Thursday, June 24, 2010

I call "Bullshit" on Penn and Teller

Thanks to Ottawa Skeptics founder and Reality Check podcast host Jonathan Abrams for passing on a link to Penn and Teller's recent Bullshit! episode on fast food.

Up front I'll tell you I've been a big Bullshit! fan and for those who aren't familiar basically it's a show where mouthy magicians Penn and Teller question the facts behind commonly held beliefs, institutions and ideals.

For the vast majority of the topics they cover, I really don't have an expert opinion and generally I've tended to agreed with Penn and Teller's take on just how backwards some people think about a certain subject matter.

They're also magicians and when I've seen them perform their tricks, I've been wowed.

That said, I wonder if I'd have been just as wowed were I a magician and was able to see through their misdirection and sleight of hand.

With regards to their Bullshit! episode on fast food, given that I do know a fair bit about fast food, obesity and nutritional advocacy, I can tell you it sure wasn't tough to see through their misdirection and sleight of tongue.

The episode (and you can watch it below and draw your own opinions) hinges on some simple premises:

1. Opponents of fast food want it regulated out of existence.
2. Opponents of fast food believe that eating it makes you fat.
3. Opponents of fast food think those who eat it are inherently lazy or otherwise flawed.
4. Opponents of fast food think there's a conspiracy among fast food purveyors to create addictive foodstuff.
5. Opponents of fast food want the government to control everything we eat.
6. Proponents of fast food are hard working mothers and fathers who rely on it to serve healthy meals on the quick to their families.

I'll get to those points in a moment but first let me talk about who they decided to interview to champion the anti fast food cause. Her name is MeMe Roth and she's certainly the lunatic fringe of anti-obesity activism. I've blogged about her loathsomeness in the past and not surprisingly she's got some pretty loony things to say (go figure - when you interview someone from the lunatic fringe you'll get some pretty wild statements). Choosing MeMe to represent the anti-fast food argument would be like choosing Pat Robertson to represent modern Christianity or Osama Bin Laden to represents the tenets of 21st century Islam.

With regards to the show's main arguments, plainly put they're asinine.

Healthy eating advocates don't believe that eating fast food magically causes weight gain - they know that caloric imbalance does, and that restaurants fast and slow alike, are a huge contributor to that imbalance. They know that over the course of the past 30 years people have stopped cooking, and more and more dollars are being spent on food purchased outside of the home, foods with boatloads of calories, cups of salt and buckets of sugar - things that aren't good for our health.

Healthy eating advocates don't believe in banning fast or slow food, they believe in empowering people with enough information to make healthier and more educated choices in all restaurants and about protecting our most vulnerable and most precious resource - our kids from predatory marketing practices.

Being a healthy eating advocate myself I can tell you what I want to see change:

- I want a level playing field where people are provided with calorie counts at point of purchase in clearly visible locations so as to help those people make informed caloric decisions.

- I want to end the predatory practice of targeting children too young to discern truth from advertising with spots that extol the virtues of nutritional garbage or cartoon characters that beckon from the grocery aisle.

- I want taxes in place that discourage the consumption of products that are exceedingly unhealthy (and here I can't fault Penn and Teller, but since their show aired there's proof out of Harvard that sugar-sweetened taxes do indeed work to reduce soda consumption) which in turn impacts on the bottom line of Canada's health care expenditures, GDP and my taxes. And it's not as if there isn't precedent here. Regulating unnecessary risk is certainly part of the purvey of government, especially a government in a country with socialized medicine. From tobacco taxes, to seat-belt and helmet laws, to licensing requirements etc., governments do it all the time.

- I want changes in fast food zoning around schools as studies have shown disproportionate placement of fast food locations within walking distance of them.

The one argument I agreed with in this episode was the fact that governments are considering creating soda taxes while simultaneously subsidizing the production of corn. That is a ridiculous dichotomy as the artificially low prices of corn (and consequently high fructose corn syrup) are one of the primary drivers of cheap calories.

The biggest bullshit in this episode? For me it had to be the skinny active family who were talking about how much time they save with fast food. How long does it take to make oatmeal or some eggs for breakfast? How long would it take to do a quick stirfry or make some sandwiches for supper? And $20 to feed a family of 4 for a single meal? I can feed my family of 5 healthily on less than half of that.

Penn and Teller sum up this episode by letting the skinny mom who feeds her kids a diet heavy in fast food state,

"It's up to everyone to choose what they want to eat"
And she's absolutely right and only truly loony folks like MeMe would argue otherwise. What I want, and what most healthy eating advocates want, is an environment that doesn't stack the deck in favour of selling fast food but rather stacks it in favour of informed, healthier choices.

Watching this episode and knowing a great deal about the subject matter certainly has me questioning Bullshit! as a whole. If this is how they report on fast food, who's to say that they don't grossly mischaracterize other arguments in other episodes?

If Penn and Teller really want to do a good Bullshit! episode let's see them take on the notion that it's faster or cheaper or just as healthy to buy fast food for your family than actually taking the time to cook. To that, and to pretty much this whole episode, I call bullshit.

Want to judge for yourself, here's the episode as posted on YouTube (until it gets yanked by Bravo):