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Bullshit Episode on Organic Foods was Bullshit – How Penn and Teller Got It Wrong

by Angela August 1st, 2009 - 25 Comments »

When I saw that the Bullshit episode last night was going to be on Organic Food, I stayed up to watch it in the hopes that it would provide the same insightful, research-driven observations that they had consistently presented in most of their episodes. Instead, I was treated to a sensationalist pastiche that probably had Dupont and Monsanto executives drooling over the media attention that they couldn’t buy; or did they?

I wouldn’t go so far to suggest that the production company was paid off to do this episode. However, Penn and Teller did choose the hard right wing Hudson Institute to establish some of the “hard facts” in the episode. The Hudson Institute is practically run by agri-business and Republicans, which you’ll see if you click on the bios of their board of trustees. Their representative was responsible for the one truly cringe-worthy moment in the show, which was when they were attesting that all meat came with “natural hormones”. Ummm… not so much. The meat industry has long been injecting meat with hormones to make it grow faster, a fact even agri-business won’t try to refute.

Also, the couple they chose as “representative” of those who ate organic foods wasn’t exactly the best face they could have put on the movement, although that was to be expected if they were to get ratings for the show. Where were the Harvard professors, the computer analysts, the everyday joes who eat organic?

I was expecting more science and frankly, less bullshit. There are genuine concerns about the Organic Food industry that they could have honed in on, such as why don’t more organic dairies use glass packaging, what is the real carbon cost of organic food imported from Mexico, etc. Instead, we were treated to a episode that belonged on Fox News rather than on Penn & Teller’s usually highly regarded show.

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  1. August 1st, 2009 at 5:02 pm Heidi Junger writes:

    Dear Angela,
    THANK YOU for this blog entry! I read a lot about organic agriculture and products, so I was stunned about what studies the authors must obviously have selected and rejected to come to this insight. There are simply too many recent studies coming out these years which show that organic food is richer in nutrients, and of course less ‘rich’ in toxins. Nutrient dense and toxin low foods have been repeatedly correlated with less disease than the other way round.

    I am not surprised about the media though… Maybe it would be time somebody there sat down and started reading before reporting most everything without background. I don’t want to generalize, because I know many journalists are doing good reporting. However, esp in the health area it is sometimes just sad what one gets to see and hear.

    Here is a link to a more elaborate resonse to this recent ‘insight’: http://www.organic-center.org/science.nutri.php?action=view&report_id=157

    Thanks again Angela.

    Best regards,
    Heidi

  2. August 2nd, 2009 at 1:15 am Drel210 writes:

    That episode was obviously a promo for monsanto, dupont, all the folks over at the hudson institute, the same group that argues for military democratization of the entire Muslim world as a national security strategy…talk about disappointment!! Not one nutritional scientist in the whole damned episode, the only organic “pros” they consulted were a bunch of naturalists, not nutritional scientists! Im thinking of sending them a massive list of peer reviewed evidence for both the clear link of parkonsonism to pesticide levels in the blood as well as the marked increase in antioxidants and other nutritionals in organic food… not that it will likely make these two change their minds…I dont know what has happened to our P&T?!?!??!

  3. August 2nd, 2009 at 10:59 am Angela writes:

    For more fun, try doing a search on Twitter for “organic food bullshit” – you’ll see the demographic that the show was really trying to hit. I don’t think they really convinced anyone, for the most part it looks like they were preaching to the converted.

    I’m not totally convinced that the production of this episode wasn’t financially or politically motivated, just due to the sheer lack of balance and science. It isn’t just this episode though – there are a lot of valid reasons lie detectors are bullshit, and they didn’t touch on many of them for that episode either. Maybe this whole season is more about ratings than it is about proper “mythbusting”. Either way, I’m done with the show.

  4. August 2nd, 2009 at 11:58 am Brian writes:

    Money talks – bullshit walks – and that goes double for these two idiots.

    Stay tune – next week the dynamic duo
    interviews Rush Limbaugh and Jim Inhofe
    for the real science on global warming
    (NASA scientists not invited)

    Brian

  5. August 2nd, 2009 at 1:15 pm Cassondra writes:

    So which facts are you trying to deny here? Anyone with half a brain knows and has always known that organic food cannot sustain this planet. So which 2 billion people would you choose to starve? Not to mention all the lettuce and spinach e-coli outbreaks from organic vegetables. I’d much rather have you throwing up and shitting out your organic veggies then me :)

  6. August 2nd, 2009 at 3:08 pm simon writes:

    I love Penn&Teller but unfortunately, as they have shown over and over, they – or their research team – are perfectly willing to go to questionable sources to get proof to back up their libertarian agenda.

