Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Penn & Teller Are Full Of Bull

Disclaimer: Display of these videos is in no way an endorsement of their contents:

I recently came across Penn & Teller's attempt to dubunk the 12 Step process. Yes, THAT Penn & Teller- the team of two contrasting magicians (the little guy who is silent and the big guy who won't shut up.) These "12-Stepping" videos are part of their "Bullsh*t!" Showtime series and have surfaced on Youtube.

While I'm up for open debate, the "logic" and methods P&T use to assert their points are flawed to say the least. Much of their argument seems based more on manipulation than persuasion.

As P & T point out, the sheer number of different 12 Step programs available is overwhelming. The massive need for help from addiction cannot be argued. P & T assert that 12 Step programs are unscientific and question their effectiveness. But the evidence presented by P & T against The 12 Steps is far from scientific. They give only anecdotal evidence, personal opinion, brief excerpts from a twenty year old survey and skewed logic in making their case.

The calculated use of the word "cult" by Penn & Teller here is to ostracize and stigmatize anyone in, or considering joining, a 12 step group. It's an attempt to associate 12 Step programs with some insane dogma or radically dangerous religious fascism, ala David Koresh or Jim Jones. A cheap shot that is all too transparent. Especially after P & T accuse 12 Step programs of using shame and preying on the weakness of others.

As people from dysfunctional families are well aware, shame can be a powerful weapon. It is often used to try and control and influence by fear. And to silence those who may object or hold a differing opinion from those in power. When the merits of an argument can't stand on their own and open debate cannot be tolerated, shame and fear are convenient tools to keep alternate opinions subdued and unexpressed. These tactics are often used by truly radical cult leaders to keep their members in line. By lampooning the 12 Steps and ridiculing those who endorse and use them, P & T are using THE VERY METHOD they rail against- authoritarian, shame based coercion.

One definition of "cult" is "a cohesive social group and their devotional beliefs or practices, which the surrounding population considers to be outside of mainstream cultures." -Wikipedia. That's a pretty broad brush. Under that wide definition many groups including The Boy Scouts, surfers, lesbians and yes, even MAGICIANS can be considered members of cults.

P & T claim alcoholism is not a disease. I won't pretend to be able to divine THE definitive answer but PTSD, Addiction and Trauma all cause mental and physical afflictions. And yes, addiction does have a genetic component. Addicts and their offspring have a lack of dopamine receptors in their brains. This has been scientifically documented. A physical limitation like this cannot be changed with willpower.

The 12 Steps does not claim there is A monolithic, specific God. For me, belief in a Higher Power simply means I recognize the reality that I am not the most powerful thing in this universe. There are many, much more powerful sources than myself at work. One need only to look up at the sun to see proof of this. I open myself up to the possibility that a greater power does exist and can help me.

Penn & Teller claim the success rate of Alcoholics Anonymous to be 5% based on decades old information. But they fail to offer any statistics on the success rate of alternative "SOS" or "Assisted Recovery" programs that they tout on their video. Nor do they offer any opposing opinions on these treatments. Their entire argument against the 12 Steps seems to lie somewhere between unbalanced manipulation and outright propaganda. But then slight of hand, mental or otherwise, is what they do.

Penn and Teller themselves may actually suffer from an addiction to excitement, as many do. This could easily take the form of craving the spotlight of the stage and espousing controversial points of view for the accompanying adrenaline rush that comes with the inevitable confrontations to follow.

The 12 Step programs I am familiar with recognize that everyone is different and suggest that people explore to find what works for them. This viewpoint is so widespread in The 12 Steps that, "Take What You Want And Leave The Rest" has become an adage almost as popular as "One Day At A Time" or "Easy Does It". Perhaps P & T should heed this advice.

There is a long list of people that credit the 12 Steps with helping them. So far, the number of addicts that Penn & Teller have successfully treated remains at zero. According to their website, P & T are "confirmed skeptics and pro-science atheists (they refer to God as "an imaginary friend").

Far from being unbiased, P & T are using this platform to promote THEIR atheistic agenda and beliefs under the guise of having a mission to "expose the truth to an otherwise desperate and gullible public." This is the same approach that they accuse 12 Step Programs of using- an agenda based recruitment for the desperate and gullible.

Assuming you're not too gullible, ask yourself if you've found more value and truth in these videos or in your local 12 Step meeting. I already know my answer.

In the end, these two stage hucksters are no more qualified to explain addiction, cults, 12 step programs and other things they admittedly know little about than I am at stepping onstage and pretending I can pull rabbits out of hats.

