Penn & Teller, the most amazing magician tandem of our era, are also incredibly smart guys. Now, while Carl Sagan may have been the urbane ambassador of science, Penn & Teller demonstrate here their potential to be the rock stars of science communication. Warning: A few very well-placed swear words are used, but they are f-ing appropriate to anyone who has been as outraged by this nonsense as I’ve been over the years.


Happy Friday.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


11 Thoughts on "Penn & Teller on the Vaccines and Autism Debate: A Model of Great Science Communication"

Penn and Teller’s mode of communication is a two edged sword. Whether or not the whole message is true, he communicated a logically invalid argument. He said that there’s a greater chance of being hurt by the diseases than by the vaccinations, but that data he gave did not support that conclusion.

I suspect many people would have heard “there is [allegedly] a 1 percent chance of being hurt by vaccines” but “a 40% chance of being hurt by diphtheria”. Whether or not one is more dangerous than the other depends on the likelihood of being vaccinated vs getting diphtheria. If 100% of people are vaccinated vs one in a billion get diphtheria – it’s better not use vaccinations.

The problem with P&T’s communication style as that it is equally effective communicating something that is false and something that is true. It exacerbates, rather than vaccinates against, the real epidemic w’ree facing: which is the inability to think critically and make correct decisions based on real evidence … the entire autism vs vaccines “debate” was a disinformation-war.

For anyone who knows people from the eras they are talking about, the morbidity (not mortality) of these diseases was amazing — measles, mumps, rubella, tetanus, whooping cough, etc. The fear of polio — kids locked up so they wouldn’t get infected if rumor of a case in town circulated — was immense, not to mention the actual human toll it took through disease. I personally know people who scoffed at the chicken pox vaccine because chicken pox is “such a mild disease.” Now their kids have pox scars on their faces.

What I found most important about their communication style was the bluntness of the “it’s f-ing bulls**t,” which the literature has been trying to prove, but which Penn & Teller come right out and say in a definitive, memorable manner.

Sometimes, we need someone to tell it like it is, even if we can quibble with the vagaries of theatrics.

Let me try again. I have no problem with the theatrics, or the language or niceties and over-considered phrasing.

I have a problem an invalid argument supporting valid conclusion being labeled “A Model of Great Science Communication”.

Science is a about finding VALID arguments and evidence and drawing valid conclusions from them.

Too often today, people start with the conclusions and select evidence/arguments that appear to support their conclusion, and trash evidence/arguments that do not. “The conclusion proves the evidence.”

I don’t think we have problem with “processing a scientific consensus” except when the scientific consensus is counter to the self-interest of a power group. Then we have a really big problem because that power group has all the tools it needs to “market the controversy”, “It’s just a theory”, “cloud the issue”., and is quite happy using invalid arguments to support false conclusions.

“A Model of Great Science Communication” would be one that uses of the skills that P&T undoubtedly possess to communicate a VALID argument for a true conclusion.

So you think the chance of being hurt by a vaccine is greater than the chance of being hurt by measles, mumps, rubella, tetanus, whooping cough, chicken pox, meningitis, and hepatitis? Is that what you’re trying to say?

No! If I said “The world is spherical not flat, because if it were flat it wouldn’t fit into the dimple on the top of the turtle that holds the world up.” you probably think that my argument was invalid. Does mean you think the world is flat?

I am not disputing the conclusion, I’m disputing the argument. Penn said (roughly) a 1% percent autism rate on a vaccine is better than a 40% death from diphtheria. You see “1%” is less than “40%”, so voila the conclusion follows … but it does not! It neglects the population sizes.

Roughly the same invalid argument is used to justify early screening programs, by neglecting the population sizes.

We should takes decisions based on real data with valid arguments. We should not allow invalid arguments even if they are attached to true conclusions.

The whole premise of the argument is that some of the anti-vaccine nuts want to stop using those vaccines altogether.

In that case, comparing 1% of 7 billion vaccinated people who may get autism to 40%+ of 7 billion un-vaccinated people who would have been stricken and/or killed by diphtheria, polio, measles, mumps, etc is perfectly fine.

Yes you know this because

1% of 7 billion < 40% of x% of 7 billion, where x is the percentage who will catch the disease if there is no vaccination.

In spite of the fact that you don't know the value of X, and it was not discussed in this "model of great science". you are able to draw the conclusion.

That's why this is junk science.

If you watch the entire P&T BS series you may see that they are just as convincing when they are completely wrong as they are when they are completely right. How is that science?

Pay P&T a few bucks (quite a few) and they will just as convincing to show that the earth is flat and the theory that it is spherical is BS.

Anyone can call anything “f-ing bulls**t”, but not everyone can provide a valid argument for everything. Why in the world would you prefer the former to the latter?

I think sometimes we get all tangled up in niceties and over-considered phrasing. Sometimes, to get a point across, you need to call it as you see it, in language that is not only unequivocal, but penetrating. When children’s lives are at stake and nonsense has clouded an issue, AND our culture is having trouble processing a scientific consensus, driving the point home in this way definitely helps.

Thanks for sharing the direct and cogent response to the vaccine hysteria. It is nice to see that someone else with my name is intelligent and articulate.

Autism Epidemic or Autism Overdiagnosed? See the video on you tube. This mom doesn’t seem to blame vaccines on her son’s severe autism, but rather questions the rise in autism being linked or rooted in overdiagnosis. Interesting.

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