That floating look

By Phil Plait | September 10, 2010 12:00 pm

Sure, I love the UK show "That Mitchell and Webb Look", and I post about them a lot. But they do such a fantastic job using humor and satire to promote skepticism! So why not post one more video clip, where this time they go one step deeper, talking about how to employ skepticism… and where I suspect different people will take home a different message.

[Slightly NSFW language, more so in the US than the UK.]

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Antiscience, Humor, Skepticism

Comments (52)

  1. That is a funny video and I really enjoyed it. (Although it also illustrates another hallmark of the modern skeptical movement that often attacking someones intelligence is more often used than the difficult thing of coming up with an actual reason why the idea is wrong. But it is a comedy so it should be expected.)

  2. Gus Snarp

    I love these guys.

  3. Chris

    Well frogs can levitate
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A1vyB-O5i6E
    so why not people. If you could get a strong enough magnetic field, it is possible.

  4. IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE

    Joseph Smidt:

    Although it also illustrates another hallmark of the modern skeptical movement that often attacking someones intelligence is more often used than the difficult thing of coming up with an actual reason why the idea is wrong.

    I think that is because the onus is on the claimant to come up with an actual reason why the ‘idea’ is right.

  5. John F

    “I think that is because the onus is on the claimant to come up with an actual reason why the ‘idea’ is right.”

    Personally I think if you are debating with someone you should always debate and argue AS IF the burden of proof was on you-

    your audience may have very different ideas coming as to whose ideas are full of woo, counterintuitive etc., and whose are not.

  6. Theron

    If an adult makes a claim that flies in the face of the lived experience of most humans (people can fly, water can cure live cancer, aliens routinely engage in medical research on humans and also have thing for agricultural art) , then the adage about extraordinary claims and extraordinary evidence kicks in. If the claimant has nothing, then questions about the claimants intelligence are legitimate.

  7. “Personally I think if you are debating with someone you should always debate and argue AS IF the burden of proof was on you”

    This is what I think as well. Moreover, though I agree your opponent may actually be an idiot, I don’t think “debating by humiliating” should be the default way to debate.

    But the video was great so thanks again for posting. :)

  8. IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE

    John F:

    Personally I think if you are debating with someone you should always debate and argue AS IF the burden of proof was on you — your audience may have very different ideas coming as to whose ideas are full of woo, counterintuitive etc., and whose are not.

    To paraphrase a quote from George Bernard Shaw: I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig — you’ll both get covered in poo, but the pig will enjoy it!

  9. Red

    This is an example of being a dick, right?

  10. spurge

    Well, I am game.

    Joseph,

    Prove to me that no humans can levitate.

    Good luck.

  11. jaranath

    And cede the shifting of the burden of proof from the claimant? Why? How does that help establish good critical thought?

    I agree that you’d better have the evidence to back yourself up in an argument or debate, regardless of whether or not you’re making a positive claim. Gather all the ammo you can. But if you act as if you bear the burden of proof, you’ve not only missed an opportunity to convey a fundamental tenet of science and skepticism to the audience–a tenet that could neutralize many woo-ish trains of thought before they ever bear fruit and lead to, well, debates–you’ve actually reinforced the opposite.

    It may still be worthwhile to explain why your opponent bears the burden of proof as you present your evidence anyway, but that’s risky. It sets up a situation much like the typical ID approach: They present no real evidence, but rather let YOU do all the work. You present evidence, they lay back and criticize it, as if that’s a valid alternative to providing evidence. This is how they get away with thinking that an incomplete fossil record is positive evidence for “goddidit.”

  12. Tribeca Mike

    I love these guys, as well as how you spotlight their very funny bits. They remind me of a few comedy writer pals of mine here in NYC, who can go on and on with the most high-lariously straight-faced improvisations. My father was a career Air Force sergeant in the U-2 program with a sharp Irish sense of humor, and how I would revel as a wide-eyed kid in the company of him and his fellow scotch-downing AF buds (Monty Python and Lenny Bruce fans all) as they riffed on the military, the space program, and everything else under the sun. What a joy it is knowing folks with healthily askew points of view!

  13. Anonym

    Frogs do not levitate (active mood); frogs, et al (including humans), are levitated (passive mood), by means external to themselves — humans do it primarily by aircraft, some by spacecraft.

