The More Amazing Penn

On Wednesday Penn Jillette (of Penn and Teller) did a radio interview with The Amazing Randi, whom Penn calls "the most important person in the world to me; the person who changed my life the most."  Toward the end (~36:00), we find this exchange, which suggests to me that Penn has a better grasp of the issues, and his own limitations:

Penn: "The definition of an intellectual is someone who can change their mind given facts …"
"This doesn’t happen with the believer, … they cannot be unconvinced … based on experience with thousands of them"
"What is the biggest thing you have ever changed your mind on, what is the deepest belief you held that you were wrong on?" 
  "Oh boy. Hard to say now, I’ve never been posed with that question before."  He never answers the question.

Penn: Explains his mom became atheist in her 80s, a few years before she died.  "… There isn’t like a political point or a point like that that you shifted on over the years?  " 
Randi: "Well.  I think that it takes a certain amount of intelligence and education to be able to do this, a reversal of this kind.   But the key phrase here is that its not that they want this to be true, they need it to be true. … If they have to say they are wrong, to reverse their minds, they have to be essentially saying they think (I don’t this is true) `I’m really stupid.’  No, naive and uniformed is not stupid." 
Penn: "Also victim is not stupid.  … People always say how stupid do you have to be to believe in a psychic, and I always say how hot do you have to be to be raped. … we tend to blame the victim …  I think that anyone can be duped, and be duped badly; you must blame the perpetrator and not the victim … when you say they need to believe this, you have to explain that more because one way of looking at this is, if someone needs something like need food or water, and you are coming in to try to take that away from them, what you are doing is wrong, so you can’t mean "need" in the traditional sense" 
Randi: "You’re right.  ….  I haven’t had a moment as a child or as an adult ever that I would have believed any of this sort of thing, any more than I would have believed in Santa Claus. .. immediately I knew it was a myth."
Says that age 10 or 11 he believed in Chariot of the Gods style UFOs, he was religious and believer in all sorts of stuff until 16 or 17. 
Randi: "I don’t have any need or want; people say do you want it to be true and I say I don’t care; all I want to know is, is it true, yes or no?  I just want to know what the truth is and I have no fear of the answer." 

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  • Matthew

    Randi’s problem is he already “knows” what is real and what cannot possibly be. At some level this makes him willing to play fast-and-loose with the truth in the interest of “winning”. I.E.:


    I’m not sure that Teller is much better. For example:

    Remember, both Teller and Randi are professional polemicists, not scientists.

  • Matthew, saying “I hate you” to someone is certainly not polite, but it hardly counts as “playing fast-and-loose with the truth.” Sometimes people really do hate other people.

  • Matthew


    Obviously I did not phrase my comment about Teller very well. I did not intend to suggest that Teller has been caught making stuff up, as has Randi. I’m not aware of any such instances.

    However, Teller’s attitude as displayed in that interview does bring into question his willingness to question his beliefs today, unlike his willingness to question them at age 16 or 17. Obviously there is a great deal of emotional hang-up there re: his dead mother, and obviously he was there as a polemicist, not in order to learn something (assuming the story is accurately relayed). Reacting with hatred towards someone he does not know because he does not like the results of their scientific research does not speak well of Teller’s committment to overcome bias. I should have clarified this in my previous comment, and not made it sound like I was accusing Teller of lying.

  • Geoffrey Brand

    Not that it matters that much..
    But the above referenced interview was with Penn Jillette..

    Teller is Penn’s partner in his magic act..not his last name..

  • Badcop666

    Matthew:- “Remember, both Teller and Randi are professional polemicists, not scientists”

    A scientist takes their white lab coat off and goes home and takes a herbal remedy for their anxiety, then sits down with a beer and watches a news item on Avian Flu, Global Warming, the war on terror, genetic food modification, US democracy, the next election etc etc

    and what do they think or believe when it comes to topics such as these?

    what are you saying about scientists? That they are rational citizens outside their specialty?

    Please enlighten us. Because if you are, then you are SOOOO mistaken…

    Scientifc knowledge amongst ‘scientists’ is so specialised and detached from wider world knowledge and experience that we often see formal rational frameworks coexisting alongside utter irrationalism in the same person, apparently without any conflict or discomfort. And a complete lack of rational investigation in the media definitely contributes to a lack of rational investigation of one’s own beliefs.

    Scientists. The idea of a scientist is so alien to today’s social landscape that the suggestion that we have scientists living amongst us is simply laughable given what we witness daily.

    ‘Professional polemisict’ – what rubbish. That’s called hiding behind intellecually arrogant terminology with no meaning. Anyone with balls enough to stand up and tell it like it is about the dark ages we live in gets my vote.