It’s bullsh*t, alright.

by Ryan Gregory, May 21st, 2012

Penn and Teller are very entertaining illusionists, in part because their performances tend to be quite sophisticated and are often rather understated (Teller doesn’t even speak, for example).

Take, for example, the famous “Shadows” trick performed in silence by Teller.

Or this bit, in which they use a discussion of sleight of hand itself to showcase some very entertaining sleight of hand.

In addition to their live performances, Penn and Teller (well, mostly Penn, since as noted Teller doesn’t talk) host a program entitled “Penn and Teller: Bullshit!” on the Showtime network. As the name suggests, the show deals skeptically and critically with a range of topics with which the hosts take exception, including UFOs, psychics, alternative medicine, various political topics, and so on. The show ran for 8 seasons, so evidently they consider there to be quite a lot of the eponymous substance around.

The third episode of Season 8 was devoted to “Martial Arts”. To be sure, there is much about which to be critical in modern martial arts, so this had the potential to be quite informative. Sadly, the subtlety and sophistication that Penn and Teller bring to the stage was not transferred to the television screen. Moreover, Penn and Teller seem not to appreciate the irony of hosting a show about bullshit, and then presenting a totally biased, sensationalistic, and misinformed overview of the topic. Perhaps a large percentage of dojos in the world are phony, but the title of the episode was not “phony martial arts clubs”, it was “martial arts”.

(You can watch the episode on YouTube here and here).

There is a lot to dislike about this episode (and, perhaps, the entire series — this is the only episode I have seen, and is likely to remain so). Here’s a quick list of some things that I found particularly frustrating:

1. Penn and Teller seem to think that the only reason anyone trains in the martial arts is for self-defence. However, there are many other benefits, including regular exercise, flexibility, coordination, and confidence. The latter itself is likely to be the most effective self-defence aspect for most people because not appearing victim-like can be a strong deterrent to those who would seek to do harm. The self-defence aspect is bullshit, they argue, because martial arts are expensive (actually, they compare favourably with many other club/gym/sports costs) and because martial artists are much more likely to be hurt in class than to be assaulted in the street. The latter point is undoubtedly true, but misses the point. There is absolutely no benefit to being assaulted, but there are many benefits to training in a dojo. It reminds me of a joke by the great Dr. Twittenheimer: “Rather than investing time and energy building up my bench press strength, I’ll just try to avoid ever getting pinned beneath a barbell.”

2. Penn and Teller portray Tai Chi as the bailiwick of ageing California hippies who make dog noises and hold conversations with their internal organs. I have recently come to know an individual who studies and teaches Tai Chi in China, and it is obvious that the “internal” martial arts have some significant strengths both for personal development and for self-defence. By way of example, check out the applications of Tai Chi in this video:

3. Penn and Teller make a big deal of the fact that breaking boards does not involve anything beyond basic physics. Yes, we know.

However, they focus only on breaking pine boards. Sure, this is pretty easy when they’re broken along the grain and separated by spacers. But what about concrete or baseball bats or coconuts? Teller didn’t try any of those.

4. Penn and Teller seem shocked — shocked, I tell you! — to learn that students in a karate dojo are asked and willing to clean the dojo and even to teach occasional classes without being paid. All I can say is that my graduate students are also asked and willing to clean the lab and even to give occasional guest lectures without being paid. In both cases, there are very good reasons why this should not be controversial. One, students in both karate dojos and science labs take pride in their membership and are willing to do their part to keep the learning environment in good condition. Two, teaching is an excellent way to learn, and it is considered an honour and good experience to be asked/allowed to teach a class in both martial arts and science — it means the instructor has confidence in the student’s abilities. Three, money is not the only currency in martial arts or academia — respect and knowledge are probably more important. A Sensei or a Professor are established experts with knowledge that takes many years to acquire. Serious students respect this and seek to gain as much knowledge as they can from these experts. Sweeping floors or wiping lab benches is a small price to pay for access to this resource, and as a bonus it allows the student to express respect and gratitude. I don’t think Penn and Teller would be surprised if a carpenter’s apprentice cleaned up the workshop without expecting to be paid for it. I also imagine that Penn and Teller have at least some experience with unpaid interns, what with them being show biz celebrities.

All in all, the episode has little value for anyone who is interested in serious martial arts or serious skepticism. There isn’t even much in the way of entertainment, which is where Penn and Teller’s real talents normally lie.

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