great is that this is all done through the medium of swearing. Penn doesn’t exactly mince his words: I lost track of the number of times he referred to people as “fucks”, “fuckers” or “motherfuckers”, along with some lesser expletives. This is apparently for legal reasons: if Penn were to say “this man is a fraudster”, he – and the TV network – could be sued into oblivion. If on the other hand he calls someone a “motherfucker” who’s spouting “bullshit”, he’s legally in the clear. I’m not a lawyer so I can’t really comment, but the sheer novelty of seeing a TV presenter on the verge of a coronary as he gets into a righteous rage is hard to beat.

Of course, it’s flawed – reviews suggest that P&T can be as blinkered as the people they criticise, and of course it’s utterly biased. But that’s missing the point: it’s entertainment, after all.

Penn & Teller: Bullshit! is apparently into its third season, and while it doesn’t seem to be on DVD over here you could always import the first two seasons from the US. In season one they go after creationists, anti-smokers, mediums, feng shui, alien abductees, penis enlargement pills, vegetarians and extreme environmentalists; in season two, their targets include PETA, people who hate swearing (heh), recycling, hypnotists and the war on drugs.