    They did it with the second-smoke episode and did it with the environmental hysteria episode. Even when the mainstream scientists, through papers published through major science journals, have shown the issues are real, they were willing to go to contentious fringe scientists to get their words on the contrary.

  7. August 2nd, 2009 at 3:22 pm Fraxy writes:

    @Cassondra

    How about feeding everyone in the world with the same amount of meat eaten in the US and EU?

    You know that you need ten times the amount of corn to get one unit of meat, right?
    This argument is BULLSHIT.

    I’m not against eating meat (I love meat) but the amount of meat eaten.

  8. August 3rd, 2009 at 12:54 am Laura Janks writes:

    Penn & Teller are New World Order pricks. They are the reason I cannot stand television. There was absolutely no science in that episode, it was pointless- just a promo for big pharma and codex. This episode wants the fluoride heads to continue eating their GMOs and rotting their brains out. Everyone knows that conventional foods have LESS nutrients, and contain higher levels of carcinogens than their organic counterparts. I do not want to eat food that is grown in depleted soil year after year, and has deadly pesticides poured onto the food that my body stores in its fat. NO THANKS P&T! You will not fool me, I will not bow down to The New World Order.

  9. August 3rd, 2009 at 5:15 pm Angela writes:

    See today’s post for more on how organic food can feed the world – also thanks for the inspiration :)

  10. August 4th, 2009 at 5:04 pm Walter Jeffries writes:

    I love other reports by Penn & Teller but this one lacks credibility. Sadly they used the Hudson Institute (see http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Hudson_Institute ) for their source of information. The Hudson Institute is backed by Monstersanto, er, I mean Monsanto, perhaps one of the most evil corporations in the world. Other backers of the Hudson Institute, in character, include Cargill, ConAgra Foods, Exxon Mobil, McDonald’s, National Agricultural Chemical Association. Friends like that seriously reduce Penn & Teller’s credibility.

  11. August 5th, 2009 at 10:36 am Cassondra writes:

    http://www.lshtm.ac.uk/news/2009/organicfood.html.

    NOT backed by any of those “evil” corps!
    Facts are facts. Stop with the diatribe.
    There are countless unfounded claims about organic food, you just pick and choose, you shouldn’t be allowed to be a journalist, because you are no better then that POS Bill O’Reilly, you are one sided and ignoring the obvious proof that was JUST published!

  12. August 5th, 2009 at 5:27 pm Drel210 writes:

    Wow Cassondra you Fail. If you read the actual met-analysis that the press release you linked to was base on, you would see that their conclusions directly contradict even their cherry picked data(they included on data from more than 30 years ago when modern organic farming protocols had yet to be established)- even still; they clearly show a more than measurable increase in several key nutrients(including an over 50% B-carotene spike!). They also completely ignored nutritional antioxidants save vit C, from polyphenols, too cartenoids, none were tested.
    Also, the industry funded study you cited totally ignored the well established damage pesticide does to peoples endocrine systems. After a half decade with more than a dozen studies linking pesticides to Parkinson’s, the argument is over; this study is particularly damning http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/07/090713170711.htm
    “…researchers found the pesticide beta-HCH (hexachlorocyclohexane) in 76 percent of people with Parkinson’s, compared with 40 percent of healthy controls…”
    So, if your serious about the truth and are not just one of those bill-o-really types, then maybe you would be inclined to look into the excellent critique of the FSA study that was linked earlier in this thread by heidi- I will here link to the PDF directly

    http://www.organic-center.org/reportfiles/Response_FSA_Study.pdf

    And seriously? “you shouldn’t be allowed to be a journalist,”? Freedom of the press is not some earned privilege that you get to advocate taking away from someone just because you don’t currently see the virtue of their position at the time. Maybe I think you shouident be allowed to spout what I believe to be ill-informed, knee-jerk, corporatist nonsense?? Just kidding.
    Thats your right !

    Stay Healthy All!

  13. August 5th, 2009 at 6:12 pm Angela writes:

    This isn’t the first time industry has put out a study that is disguised to look like it didn’t come from industry.

