MYTHBUSTERS Still Makes Science Fun
By Merrill Barr on July 10, 2014
When the Discovery Channel’s MythBusters hit the airwaves in 2003, no one thought it would turn into one of the most fanatic, non-irony based cultural phenomenons since 24. In the eleven years since, the series has maintained its playful attitude while continuing to do the one thing it has always promised: busting urban myths and legends using the unbiased tools of science. In fact, it’s arguably because the series has continued to make science so approachable that it has remained a long-standing hit, and maybe that proves something. Perhaps the series’ success is proof people do honestly still care about learning.
What makes MythBusters unique in its approach to the scientific method (albeit a stripped-down version) is its willingness to not talk down to audiences. The show covers very complex concepts for a general audience, but for the most part the show’s presenters find a way to make them palatable. It suggests the continued success of MythBusters is about more than just enjoying Savage, Hyneman, Belleci, Imahara and Byron onscreen. One of the hardest things to get around in science education is the widespread feeling that science is “too hard” or boring; MythBusters seems to have found a way over that hurdle.
Explaining the science of pressure differentials is normally useless to the common audience, and terms like “psi” mean nothing to the layman (pounds per square inch). But when you frame the concept as a practical understanding of escaping a vehicle that’s fallen into water, suddenly everyone understands what is being discussed. Audiences then understand that the higher pressure outside the vehicle compared to inside prevents them from opening a window, and they won’t be able to leave the vehicle until water has completely engulfed the space–until the pressure has equalized. By making complex concepts practical, by demonstrating them instead of just talking about them, scientific principles become understandable and thus interesting enough to learn about.
The science weaved into the series won’t matter to someone who, ordinarily, doesn’t care about science. But by putting it on display in a practical sense, it takes a form average viewers can at lease engage with. Explaining the ratio of oxygen required in a room full of gasoline in order to set it ablaze is a lot less effective than actually setting a room on fire. The latter option makes the information digestible and entertaining. That’s the continued importance MythBusters brings to the table.
No one’s arguing the Discovery Channel series is a textbook look at the scientific method. Per the hosts’ own admission at multiple panels, the series isn’t about pure science education; it’s about science communication. The two teams on the show simply don’t have the running time per episode to show an experiment in legitimate form, but they have just enough to inspire a non-scientific viewer to do some research on their own. All it takes is for one seed of inspiration to take root. MythBusters doesn’t spell everything out as clean as a scientist would like, but they do as much as they can to make things relatable. That might be the greatest thing the show can do for us as viewers.
There’s no one more excited than the legions of fans to see the series return for a new run of episodes this month. And looking back on the last eleven years, enough time has passed for us to realize the impact the series has had. For such a simple concept, it’s hard to argue any series has achieved the level of social importance MythBusters has. What the M5 team continues to do is about so much more than Michael Bay-level explosions and complex building skills–it shows the world that a thirst for knowledge is not completely lost, just hard to find in a cluttered, modern world. If in the long run that ends up being the legacy of MythBusters, the show will forever live on as a signpost for science education.