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Mythbusters: Where Is the Mythbusting?

by Brian Dunning, Sep 02 2010

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.

108 Responses to “Mythbusters: Where Is the Mythbusting?”

  1. Twinarp says:

    Maybe WooBusters, rather than Skeptologists? Nah, Skeptologists does it for me. Go get ‘em and see you at TamOz.

  2. Me and my friends have a term, Science with an Exclamation Point. You know, broad strokes, quick pace, damn the months of reproducing results consistently against a control. But it is cool, it makes people curious, it gets attention. Also they tackle the stuff they can with their tools, but you have to admit that Moon Landing was ballsy.

    My other favorite show right now is Deadliest Warrior and that is like mythbusters with 10% of the science and 10x the sensationalism. The conclusions they jump to on that show blows my mind.

  3. Osbo says:

    Brian –

    One thing that distinguishes say BullShit from shows like Mythbusters is it challenge to the audience. I can’t help but think that this is largely due to its basic cable vs. subscription cable mentality. Subscription cable has been able to get away with the idea that the audience had the freedom to opt out, whereas basic cable, which still need to pay cable company fees to be carried, have to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. This means more explosions sell.

    I worked on a basic cable documentary on Dubai, one of the many (so I won’t point out any specific person), and the exec in charge had us cut most of the interesting interviews and replace him with a writer who wrote an article on Dubai once in order to cover the lost information. The interviews were cut because their were too many accents. We’re not talking about Arabic accents either, but French, German, Australian, and British. The reason? Middle america wouldn’t be able to understand it.

    Even the medical documentary show – one that is incredibly well versed in fact – favors gross-out sensationalism over education.

    I would say this is a product of market forces.

    Though, I would also say we’re desperately in need of reality and documentary series, and Mythbusters serves it just fine.

  4. Iason Ouabache says:

    You know what would be awesome? A crossover episode with GhostLab where the ghost hunters walk around going “What was that?” and Jamie and Adam come along and say “Absolutely nothing!” Who wouldn’t love watching that?

  5. G Money says:

    I would love to see Mythbusters (or anyone for that matter) do a thorough test of those ridiculous Power Balance bracelets. I’m working a trade show in Vegas this month and just found out these goof balls will have a booth near mine. Wish I had some great resource to call on to explain why their stuff is utter crap. Brian? A little help here?

  6. Jester700 says:

    I agree, Brian, but this will rarely if ever happen in the current state of television; particularly in the USA. People don’t like their beliefs questioned or their minds challenged, and TV is all about getting and keeping eyeballs on the LCD. It may be possible from the BBC or something, but more likely the REAL meaty stuff will continue to come from independents with no care for how many people watch or what they think. On the internet.

  7. MadScientist says:

    I liked the early seasons better, but even then I frequently thought “it’s a pity they don’t have suitable experts to properly examine some of these myths; although they had the right idea for testing the myth, they did things very wrong”. I always loved the show though, but my sister (another scientist) absolutely hates the show and always feels a compulsion to remind me that I’m an idiot whenever I mention the Mythbusters. I still think it’s entertaining and will at least get people thinking about how to test some ideas. However, since things have now grown so elaborate the audience may no longer imagine that they can also go out and test ideas.

    @G Money: I tend to play the idiot and chat to the people in the booth and get what information I can about how the thing allegedly works. I find that very often the folks in the booth don’t even know that much, they just heard from a friend who heard from a friend … and of course, it worked for them. In the rare cases that the person in the booth does know something, they may refer you to the appropriate quack literature. I have yet to see something original – everything I’ve seen in the past 20 years is just a rehash of crap that was exposed as no good 60 or more years ago. It’s like those turds that just won’t flush. Anyway, one way or the otehr you get information from the folks in the booth and you can sound more convincing when you talk to other people who are considering the bracelets. One big thing of course is that folks selling the bracelet have not conducted appropriate tests to prove the efficacy – nothing but stories from people who swear it works, while if the ailment is something treatable with medicine you can be assured that the pharmaceutical companies spent a lot of time and money testing the drug. But of course Big Pharma is a conspiracy to hide the *real* cures that ancient tribes knew over 2000 years ago…

  8. cheglabratjoe says:

    It feels like everyone got together and decided that infighting was the Next Big Thing for prominent skeptics to try. Why don’t you put a cherry on top of this article and call the Mythbusters “dicks,” Brian?

    Also, what happened to that “paddling” metaphor you were harping on awhile back? Aren’t the Mythbusters “paddling” in the right direction? At the very least, they’re pointing out that you ought to investigate claims rather than believe it because you know a guy who knows a guy who saw it happen.

    • Of course they are, and I think I made that quite clear in this post. I think maybe you were looking to read something into it other than what I wrote. I said nothing but positive things about the show, just understand what it is and what it’s not.

      • cheglabratjoe says:

        Nothing but positives? Are you kidding? You prefaced the criticisms with “I love it but” and tempered them by saying “but it’s good at what it does,” but that doesn’t make the criticisms go away. Was calling the show “explosion porn” positive?

        I regret comparing this your post to Phil’s talk at TAM; it gave you (and the two comments below yours) an easy way to dismiss my point.

      • Brian Tani says:

        First of all, he didn’t call Mythbusters explosion porn. He called “How much dynamite does it take to blow a raccoon out of a drainpipe” explosion porn. And, he also said why he thought it was so: “…is not a popularly held belief that causes loss and harm, and that deserves to be tested and busted”.