    Any study carried out with monetary involvement from a company is suspect, particularly when they make outlandish claims such as “Handwashing is worse for the Environment than using a dishwasher”, as in the study below from the University of Bonn (see Reference section).

    You don’t get any gritty details on the research, making it impossible to reproduce the study, and the conclusion is obviously one that serves the manufacturers funding the study, who include Electrolux and Bosch.

    To make things even better, Bosch aired an ad on British television claiming that using a dishwasher would save the user 75% of their water. The ASA was called in to investigate the claim, and their research showed that the study was conducted with the assumption that people doing hand washing let the tap run rather than filling the sink and doing the dishes. They pulled the ad; you can read more about it here.
    http://www.asa.org.uk/asa/adjudications/Public/TF_ADJ_43552.htm

    These studies are designed to bullshit the public into thinking that science is behind an argument, as per the one above. We don’t find these things out unless we discourse with the other side; I’ve been known to even be swayed by some right-wingers when they have logic behind their argument, although admittedly that doesn’t happen very often.

  14. August 5th, 2009 at 6:57 pm Drel210 writes:

    Why is anyone listening to the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine on nutritional/agricultural science anyway? Sounds like an outdated colonial era school who’s sole subject of study was the prevention of malaria….

  15. August 17th, 2009 at 11:34 pm Shawn writes:

    I have to ask: All the venom and rhetoric I see on this blog, I’m just wondering…are any of you doing anything about it, either way, rather than just grousing and breaking your arms patting yourselves on your backs for your intelligence and not being part of the “ignorant unwashed”?
    And, no, I don’t care either way. My health and that of my family is great. I just thought it interesting that people couldnt tell the difference…but of course, you’ll just say the edited it that way.

  16. August 18th, 2009 at 9:15 am Angela writes:

    If you read the comments you’ll see that most of the “venom” comes from the anti-organic movement; we tend to be a little more peaceful than that :) . This blog is all about raising awareness, and if we made you think about the other side of the fence for a moment, mission accomplished.

  17. September 25th, 2009 at 12:10 pm Jessica writes:

    Shawn,
    The “study” they did in the episode to see whether people could tell the difference between organic and non-organic foods was not reliable. First off, the food was on different color plates. When you do an experiment, both groups should be identical except for the variable you are testing: in this case, whether the food is organic or non-organic. Also, they never said whther the experimenter was in on it. This creates another confounding variable. Secondly, notice that they only tested low-pesticide foods to see which tasted better. The banana is the food with the lowest pesticides. When you peel the banana, you get rid of the pesticides. Why didn’t they put celery or lettuce in the taste test? These are high-pesticide foods and I know I can tell the difference.

  18. October 29th, 2009 at 2:06 am Jason writes:

    Methinks the problem with Penn Jillete and the blogger is bias.

  19. November 17th, 2009 at 4:11 pm Eric writes:

    What about this study… Is this one good enough?

    http://www.cnn.com/2008/TECH/science/08/19/organic.cooking.pv/index.html

  20. November 17th, 2009 at 10:35 pm Garet writes:

    …Instead of trying to say they’re wrong because of who paid their institute, why not prove the facts they provide wrong?

    Saying “they’re a corporation so they’re bad” is childish, and bullshit.

  21. November 18th, 2009 at 10:59 am How is Eating Organic still a Damn Debate? | The Essentia Blog writes:

    [...] is a follow up to our Penn and Teller’s Bullshit Post about organic food. How is eating or not eating organic still debatable? It comes down to the [...]

  22. November 30th, 2009 at 5:39 pm Mike writes:

    I see that you were only able to attack the source of Penn & Tellers information. You did not provide any factual data to support your claim. Your opinions are just that: an opinion. At least Penn & Teller provided data and expert opinions.–Where are yours?

  23. December 2nd, 2009 at 5:35 pm John writes:

    About the hormones. You see, probably what the guy said about “natural” hormones is that they inject hormones-just not synthetic ones. Even genetically engineered hormones could technically be considered “natural”

  24. December 31st, 2009 at 10:21 pm Name writes:

    ha ha, so you really like P&T – until they gored your particular bull… Organic food is a scam. Face the reality.

  25. December 31st, 2009 at 10:23 pm Name writes:

    Jessica, you say “These are high-pesticide foods and I know I can tell the difference.”

    willing to bet money on that one? I bet you US$2,000 you won’t do better than randomness, at best. :)