1st August 2009
In the Media

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

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.

This article has 41 comments

  1. Heidi Junger

    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. Drel210

    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. Angela

    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. Brian

    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. Cassondra

    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. simon

    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. Fraxy

    @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. Laura Janks

    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. Angela

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

  10. Walter Jeffries

    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. Cassondra

    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. Drel210

    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. Angela

    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. Drel210

    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. Shawn

    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. Angela

    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. Jessica

    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. Jason

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

  19. Garet

    …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.

  20. Pingback: How is Eating Organic still a Damn Debate? | The Essentia Blog

  21. John

    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”

  22. Name

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

  23. Name

    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. 🙂

  24. Kevin

    Quotation:
    “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…”

    This is exactly what P&T rail against in their show, the bandying about of “scientific data” by those trying to further their cause. Funny enough it’s what you are complaining about yourself! Yet you turn around and say “All pesticides are bad because one that was banned 30 years ago caused [x]”

    Since you can pass logical fallacies, let me pass mine: My father is a Mennonite and they have been eschewing “natural” and “organic” pesticides in favor of the safer chemical pesticides.

    Let me start using Nicotine, the nerve agent, as an example of your pesticide. (since, like Beta-HCH, it has been mostly out of use in commercial farming for 30 years) That would be good, right? Heck, how about pyrethrum, or rotenone? The former having been declared a carcinogen, the latter causing Parkinson symptoms in rats.

    Hmmm.. talk about cherry picking.

    I am attempting to find arguments to this particular P&T episode, but all I’ve seen in the “Organo-sphere” has been “Wah! They are paid off!”.. come on, guys.. give me something!

  25. Kelol

    WHY DO PEOPLE EAT ORGANIC FOOD? It is one of the most stupidest things in the world. And I have many reasons why: 1. It takes away more land, even forest what you hippies like. 2. It is not cost-effective, so organic farmers are basically doomed without state paying them. 3. It tastes the same. 4. Millions of people will die if we switch to organic food. 5. Hormones? Well humans have hormones in them, also tell me if anyone has died from these dangerous hormones in beef? 6. It costs more. 7. There is no proven health benefits from switching to organic food. 8. Even if you love something stupid as free range, it still kills stupid animals you “love”. Also animals do not feel pain, they don’t even know they live for crying out loud! When was the last time your dog told you how it feels?

  26. Kyle Porter

    hello. i liked the part where they found everyday joes and did the taste test to them, FAIL!
    you organic health food nuts have just convinced your selves that your special for finding this (very stupid) way to be different, alot like a 16 year old kid that smokes to be cool. hahaha go have a panic attack and enjoy that blown out super ego of yours.

  27. Alicia

    Thank you for posting this article. I have found Pen & teller’s arguments on Bullshit to be one sided and biased. The episode about P.E.T.A. misrepresented the issue of vivisection for Bio Medical Research. Vivisection is the term used for animal testing. Pen & Teller stated that anyone opposed to vivsection hated humans they failed to disclose that thousands of members of the scientific and medical community including the PCRM and 1000 Doctor’s Against Vivisection find these methods to be ineffective. There are numerous instances of medicines being recalled after causing severe health problems in humans including seizures, paralysis birth defects and death. These same medications had little or no adverse effects on animals. This issue is much more complex than how they presented it and they did their viewers an injustice by not accurately presenting the information. Thank you again.

  28. Organic Bullshit

    So, as usual, where you can’t counter hard scientific research and evidence, you instead opt to rely on froth-mouth Left Wing conspiracies and ad hominem.

    Bravo.

  29. Vegan Hypocrisy 101

    “they failed to disclose that thousands of members of the scientific and medical community including the PCRM and 1000 Doctor’s Against Vivisection find these methods to be ineffective.”

    Except the PCRM and 1,000 Doctors AREN’T members of the scientific community. They’re both proven PETA fronts with many financial and departmental ties that make up for their complete lack of actual medical staff or knowledge.

    Big surprise. A front organization for an Animal Rights cult that would rather see billions of people die than one rat be experimented on is opposed to life-saving animal research.

    You keep on drinking the Animal “Rights” cult Kool-Aid.

  30. Jason

    Organic is much more than taste, it’s an ethical thing. Keep eating your genetically modified foods, massacring the environment, shutting down small-medium sized farms. You guys are seriously living underneath a rock or ignoring wft’s going on with your food.

    The fact is that if you cannot prove GM foods are bad for you they can keep selling it. This also goes for medication.

    Trust the farmer who wants to earn a living growing normal food, not the corporations who are now growing your food. They have the shareholders in mind. You will take it in the ass one way or another from them.

