Monday, November 26, 2012

Science: The MythBusters Way

I just finished watching the latest MythBusters episode: Explosions A to Z. Even though this was pretty much just a "clip show", it was MythBusters clip show so of course I watched it. It was a great episode with a fun look inside the MythBusters process, and it got me thinking.

I've been critical of the MythBusters in the past. They rarely use a true, scientifically valid control group, their method development is almost always fundamentally flawed in one way or another, and I don't think many things they do would pass any diligent peer review. But does that even matter? I have 3 reasons why science, the MythBusters way, is an important and necessary innovation.

1. They're entertainers.
The MythBusters team isn't just the well known Adam, Jamie, Kari, Tory, and Grant. Their team includes cameramen, writers, producers, directors, stuntmen, and departments for art, costume, animation, and lots more. Why do I point this out? Because the MythBusters are first and foremost entertainers. They have a huge supporting cast that works hard to put together a television show - not a science textbook. They do make an entertaining television show about science, and they know a lot about what they're doing. In the end, though, they are entertainers. This means that they may occasionally take some creative liberties with the scientific method, and that's okay. They're not promoting pseduoscience like many celebrities or others in the entertainment industry. They're never misleading about what they're doing. In fact their methods, while often flawed, are available for public scrutiny. In other words, their approach to the scientific method is readily accessible to be over analyzed by just about any pretentious internet troll.1

2. They know their audience.
Because they're entertainers they are distinctly aware of their audience. That audience (as a generalization) doesn't work in a lab. They don't design experiments that will be submitted to peer reviewed journals, and they may not have even heard of a control group before watching the show. If the show's approach were to rigorously describe the details of every experiment needed to correctly proclaim a myth as Busted they would lose that audience very quickly. I know I wouldn't be as interested in watching, would you?
Instead, the MythBusters approach is to quickly explain the science behind what they are doing and (between explosions) the basics of the tests they are using. Instead of faulting them for using an incomplete control group we should be applauding them for showing millions of viewers that a control group is necessary. Instead of pointing out the flaws in their method development we should be pointing out that for some of their viewers the idea of experimental design is completely new. While other entertainers promote the newest fad diet the MythBusters are introducing viewers to the basics of the scientific method.

3. Science advocacy starts with a BOOM!
Science is AWESOME. No really, everything in the universe that you could ever call awesome can be explained by - or is a direct result of - science. However, sometimes you have to look pretty deep to see just how awesome it is. The great thing about the MythBusters approach to science is that they bring the awesome of science to the forefront. They're very clear about how awesome science really is. I'm talking of course about explosions, but that's not all. The experimental methods that the MythBusters use may be flawed but those experiments allow them, as entertainers, to show that an experiment can be designed to answer a question. This combination of science and entertainment is an important innovation in science advocacy. An explosion may look cool, but if it gets someone to start asking real questions about the world around them that is truly awesome.

[1] Fun story, I got my first piece of hate mail over Thanksgiving weekend. Some of the last sentence is a direct quote from that soul-crushing feedback. Thanks, you'll always have a special place in my heart.

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