Thanks for listening,


(note: Post publication of this article, the Penn & Teller videos referenced above were yanked from Youtube. Apparently the right holders want you to pay to have the wool pulled over your eyes.)

Check out the Orange County ACA website at: Orange County Adult Children


Anonymous said...

I have to hand it to Penn and Teller. This is a phenomenal way to get publicity. Is their name recognition waning? Is that why they did it? Pick any subject with millions of fans, lambast it and Presto!, Abracadabra! You're a household name again. Poor guys. Must be hard to see your game slip.

Anonymous said...

Where do you start?
There's enough misthinking here to fill a volume.

For starters, P&T attack AA as if the 12-step program is a PRODUCT that is being sold - pushed upon innocent people that they must RESIST to keep from being deceived.

If AA prosletyzers were knocking on doors trying to sell the 12-Step program and asking for payment, then P&T would be justified by their misguided attack and I'd support them.

But AA is voluntary, asks for no payment (more than most cults), and does not advertize, sell, prosletyze etc. - in fact AA is very, very low-key. So what's all the fuss about?

Are people stupid and do things that they do not benefit from? P&T make alcholics out to be fools. I think alcholoics are as smart as most people and they wouldn't be in a program like AA for long if there were no benefit.

Not everyone can benefit from AA, but enough have felt they benefitted to give credence to the idea that an addict might just give it healty try, why not?

Additionally, people benefit from 1) Community - people with similar problems band together and support each other in their efforts - GOOD. 1) Humility - AA promotes some of the most true and deep humility and gratitude I have ever seen. Humility is not a weakness but a thankfulness and recognition of the great good we all enjoy in a civilized society - over and above the selfish and negative thinking sometime prevalant in our society. GOOD enough to allow P&T to flourish. 3) Support - the mentoring program is just a really GOOD idea, for any organization. I could go on......

There's too much GOOD in AA to reject the program on philosophical, technical, or theoretical grounds. If you can get the benefits of AA by joining AA or doing something else then GOOD for you - you've made the world a better place, and so has AA!

Ray said...

Over 60% of new AA members arrive under mandates from courts, government agencies, and employee assistance programs (Grapevine, Nov 2002). It most certainly is pushed on people. When people speak out against the program, they are denounced as "dry drunks" or having never been "real alcoholics to begin with"? Why is it that if AA is so successful as it claims, it does not invite scientific scrutiny?

Claiming to be "spiritual, not religious" is repeated so often that members believe it when belief in micro-managing, miracle-dispensing God is a requirement in the program.

Alcoholics Anonymous has enjoyed an undeserved reputation for far too long. When 95% of all new members drop out within the first year, AA is creating a lot of ex-members, many angry ex-members.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

The Orange Papers "Twelve-Step Snake Oil" synopsis:

Extensive, certainly.

Reactionary, absolutely.

Demonstrating a true understanding of the 12 Steps, lacking.

Providing a workable alternative methodology for overcoming dysfunction and addiction, nowhere to be found.

"Twelve-Step Snake Oil" author A. Orange condemns 12 Step programs and their philosophies. Certainly no system is perfect and The 12 Steps has it's flaws. A. Orange's diatribe demonstrates a serious lack of understanding of the subject. Recovery axioms and principals are taken at face value and refuted without investigating deeper meanings or how and why they are applied.


A. Orange lambasts Janet Geringer Woititz, Ed.D., and her book, "Adult Children of Alcoholics". He states, "Similarly, Woititz believes that she can describe people's personalities on the basis of only one single fact — that they are children of alcoholics." Orange refers to the "Laundry List" of characteristics that just about any group of ACOAs will tell you they identify with.

In reality, Woititz's List describes common traits not "personalities". And yes, there are common traits amongst those that have suffered abuse and trauma. Just as incest survivors have common traits, those with eating disorders have common traits, so do ACOAs. Is that really so outlandish a concept?

Orange continues, "Item 11 (Adult children of alcoholics are super responsible or super irresponsible.) is another double-bind — damned if you do, and damned if you don't. You are a stereotypical ACOA no matter whether you are responsible or irresponsible — and whether you are guilty of "super" or extreme behavior is really just somebody's arbitrary value judgement."

Wrong again. It is not "somebody's" value judgment but each individual's judgement about whether or not it applies to them. Woititz is describing the dichotomy of "black/white" thinking. Of being out of balance and polarizing to one extreme or the other. This rigid, inflexible "all or nothing" thinking characterizes and is a component of dysfunctional thought patterns. Just ask an ACOA or anyone who has closely studied dysfunctional behavior if this is true.

