Before I appear to do a thing so sacrilegious as to criticize Mythbusters, let me just make one point very, very clear up front: I like Mythbusters. My kids love it. I think it’s a fine show, and one of the very few that promotes good science education. It’s great to have it on television, and I dance the Macarena on tabletop in full support of their efforts. Now here’s the big “but” you’re waiting for:
In no way does Mythbusters deserve its high reputation in the skeptic community for promoting skepticism or critical thinking. It doesn’t.
Mythbusters’ strength is in its presentation of how to apply basic science to answer questions, and for that it deserves great applause. Granted, people versed in experimental design often facepalm at their lack of controls, shoddy methodology, and poorly supported conclusions, but that’s not the point. It’s necessary to cut such corners when you’re trying to make a fast, punchy show that appeals to a broad audience, and cutting them is the right choice. For teaching the basic application of science, it’s one hell of a lot better than anything else on television, and that’s a huge step forward. They teach “Test stuff,” and that’s a message that’s desperately needed in our culture.
But here is what they don’t do: Mythbusters never truly challenges their audience. The title suggests that they do, but they never go after the cherished beliefs in our society that are wrong and that enable charlatanism to be so profitable. “How much dynamite does it take to blow a raccoon out of a drainpipe” is not a popularly held belief that causes loss and harm, and that deserves to be tested and busted. It’s explosion porn.
Mythbusters is not a courageous show, and it could be.
Whenever I make this point I often get the response “Oh, what about their episode proving the moon landings actually happened?” Well, OK, that was one episode out of hundreds, and even still, it’s not really that big of a myth. Six delusional nuts out there believe the moon landings were a hoax. It’s not all that harmful of a myth, it’s just not that important to bust, and it improved the lives of very few viewers.
During one earlier episode on pyramid power (again, an easy-target fringe claim that few people actually believe), Adam asked at the end “Can we not do any more of these ‘oogie-boogie’ myths, please?” And they haven’t. As a result, anyone can enjoy Mythbusters, without fear of having their beliefs in homeopathy, psychics, and magical Power Balance bracelets challenged.
Science shows have to be sensational to survive, which is the main reason so many of them have devolved into simply promoting the paranormal or showcasing explosives. To appeal to an audience, a skeptical show has to give people something amazing to talk about, and not just take something away. To have a lasting impact and leave an important legacy, a science show must truly change the world and not simply stroke our lust for tremendous crashes and computer graphics. Can a television show do all of these things? I believe it can, if the producers are willing to work hard enough.
Credit Mythbusters for what it is, but don’t think a gaping hole in television is filled.