  14. @spurge

    This is related to my point. You can’t point to one place I stated humans can levitate and so, like some skeptics I know, you have constructed a strawman with (I believe) a goal to make me look stupid if/when I try to answer it. And maybe I do look dumb.

    Let’s just say strawman and ad hominem arguments used in order to humiliate are not considered good practice by logicians. Maybe by some skeptics who feel bad logic is allowed when you are convinced your opponent is stupid, but not logicians.

  15. @ IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE:

    I’ve got another similar quote for you from Seinfeld: “Never argue with an idiot, they drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.” :)

    But I still suggest you beat them with sound arguments, not with humiliation.

  16. Just my opinion, but I think after a set number of rounds of back and forth, if the proponent of any unsupported position continues to try and present that position as if it were established fact, or as worthy as other positions that do have a certain amount of support, then that person is perfectly fair game for ridicule.

    Of course, one has to be decent about it, and at least approach it with a sense of humor. That being said, I realize one person’s (such as yours truly) humor is another person’s angry vitriol.

  17. I think that is because the onus is on the claimant to come up with an actual reason why the ‘idea’ is right.

    In the sketch, Mitchell’s character actually closes down that avenue of discussion. He just asserts that levitation is impossible, and shows no curiosity about evidence. That’s not skepticism as I understand it. (I don’t really have an opinion on the behaviour of ‘the modern skeptical movement’, though – I just see this as a funny sketch on human foibles, not satire.)

  18. jaranath

    Sigh…I think this thing is eating my posts… Trying again. Joseph, I think you misinterpreted what Spurge said. I believe he was challenging you to prove a negative, since you seemed to advocate it.

  19. My answer would have been: “Not to my knowledge, no.” Right after the chuckle and the “Oh, you were serious?”

  20. Tribeca Mike

    This video has an obvious skeptical bias. Any reader of the Fortean Times knows that frogs fall from the skies in choruses, not levitate skyward individually (excepting the well-documented Accession of Kermit in 1983, of course). Ribbit.

  21. Pete Jackson

    I don’t really get the humor, it all just seems boorish to me. Now, it would have been funny if one of the people in the background began to float in the air during the discussion!

  22. “Now, it would have been funny if one of the people in the background began to float in the air during the discussion!”

    Yeah, that would have been hilarious! :)

  23. spurge

    @Joseph

    Wow, way to miss the point.

    I claim that some people can levitate. Prove me wrong.

  24. Humans can levitate. I’ve seen Stephen Hawking do it. The Mythbusters, too. All you have to do is get into a vomit comet, and in no time you’ll be floating around like a glob of coffee thrown out of the cup by a careless morning elbow.

    Here’s an oldie from David Mitchell’s Soapbox.

    Dear America…

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=om7O0MFkmpw

  25. So, isnt David “being a dick” in this clip, Phil? don’t tell me hes being a bad skeptic?

  26. John Paradox

    20. Pete Jackson Says:

    I don’t really get the humor, it all just seems boorish to me. Now, it would have been funny if one of the people in the background began to float in the air during the discussion!

    People levitating in the background (among other things) is why I still love the one-season then canceled Misfits Of Science

    J/P=?

  27. Langmuir

    I think some of you aren’t appreciating the comedy of the sketch. The sketch is supposed to be about a normal conversation between David and Robert. They are a regular feature of the show, and David is normally portrayed as the more intelligent. However, all the sketches are grounded in reality, at least in the physical realm (some of the sketches dialogue can become absurd), and to have people floating would have ruined it. As for David being a “dick”, he is prone to rants (google David Mitchell rants for more) and so is in character with the rant.

  28. @ spurge

    I’m curious why you think humans can levitate. I’ve never seen any evidence for this. Do you have any?

  29. jaranath

    @Joseph Smidt:

    THAT’S what “Personally I think if you are debating with someone you should always debate and argue AS IF the burden of proof was on you” means?

