Busting Mythbusters

Like many of you, I have watched Mythbusters, the science-based reality TV show on Discovery channel, off and on for many years. This weekend, I realized that the show was available on Netflix, and since my part of California is going through some amazingly wet weather right now, nothing sounded better than spending the weekend cross-stitching and watching Mythbusters.

The show is hilarious and I am a sucker for explosions, so overall watching a group of five mad engineers running around setting fire to things is what I would consider “my thing.” But watching this show as a college freshman and now watching this show as someone who could actually call themselves a scientist – well let’s just say that I am having two completely different Mythbusters experiences. Now, I watch the show with a more critical eye, and here’s the good, the bad, and ugly in handy-dandy list form.

The Bad comes first because I like to start mean and then end on a nice note.

1. Much of what they are doing is not actually science. Instead of developing hypotheses, collecting data, analyzing the results, and placing those findings in a broad context, the team often finds itself doing a series of demonstrations. This is especially true when the team sets out of the confirm events in the news, which, given the nature of the news (i.e. it is full of real things), seems to be nothing more than demonstrating that a weird news story is actually accurate.

2. Would you believe that people on a televisions series spend almost no time talking about or conducting background research? I know, I am upset, too. Now, I can only imagine how thrilling it is to watch people scanning Web of Science or other journal databases in order to gain the necessary background to answer the questions they are asking. Some of the myths addressed by the show could be answered in a few minutes by checking the literature. Heck, sometimes the team says this themselves in the experiment-wrap up bit! I understand that this does not make for compelling television, but taking a moment to mention research before reaching for the ballistics gel could be useful.

3. Statistics is the foundation of all good science. Statistics provides us with the tools we need to make accurate assessments about the relationships between variables. Without statistics, science would just be a bunch of “well isn’t this neat”¦but is it real?” head-scratching.  Again, I understand how the limitations of the show format (time, money, etc.) may prevent replication of the experiment (most of the time the show just has an N of 1 for each treatment or trial), but addressing that somewhere in the show would be useful. The team does not make experiments large enough on which to use statistics, so all they can say is, “We found this,” or, “We think doing this is impossible.” Addressing their limitations would make the show more accurate and a better ambassador for science.

Alright, enough bad – now let’s move on to the good.

1. Enthusiasm! Normal people! Driven by curiosity! Quest for (usually weird) knowledge! Man, these are the terms I want associated with scientists and these are the terms that can be applied to the team on Mythbusters. They are all highly competent engineers, they all embrace the nerd, and they all have a whole lot of fun while trying to answer questions. That is a perfect combination.

2. Mythbusters answers a lot of weird questions inspired by conspiracy theories, movies, and folklore. Many of these questions would not be deemed valuable enough for science to be answered in any traditional ways (such as via nicely funded grants and years of careful research). But many of these questions are questions people want to know the answers to. Mythbusters is able to provide some science-based information, and that, I believe, is a valuable public service.

3. Mythbusters does not shy away from talking to the experts, and, what’s even better, Mythbusters recognizes that experts come in many forms. The show has brought in everyone from PhDs and practicing academic researchers (physicists abound!) to people with a lot of experience with a particular device or method (like a police officer coming in to talk guns). Instead of respecting on form of expertise, the Mythbusters respect all forms of expertise, which allows more people to see themselves as scientists or key to the scientific process. It democratizes science, which science really needs.

Finally, the ugly:

1. I could barely watch the poison oak episode because I am highly allergic and why would anyone willingly rub poison oak on their body just to test the myth that vodka works as well was Tecnu to remove the oils and prevent a reaction?! WHY?! That is the stuff of nightmares!!

2. Also, slow motion destruction of ballistics gel? Always cool, but also always a little gross.

9 thoughts on “Busting Mythbusters”

  1. See, I don’t really think of Mythbusters as a Science show. I’ve always thought the primary goal is having a ton of fun, and the science part is just the method. They don’t need to be totally thorough like Real Scientists, because they’re not trying to be Real Scientists. They’re just people who happen to have science/engineering/whatnot expertise who’re using that in a fun way.

  2. I have to say this here, because I always say it to Mr. when we watch the show, I hate the name!! In the very beginning of the series they actually took urban legends to “bust” the “Myth”. I guess they ran out of urban legends to bust because it seems, more often than not, they are just “testing” some idea a viewer wrote in with. But at the end they continue to say “This myth has been busted”, at which point I yell “But that wasn’t a MYTH”!!

    All that aside, my kids like the show and I’m all for something teaching them to find answers through experimenting and making hands-on observations instead of just taking someone else’s word for it.

  3. I love Mythbusters, but there are soooo many times when they declare that something is conclusively busted and I am thinking “But what about [X]?” I have to remember that it is entertainment. I do think it is a great gateway show for getting people interested in physics, though.

    1. I think the one that bugged me the most was the pirate episode when they decided that the “myth” of sailors frequently getting killed from splintering wood rather than from the actual canon ball was false, which flies in the face of a copious amount of very good record keeping from several country’s navies. They also used a cannon about a two thirds to a half of the size of the cannon you would likely find on a ship of the golden age of piracy (6 lb when 9 or 12 was more common). Also, also, getting killed by the splinters was more a Napoleonic era issue (when 12 lb was the bare minimum and 24 lb was the most common). Pirates, as a rule, tended to avoid gun action as it was a good way to waste the ship you were trying to capture. At best they proved that something that wasn’t really an issue for the time they were talking about was in fact not an issue, but they did it in the most misleading way possible.

  4. I watch sporadically, but it seems to me that in recent seasons there is a prevalence of saying “plausible” rather that a solid “confirmed” or “busted”. I think it speaks to the n of 1 issue you pointed out. I bet they’re getting feedback from viewers and/or experts that having a hard and fast confirm/busted answer could be misleading.

    I do like that they do build small scale tests before going straight to WOW BANG BOOM, and have control measurements. Not perfectly scientific, but I think good enough for a TV show.

    PS – if you ever have a chance to go to their live show, do it! It’s a blast!

    1. I know they didn’t originally have “plausible,” so they didn’t do that for at least the first few episodes (if not the first season, but I couldn’t say for sure). When they introduced it, they made it so that confirmed means not only did they make it work, but news stories back it up. Plausible means they made it work, but there isn’t really any evidence elsewhere that they found. And busted is, of course, their example failing to make it work within the parameters of the example.

      I wouldn’t be surprised if they introduced this because of the very thing you’re talking about.

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