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A Decade of Explosions: What Mythbusters Taught Me

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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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.

Images: 10th Anniversary Photo from the Mythbusters Facebook page; Myself and Jamie Hyneman.

Kyle Hill About the Author: Kyle Hill is a freelance science writer and communicator who specializes in finding the secret science in your favorite fandom. Follow on Twitter @Sci_Phile.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






Comments 12 Comments

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  1. 1. TheCollapsedPsi 10:12 am 05/6/2013

    “When science writers and scientists gripe about the lack of actual science on Mythbusters, most of these people are indeed fans of the show.”

    This describes me pretty well. Until about a year ago I was very critical about the science found on MythBusters. I watched it for entertainment, but I would complain about the way MythBusters misrepresented science. However, I’m now of the opinion that science, the MythBusters way, is a great innovation for science advocacy.

    For example, they may not always devise a rigorous experiment, but their viewers see that an experiment CAN be done. They introduce them to the process. An explosion may not always be science, but if it sparks interest in science then we shouldn’t criticize.

    See my blog post on the subject for more: http://www.thecollapsedwavefunction.com/2012/11/science-mythbusters-way.html

    Link to this
  2. 2. Dave X 10:58 am 05/6/2013

    Maybe they should do a show on the danger of Drano and aluminum foil vs. Mentos in a soda bottle?

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  3. 3. string_beery 3:11 pm 05/6/2013

    Mythbusters may not be ‘science’, properly speaking, but they do employ a (reasonably) scientific approach or method to their investigations…in my mind, it is far more important to teach the scientific method than to teach (any particular) science per se…the great majority of people will never become scientists, however, to be successful in life generally it is important that people employ the scientific method (observe carefully…think about what you observe…adjust if/as necessary…)…this is true for farmers, for doctors, for everyone – the alternative is a sort of ‘floundering’ through life, an inability to reason effectively with consequent failure to learn important truths…

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  4. 4. M Tucker 4:25 pm 05/6/2013

    “Mythbusters gives kids all over the world the impression that an explosion is science (which it almost never is).”

    Which academic heading would you put it under? An explosion might not always exemplify all the criteria necessary to call it an experiment but I think it is certainly a science demonstration; even if the Mythbusters don’t explain what just happened in terms of chemistry.

    When I was a kid Julius Sumner Miller had a show on TV. It was full of physics demonstrations but Miller did not always give the answers to the questions he asked. I was pretty young when I was watching so if he did give out with an explanation it went past me. To me, some of the demonstrations appeared to be very close to a magic illusion. I still thought of it as science. I remember Miller saying more than once that he wanted the audience to reason out for themselves what the demonstration was trying to show, what principle of physics applied.

    Back to Mythbusters. I think it is a wonder show even if it has flaws. My own personal flaw is that I do think an explosion is a chemistry demonstration. Not an experiment, a demonstration. Explosions are exciting and watching the effect, especially in slow motion, is outstanding entertainment. Like watching fireworks. When I watch those I always think about what was used to get the colors, or the loud bang, or how much lifting charge was necessary to propel it to such a great height. So, I do wish they would talk a bit more about the chemistry involved but I also understand that they don’t want anyone doing that stuff on their own. But Mythbusters would not be MYTHBUSTERS without the explosions. And we all know what would happen if Discovery thought they had lost their audience don’t we? We would be left with the chocking dust of a desert “cable TV landscape filled with mermaids, “ancient aliens,” and Bigfoot.” also ghost hunters and all of them posing as science.

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  5. 5. WilliamOfNormandy 4:40 pm 05/6/2013

    The show is MYTHBUSTERS!!! Dang it, the point is to take an urban legend, a TV stunt or a historical factoid (think Archimedes and the burning of boats with shiny shields) Was Galileo doing science by dropping different weight balls? The sainted Aristotle said heavy falls faster than light- apparently never did an experiment. Most of the show’s experiments demonstrate something- that is all.

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  6. 6. awemans 4:26 am 05/7/2013

    I couldn’t agree more although I have stopped to see the program since it moved to a premium channel in Portugal. What they do is not exactly science but it is a great and fun introduction to the scientific method and that is the uttermost important thing to teach. Finally for someone that has grown with Cosmos of Carl Sagan and first class documentaries of wild life, history, science and so on all airing in the two only tv channels in Portugal, public ones, it is indeed a sadness to have today several documentary channels and see them airing “TV landscape filled with mermaids, “ancient aliens,” and Bigfoot”.

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  7. 7. cassus 2:18 pm 05/7/2013

    I had this exact experience with Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. If it wasn’t for that show I might not have gotten into science. I’m not a scientist or anything, but I do love science and the skeptics movement etc.

    One big thing about mythbusters is how they’ve promoted the maker culture across america and the world in general. I know people who have gotten into making stuff because of mythbusters. Jamie and Adam’s site (tested.com) have more of a focus on that part of their careers. There’s nothing quite like creating something. Starting off with materials and at the end of the day you have a new item. Something semi magical about it. Willing to bet that Mythbusters has boosted the interest in engineering by a massive amount.

    I love Mythbusters so much.

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  8. 8. Katatonic 7:06 pm 05/7/2013

    Mythbusters shows how to “do” science, albeit at a rudimentary level: observe, hypothesize, design the experiment, check results, repeat.

    I am so happy they are doing such fabulous stuff!

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  9. 9. jack.123 8:30 pm 05/10/2013

    I like the idea that they gave you just enough information to hurt yourself,but not enough to destroy the entire neighborhood.

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  10. 10. jafrates 10:46 pm 05/10/2013

    One of the things missing from here is the critical thinking that the Mythbusters promote. I’ve seen numerous episodes where I didn’t like how they presented the material (the Hindenberg episode comes to mind). But after some consideration, one of the things that I realized is that the challenge of examining their experiments and finding something wrong with them is part of the process. I can’t say that what I think was poorly done would overturn the results, but it does get me to think differently about the experiments, and the rational challenges to the findings are perhaps an even more important part of the process than the experiments themselves.

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  11. 11. quantumxdt 9:58 am 05/12/2013

    Greatest Mythbuster episode with an explosion was the one with the Cement truck in the quarry. That much C4 vaporized the 6 tons of truck and hard cement. I still laugh about it today..and it was good science via methodology and critical thinking (pardon the pun)!

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  12. 12. bmcarbaugh 2:36 pm 06/1/2014

    These sorts of attacks are leveled at EVERY work which seeks to popularize scientific principles — because part of that popularizing must necessarily involve a certain amount of trimming-back and dumbing-down. People forget that in his time, Sagan took a great deal of flack from academia for his work. A generation later, people who work at CERN and SETI cite Cosmos and Contact as childhood inspirations.

    In the end, it’s really a chronic case of the “stop liking what I don’t like”s. There are different levels of discourse for different levels of expertise. If you want a peer-reviewed text on planar physics, go read one. If you want a child-level introduction to the physics of paper airplanes, watch Mythbusters. And whichever you choose, know that there are people out there both less- and (unless you’re the world’s foremost expert in your field) MORE-educated than yourself: the former of whom would consider your reading material a bunch of dull esoterica, and the latter of whom would consider it sophomoric fluff.

    Link to this

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