‘I don’t know’ -- and that’s no act

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Penn Jillette is the louder, bigger half of the magic/comedy team of Penn & Teller.

My partner, Teller, and I are professional skeptics. We do magic tricks in our live show in Las Vegas, and we have a passion for trying to use what we’ve learned about fooling people to possibly get a little closer to the truth. Our series on Showtime tries to question everything -- even things we hold dear.

James Randi is our inspiration, our hero, our mentor and our friend. Randi taught us to use our fake magic powers for good. Psychics use tricks to lie to people; Randi uses tricks to tell the truth. Every year, in Vegas, the James Randi Educational Foundation gathers together for a conference as many like-thinking participants as you can get from people who question whenever people think alike. There are smart, famous and groovy speakers such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Trey Parker and Matt Stone. There’s lots of real science stuff with real scientists questioning things that a lot of people take for granted, like ESP, UFOs, faith healing and creationism. It’s a party.

Teller and I are always honored to be invited. We don’t wear our usual matching gray suits, and Teller doesn’t stay in his silent character. Teller chats up a storm. It’s not a gig; it’s hanging out with friends. During our loose Q&A; period this year, someone asked us about global warming, or climate change, or however they’re branding it now. Teller and I were both silent on stage for a bit too long, and then I said I didn’t know.


I elaborated on “I don’t know” quite a bit. I said that Al Gore was so annoying (that’s scientifically provable, right?) that I really wanted to doubt anything he was hyping, but I just didn’t know. I also emphasized that really smart friends, who knew a lot more than me, were convinced of global warming. I ended my long-winded rambling (I most often have a silent partner) very clearly with “I don’t know.” I did that because ... I don’t know. Teller chimed in with something about Gore’s selling of “indulgences” being BS, and then said he didn’t know either. Penn & Teller don’t know jack about global warming ... next question.

The next day, I heard that one of the non-famous, non-groovy, non-scientist speakers had used me as an example of someone who let his emotions make him believe things that are wrong. OK. People who aren’t used to public speaking get excited and go off half-cocked. I’m used to public speaking and I go off half-cocked. I live half-cocked. Cut her some slack.

Later, I was asked about a Newsweek blog she wrote. Reading it bugged me more than hearing about it. She ends with: “But here was Penn, a great friend to the skeptic community, basically saying, ‘Don’t bother me with scientific evidence, I’m going to make up my mind about global warming based on my disdain for Al Gore.’ ... Which just goes to show, not even the most hard-nosed empiricists and skeptics are immune from the power of emotion to make us believe stupid things.”

Is there no ignorance allowed on this one subject? I took my children to see the film “Wall-E.” This wonderful family entertainment opens with the given that mankind destroyed Earth. You can’t turn on the TV without seeing someone hating ourselves for what we’ve done to the planet and preaching the end of the world. Maybe they’re right, but is there no room for “maybe”? There’s a lot of evidence, but global warming encompasses a lot of complicated points: Is it happening? Did we cause it? Is it bad? Can we fix it? Is government-forced conservation the only way to fix it?

To be fair (and it’s always important to be fair when one is being mean-spirited, sanctimonious and self-righteous), “I don’t know” can be a very bad answer when it is disingenuous. You can’t answer “I don’t know if that happened” about the Holocaust.

But the climate of the whole world is more complicated. I’m not a scientist, and I haven’t spent my life studying weather. I’m trying to learn what I can, and while I’m working on it, isn’t it OK to say “I don’t know”?


I mean, at least in front of a bunch of friendly skeptics?