    The same companies that have their hands in stuff like cancer medications. Full circle baby! Pay now by buying organic or pay later….your choice.

    It’s common sense, an egg should not cost 10 cents. Your choice affects everyone. Pay a fair price for REAL food and help a good cause, your health, your kids health and the environment while you’re at it.

  31. FomerOrganicSucker

    You’re retarded. You don’t understand science. (Don’t listen to this person they are talking straight out of their ass). Your following comment proves it: “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.” All meat does have natural hormones in it. If you had basic biology you would know this. No one is claiming that some livestock aren’t given extra hormones, but they will all have natural hormones in them. Also cow growth hormone has absolutely no effect on humans. The receptors are different so it’s impossible for them to signal a cascade in humans. I’m so sick of you guys talking about things you don’t understand. These companies are preying on your paranoia and lack of scientific knowledge so they can make a buck (sound familiar?). I bet half of you don’t even know what a hormone is, or a GMO or DEET, or MSG or Gluten or whatever the buzz is at the moment. If you don’t understand what you are talking about, don’t talk like you do. That’s a dick thing to do. (oh and the “science” in these pro-organic (psuedo) news articles claiming “discoveries” is highly manipulated. Trace them all back and you will find they are written by the companies’ public relations folks (I’m too familiar with this as I worked as a publicist). Seriously, I’m challenging any of you to find one true scientific study (from a scientific journal not from an organic food company) written by a real scientist at a university (not someone paid by the company) that proves me wrong. Stop being trendy and save your money. I know you think it makes you look like you’re better than people or more virtuous but it really makes you look like a trendy pretentious sucker. I’m sure your pissed write now because I was when I started realizing what a sucker I was for eating organic. You’ll get over it shortly.

  32. FomerOrganicSucker

    Yay Cassandra!You must be a real scientist?

  33. FomerOrganicSucker

    Oh wow! I’m so happy to read these comments and see so many reasonable people. I’m so tired of being the only one with the guts to say that the emperor is wearing no clothes.

  34. Heidi

    Sometimes you wouldn’t even need studies, just a bit of common sense. For example: If you feed plants, animals and yourself synthetics, leach the earth of nutrients and life, while you enrich the earth, water and air with toxic synthetics, what do you think will you eat, drink and breath?

  35. FormerOrganicSucker

    FACE PALM!!!! The words “synthetic” and “natural” are MEANINGLESS unless you attribute some spiritual meaning to things. Toxins are toxins whether we made them in a lab or a plant made them. (yes your precious plants make toxins too…where do you think opium, among others, come from…oh and you can make synthetic opium too…what’s the difference? not a damn thing except for where it’s made.

  36. FormerOrganicSucker

    Not to mention, a molecule (toxic or not, synthetic or not) is going to breakdown into smaller molecules, combined with other molecules,and become parts of other molecules. It’s called chemistry. Every one of you should take a few classes in it. It will pay for itself with all the money you save from not being duped into buying “organic” food. You can even take an “organic” chemistry class! It has the word organic in it so it must be good!

  37. FormerOrganicSucker

    My point above is that “toxin” (which is a conditional property btw) isn’t likely to remain a toxin for a long period of time.
    P.s. Did you hear the news?!: CHEMICALS found in Organic Food products!!!

  38. Jason

    People need to stop playing semantics. Yes an apple contains fluoride and some foods contain hormones and natural isn’t always good for you. For the most part, what we all consider fruits and vegetables are good for you until we introduce something that makes then unhealthy.

    The Organic movement is about respect and love. Caring for the way we treat our animals, fruit, people growing it and the planet. Sometimes the food tastes the same, sometimes it doesn’t.

    Farmers aren’t pushing GMO’s and mistreatment of food, it’s the corporations. A handful of companies are buying up all the seed companies and forcing farmers to grow seeds they have patents on. Farmers either go into dept or stop farming. It’s bullying. Corporations have lobby the gov and spend millions a year to make sure they can do what they want.

  39. PhD

    I am surprised that some people are able to survive with the venom that’s in them. Yes, nature is amazing. But venom is toxic, even though the host may survive, it sickens others. I wish the bitter ones much joy so they’ll be able to spread some around.

  40. Jeremy

    I realize its dissapointing to learn that you have made an effort to eat a higher quality food in order to preserve your health and help the environment but the sad truth is that most organic foods are treated with pestacides they just use a little less, I worked in an organic grocery store in the produce section for a long time and am quite familiar with the topic. I think the real Bullshit that came from Penn and Tellers show is that these pesticides are not harmfull to you which is hard to belive even though many pesticides are derived from natural origins, petrolium is natural too but I dont want it in my food.

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