  30. The only way to prove the negative case is to display an exhaustive collection of views of every part of the entire Universe, in order, to your opponent, and for there to be no levitating people in any of them – which if not technically impossible, would require omniscience and an almost infinite amount of time to do so…

  31. @ jaranath

    I’ve yet to make a claim that requires proof. The second I say he is wrong the burden of proof does fall on my shoulders. I’ve yet to take the position that humans can’t levitate, but might depending what spurge coughs up.

    Saying X exists requires as much proof as claiming X does not exist. But if someone says X exists I am free to ask why they think so.

    I need a proof before I can ask why someone else thinks X does or does not exist? :)

  32. [Slightly NSFW language, more so in the US than the UK.]

    I tried to figure this out, but can’t spot anything that might be considered NSFW anywhere … well, other than the fact that IT’S A VIDEO. What am I missing?

  33. Neil

    Maybe it’s just me, but I love the skeptical, slightly cynical nature of some British humor.
    I haven’t really checked out much Mitchell and Webb, but I’m going to have to start.
    It may go without saying, but to me the main source of humor is the emotional reaction of the questioner…and for those who want to read it this way, it goes a bit against Phil’s “don’t be a dick” premise, or at least shows another side of the issue. The comedy is in the truth of it-all too often, all one has to do is react in a humorous or even slightly incredulous fashion to even the most obviously stupid question or claim, and one is immediately seen as being condescending, dismissive, aggressive, rude, or closed-minded(or all of the above). The bigger the emotional investment the other party has, either in the topic at hand, or simply in not looking stupid, the bigger and more absurd the reaction.

    Their slightly sarcastic style seems somewhat reminiscent of “A Bit of Fry and Laurie”, although if this were a Fry and Laurie sketch, it would probably have involved Hugh Laurie claiming to have learned how to levitate by meditation, and Stephen Fry handing him meditation pillow and a feather, and tossing Laurie out the window while making some crack about helping him with his spiritual development…now THAT’S being a dick…but it could still be funny!

  34. Neil

    @Adrian#32

    Tw#t’s that? I c&nt hear you, I think I have an ear inf&ction!

  35. jaranath

    Joseph Smidt: Okay. Let me walk you back through this:

    –John F said at #5, essentially, that the skeptic should assume the burden of proof.
    –You agreed with him at #7.
    –Spurge challenged that agreement in #10, pointing out that a skeptic assuming the burden of proof in a debate with a “believer” is basically trying to prove a negative. He wasn’t saying you claimed people levitate. He was trying to get you to see the problem with expecting the skeptic to assume the burden of proof, and show that people can’t levitate, by asking you to practice what you apparently preach.

    If all you’re trying to do is point out that skeptics shouldn’t go about saying “I know for an absolute fact that people can’t levitate,” fine…but you’ve got an odd way of going about it (I especially still don’t get the strawman thing), and I’m not sure why you’re bothering since neither of us said that.

    Adrian Morgan: I think the thing (Webb?) calls (Mitchell?) right at the end is the slightly NSFW word…?

    Neil: Actually, I thought it straddled both sides of the “DBAD” premise nicely. Right from the beginning (I’m just gonna assume the names, sorry if I’m wrong…) Webb was gun-shy because he knew Mitchell was “just going to be horrible.” He didn’t even want to ask the question…which goes to Phil’s position. We can’t have people who want to self-educate, who might embrace skepticism, backing off because they’re deliberately humiliated for reaching out. But the audience laughs at Mitchell’s comments because he’s RIGHT, not just about the question’s answer but about the embarrassing nature of the question. “Well, certainly I’m sufficiently insecure to have felt the need to establish to my own satisfaction, before the age of 33, whether or not humans can fly.”

  36. Dreamer

    I tried to figure this out, but can’t spot anything that might be considered NSFW anywhere … well, other than the fact that IT’S A VIDEO. What am I missing?

    Um, the four-letter “t—” word at the end of the sketch is NSFW in the UK for sure. Dunno if it’s a taboo word in the US. Having grown up in Scotland, where it wasn’t in use back then, I had never heard the word (this was 30+ years ago before such language was allowed on the BBC, before 11pm anyway) but picked it up from somewhere when I went to Manchester University… without knowing what it meant! I was more than a little embarrassed about having used in several times in polite company before a rather amused friend of mine explained to me what female anatomical term it was synonymous with.

