This post was originally published on Scientific American
When the first episode of Mythbusters aired in 2003, I couldn’t drive a car. I couldn’t see a R-rated movie. I was 14-years old and I couldn’t do much of anything. But Mythbusters taught me that I could do science.
Raised on Bill Nye videos, LEGOs, and CD-ROMs of dinosaurs, I was a lump of nerdy clay waiting to be molded. Mythbusters came to me at a critical time, and it transformed me into who I am today. Maybe it’s naïve to think that one television show shaped my entire professional trajectory, but if any TV show did, it was Mythbusters. I jumped into high school chemistry and biology without a second thought, in protest of my dismissive classmates. In my physics class I would interject with tidbits I learned from the show. When learning about circuits I asked, “Is this sort of like a Leyden jar?” My professor responded with, “Yes it is…where did you learn that?” My answer was consistent.
When I got to college, my burgeoning passion for science steered me into engineering. I still watched Mythbusters every week. Once, in my thermodynamics class, my professor explained why what Adam, Jamie, and the gang did wasn’t really science. I defended them.
With enough episodes in the bag to fill 10 straight days with explosions, Mythbusters enters its tenth season this summer, accepting a torch passed on to them by the likes of Sagan and Nye. In popular science communication, they stand alone amidst a cable TV landscape filled with mermaids, “ancient aliens,” and Bigfoot. The show really is a phenomenon like COSMOS or The Big Bang Theory. I’d argue that it has done more for the public understanding of science than almost any medium before it.
I Reject Your Reality And Substitute Science
As successful as the show has been for the communication of science, the Mythbusters hardly ever do it. They do not always get their terms right. They sometimes misunderstand physics. They make it look like an experiment with a handful of data points or less makes for a confirmation. Mythbusters gives kids all over the world the impression that an explosion is science (which it almost never is). And no scientist would call them scientists.
Maybe it’s the shackles of TV that keeps the Mythbusters from consistent scientific rigor. Maybe producers shoehorn in C4 where it has no reason being (though fun to watch). Undoubtedly the show has to find some kind of balance between entertainment and enlightenment that still delights audiences. No, Mythbusters is rarely science. But they know this.
In public appearances and on the show, the hosts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman admit that what they are doing is not always science. I have even asked them directly. At a “behind the scenes” tour appearance in my city, I took the microphone, hands and breath shaking from years of fandom, and asked about Adam and Jamie’s personal feelings on the show’s process. Adam responded that there are many things that both he and Jamie would like to do better, but simply don’t have the time to do or can’t get the higher-ups to agree to. Explosions work, rigorous experiments that take weeks or months to complete and film don’t.
Adam continued on to address the crowd after I asked my question, though I was sure he was speaking directly to me. Instead of trying to do peer-reviewed science, the Mythbusters try their hardest to promote scientific thinking and skepticism first and foremost. It’s a “teach a man to fish” model. Both Adam and Jamie are active skeptics and rationalists, noting that some of their least favorite myths were of the “woo-woo” variety—like “pyramid power” and perpetual motion devices, they went on to tell me. Teaching a whole generation of kids, like myself, how to hold up our beliefs to the light of experiment and empiricism instead of faith and fixed beliefs, will arguably go much further than spending the extra time to smash together 50 cars instead of five.
The scientific skepticism that the Mythbusters have slipped into the show under all the exhaust and explosions is more important now more than ever. Climate change denial, anti-vaccination proponents, creationist teachers, faith healers, fake bomb detector peddlers, psychic frauds, alternative medicine pushers…we need scientific thinking. We need a generation of kids who think an experiment is more important than a preconceived notion or an argument from authority. All of these rifts between science and pseudoscience are controversial, but Mythbusters sidesteps all the potential aggravation to get in on the ground floor. A wave of science-based decisions follows science-based reasoning. If we want to keep real science in our public schools, if we want public health measures to stand firm against bad ideas, Mythbusters gives viewers the basic tools to do so. As the “Bad Astronomer” Phil Plait says, “Teach a man to reason, and he can think for a lifetime.”
And by playing scientists on TV, the Mythbusters have done more for dispelling the white lab coat look and dorky disposition of scientists than any communication effort in my memory. They often fail to achieve real science, but failure is always an option.
Do Try This At Home
When science writers and scientists gripe about the lack of actual science on Mythbusters, most of these people are indeed fans of the show. I can point out a flaw here or there, but I will keep coming back next week. (To their credit, Mythbusters is probably the only show on TV that will go back and redo a test if they think they got it wrong.) A critique of the science is not quite the same as a bad TV review. Scientists and science enthusiasts who fault the show want to see it get better. We know how powerful it has been in shaping the public’s view of science and the scientific method. Sure, an experiment with a larger sample size than two and less explosions would be good, but not one detractor I know of would see the show cancelled. Mythbusters is the way station between a childhood fascination with how things work and a full-blown interest in STEM fields. How much work do you think it would take to interest an avid Mythbusters fan in trying real science? Can you think of another show that could produce the same answer?
I have seen every episode of Mythbusters. I have been to the museum exhibit. I have tried my hand at fact-checking certain episodes. I have even met Jamie. Ten years ago I saw the gang try to get a car to fly after strapping rockets to it. Now I write about science for a living. I can’t be sure I’d be doing that if it weren’t for the Mythbusters.
After a decade, Adam, Jamie, Kari, Grant, and Tori are still showing a legion of fans that it’s okay to be a geek. It’s okay to take that reservoir of passion that you have and let it flow into whatever you love. Experiment, question, replicate, be critical, be nerdy, be yourself. Mythbusters taught me that.