More from A. Orange: "Adults who were terrorized and abused during their childhood may well be suffering from PTSD — Post Traumatic Stress Disorder — but that is a very different thing than the condition that Janet Woititz is describing."

So suffering from PTSD is accepted but not the other characteristics on the list. Without explanation as to why, Orange accepts one that condition is a possibility but not others. This is arbitrary and lacks intellectual merit.

Certainly, what Orange lacks in depth and understanding he makes up with in sheer volume of material. Unfortunately, without better empirical data and a more complete explanation of why he believes these tenants of recovery are flawed, it is hard to give much credence to his argument.

Anonymous said...

There is an abundance of evidence to suggest that AA and 12steps are potentially harmful and have very low rates of success. I attended AA for almost 8 years and through those years I was very unhappy. I began researching AA on my own and I was actually quite shocked to learn the truth about the program. But having left AA and not following the twelve steps I feel much better.
Although I agree that Penn and Teller are very biased in their presentation of the twelve steps, I must agree with their conclusions. Someone mentioned the and although Orange is far from objective, his conclusions and research are incredible. There is another site that also attacks the twelve steps and AA, and I have also found this site to very informative. There are also papers written by a writer on associated content and some of these writings are heavily biased but some are objective in research. I think that it is only fair that supporters of the twelve steps should be aware of counter viewpoints and should present these sources of information in order to maintain objectivity. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

An expose on AA and 12 step programs is one thing. But these critics offer no workable alternative. Their sole purpose is to denigrate and revel in negativity.

I'd have a more receptive ear if they had a positive message about a better solution.


raysny said...

When someone does an expose on quack cancer cures, they're not expected to have to find the cure in order to reveal the quacks.

AA has about a 5% success rate, the same as no treatment at all, AND those who fail in AA tend to fall harder, for longer periods of time.

AA has a higher mortality rate according to George Vaillant, former AA trustee, and confirmed by 3 independent later studies.

Anonymous said...

The thing that defines a "quack" is that they are pushing unworkable therapies while more effective methods are widely available. This is not the case here. You have offered no better alternative than 12 Step programs in spite of what you see as their shortcomings.

Tearing down structures because they don't meet your standards and giving people no place to live does not improve their status.

raysny said...

"What works? A summary of alcohol treatment research" in R. K. Hester & W.R. Miller (Eds.), Handbook of alcoholism treatment approaches: Effective alternatives (3rd ed.), 2003, Allyn & Bacon:

Note that 12step facilitation and Alcoholics Anonymous are listed as 37th & 38th in effectiveness of the 48 methods studied.

When a modality does not improve upon the rate of natural remission, it cannot be considered a successful treatment method.

Robert said...

I'm sorry that 12 Step isn't working for you. It is working for me. One of the very first things I learned was "take what you like and leave the rest." If you've found something that works better for you, then that's great. Continue with it and prosper in your life!

Ray said...

I left the whole thing, it wasn't until I quit trying to work a program that wasn't working for me that I was able to stop.

You're one of the select few, Robert. AA works for about 5% of the people who try it.

The NIAAA’s 2001–2002 National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC)surveyed more than 43,000 people, based on criteria in the DSM-IV for alcohol dependence, found that about 75 percent of persons who recover from alcohol dependence do so without seeking any kind of help, including specialty alcohol (rehab) programs and AA. Only 13 percent of people with alcohol dependence ever receive specialty alcohol treatment.

Methods that empower people to change, rather than convince them of powerlessness, have better outcomes.

Anonymous said...

Penn & Teller: Stage Magicians, Libertarians, Arrogant Uninformed Idiots. Their claims of ‘facts’ are ‘way off. God is mentioned in the AA twelve steps "as you see Him", which means it could be a power in your own, tiny little Libertarian brain, Penn.In fact the ‘big book’ has an entire section on incorporating the process if you're agnostic. The 5% success rate of AA . . . AA never denies it. But doing nothing does NOT have a 5% ‘success’ rate, by the time the untreated alcoholic is 'cured', they are unemployed, divorced, disowned, and/or dead. The 5% success rate matches that of $50,000+ ‘programs’, and AA charges . . . NOTHING. There is no “church of AA” where you drop money. There is no political machine for AA where power is accumulated as in a real cult. What the hell did the producer/writer of the program do for research of this show, talk to some buddies of his at a f)(*^^ng bar? AA also never claimed to be the ONLY approach, only AN approach. Yet the writers/producers slept through that AA session. P&T: The Rush Limbaugh of Libertarians. Penn needs to shut up as much as Teller.