  37. @ jaranath

    You should read carefully as #5 said “if you are debating” which implies you are taking the opposite position. If you take the opposite position you are under the burden of proof as much as he/she is for you also at this point you are are making a claim.

    Claims require proof. *Find me a single mathematics paper containing a claim for or against the existence of something that doesn’t also contain a proof to defend that claim.*

    In my #28 I was not necessarily going to take the opposite opinion and enter a debate. All I was doing was asking what evidence he had. This is different than making a claim that requires a burden of proof.

    jaranath, feel free to ask questions if this is a hard concept to understand.

  38. IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE

    Adrian Morgan:

    I tried to figure this out, but can’t spot anything that might be considered NSFW anywhere … well, other than the fact that IT’S A VIDEO. What am I missing?

    See Dictionary.com definition of the term “tw*t”. ;-)

  39. @Dreamer Oh, I see. Listening to it again, you’re right, but I listened to it several times before and each time heard the word as “twerp”. Hence my puzzlement.

  40. jaranath

    Then we have very different approaches, Joseph.

  41. JB of Brisbane

    @Tony Sidaway #24 – that isn’t levitating, it’s freefalling.

  42. Michael Kingsford Gray

    Don’t be such a dick, please.

  43. EJ

    @Joseph

    I used to have a college roommate who tended to employ the “Pfft, you’re an idiot” method of argumentation. Unfortunately, while he was quite bright, he had some astonishing gaps in his knowledge. So among the things he dismissed through ridicule at various times were such statements as “bats are mammals” and “water will boil faster if you cover the pot,” among many others that I can no longer remember (it was a while ago, tellingly, long before the existence of google).

  44. Uite

    But humans can levitate! Here’s a video to prove it:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pDewni95EeI

  45. Chris Winter

    From the movie Kill and Kill Again, a fun parody of Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon. In this scene Steve recruits The Fly, who has achieved Satori, to follow him on a dangerous mission. “A true leader can overcome any obstacle.”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DGDfDU7n69Q

    ;-)

  46. MoMan

    Fifty years ago, a high school teacher told me that if you debate the English they would insult you, as a tactic, so this may actually be quite normal for them, and I suspect that it is one reason we often find the English so funny: they do what we would like to feel free to do. Oh, mygod, we envy something about the English!

  47. ColonelFazackerley

    Idiot children uploading to youtube. No respect for copyright or aspect ratio.

  48. Buzz Parsec

    Joesph @ 37, the opposite of the claim “Humans can levitate” is NOT “Humans can’t levitate.” It is “There is no evidence that humans can levitate.”

    When you are debating someone who makes an extraordinary claim, denying it is not the right or an effective tactic. You’ve just fallen into a trap if you do that. The best tactic is to demand that they show you the evidence.

    If they have no evidence, but persist, then you’ve proven they are an idiot without actually calling them one, so you still get the same emotional satisfaction :-)

    BTW, @Anonym, you left out hot-air balloons*. This proves that your pitiful science doesn’t know everything, and that therefore humans can levitate. :-)

    * and falling with style, of course.

  49. Bunk

    I just noticed today that Mitchell and Webb Look, Season 1 is available to watch instantly on netflix, assuming you are a netflix subscriber. I enjoyed most of the afternoon watching it.

  50. I think the other videos that have been posted here (like the “did we go to the Moon” one) were much better.

    Note that the thing that started the “discussion” wasn’t a statement that “people _can_ levitate”, but rather a question “_can_ people levitate”. I don’t think the “extraordinary claim” requirement comes into play on this one, as there was no claim to begin with. And the retort “can _you_ levitate” is a bit out of line, as I’ve also never been to space.

    In all, not their best work, but somewhat amusing anyway.

  51. EJ:

    So among the things he dismissed through ridicule at various times were such statements as “bats are mammals” and “water will boil faster if you cover the pot,”

    Well, of course water will boil faster if you cover the pot. Since “a watched pot never boils”, putting the lid on prevents you from watching it.

    Note that this requires further investigation into glass lids.

    MoMan:

    Fifty years ago, a high school teacher told me that if you debate the English they would insult you, as a tactic, so this may actually be quite normal for them

    This is insults. Arguments is down the hall.

  52. mike burkhart

    Can people levitate? Yes with wires .

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