        And by the way, Phil Plait also makes this distiction. There’s Dickery and then there’s Criticism. Watch Phil’s talk again and see whether Dunning reflects the example Phil gave of Dickery.

    • MadScientist says:

      What’s with the dick thing? Have you got a Freudian fixation? I don’t recall Brian being involved in that episode at all.

  9. Jason Goertzen says:

    Cheglabratjoe, in this article Brian is criticizing people for their overreactions to Mythbusters, not the Mythbusters for what they do, which he opens the article by saying that he likes.

    That being said I kind of disagree with Brian here, because I think the Mythbusters have done more for skepticism by *not* focusing on deeply cherished beliefs. They have pulled thousands into the idea of testing beliefs. Had they challenged deeply held beliefs (like P&T’s Bullshit), I doubt they would have gotten the audience they have now, and so they wouldn’t have had the positive effect they have.

    I think skepticism needs to be injected in the harmless areas in order to get people thinking skeptically. They need to bring that around to their sacred cows on their own.

  10. WScott says:

    @ cheglabratjoe: So even the most mild “I love the show but I wish they could do more” criticism contitutes infighting in your book? OR did you not bother to actually read Brian’s post?

  11. Bob Mcbride says:

    They are heads above what everyone else has put out. Not to pick a scab but when is the air date for the first skeptologists? Yes the Mythbusters have a bias toward blowing everything up. Given what the marketing will allow the only other venue would be to go the route of sex appeal. Why are the skepchicks not putting out a show?

    • tmac57 says:

      “Why are the skepchicks not putting out a show?” Now there is an idea that might have some traction.I would love for my two granddaughters to have those kinds of role models on TV instead of, say,Snooki (ugh).

      • Bob Mcbride says:

        That was the gist of my idea. There is a lot of junk on the tv but relatively little science. Even worse still there are so few ladies in the media speaking for science that girls get turned off. That is something that the Skepchicks could remedy.

      • MadScientist says:

        They might cause earthquakes though, so it’s a risky idea.

  12. CW says:

    I see Brian’s point. I’m not a regular viewer, but I have to admit that I do find the episodes about masking scent from a hound dog tracking you, as well as dimpled cars, duct tape sailboats, and beer-goggles quite interesting.

    It’s not debunking pseudoscience or paranormal claims, but it’s still interesting information.

    I’m definitely over the explosion porn stuff as well.

  13. TimC says:

    I’m not sure if maybe you aren’t giving TV a little too much credit. The power of television is in the audience and what they want to watch or are willing to put up with watching. The only courage the Mythbusters would be showing by making the show you recommend would be the courage to run the show into the ground.

  14. Maria says:

    Brian, I agree with you. The IDEA of Mythbusters is good, but the show itself falls far short of what it could be.

    Its lack of good, controversial content, combined with too much repetition and build-up (drama, I guess?) and commercials is what keeps me from watching it. There’s only so much time a person can waste in a lifetime. I’ll waste mine elsewhere.

    Thanks for being braver than the folks who make the show. This needed saying.

  15. itzac says:

    I quite agree with you, Brian. Though I would point out that a Mythbusters episode on acupuncture or homeopathy would essentially constitute a show where nothing happens. I would love to see a documentary style show, like Nova ScienceNow on PBS, cover the history, practice, and evidence “for” pseudo-sciences. Show people their sacred cows under bright lights.

  16. WScott says:

    Jason @ 5: Good point. Tho personally, I would prefer to see Penn & Teller actually challenge people’s beliefs instead of just insulting them.

  17. I have a hard time seeing how they could make investigations into the paranormal all that interesting. The show has a definite bias towards entertainment and building things, preferably fast, dangerous, explodey things. I don’t see a double blind study into the efficacy of homeopathic remedies as fitting their style. So, I agree that they’re not doing, but I’m not sure I think they should. Bullshit has a much better style and approach for it, I think.

    They did the jfk lone gunman thing, which probably has more believers than the moon landing hoax.

  18. Jeremy says:

    I doubt they’re afraid to go after some of these, so much as it would be somewhat hard to make interesting TV out of them. Then again they did test if yawning was contagious in a explosion free environment.

    I think my first thought when Adam said “Can we not do any more of these ‘oogie-boogie’ myths, please?” was “thank God.” It was fairly boring, and obviously wasn’t going to work. That said, pyramid power was a particularly stupid “myth.” I think they could devote a few minutes every so often to a “mini myth” about “actual” issues. The power bracelets are a good example of something they could test in a short amount of time. Maybe in reverse infomercial “this crap is bunk” format with whatever type of product is currently making the rounds.

  19. Todd says:

    The show you want to see Sounds a lot like the Skeptologistst.

  20. Kevin Hicks says:

    People don’t watch TV to have their core beliefs challenged. They watch TV for entertainment. Most people will go to any lengths to AVOID having their beliefs challenged. If Mythbusters makes their audience uncomfortable, the audience will flip to the ball game. I’m sure MB would love to take on some larger issues, but they have to walk a fine line here. I think the fact that people are still watching says that they do this very well.

  21. Max says:

    Adam Savage explained why Mythbusters doesn’t take on oogie-boogie myths.
    Skip 9 minutes into the interview.
    He says they thought about it a lot, but it doesn’t work for them.

    Also, they get resistance from Discovery, which refused to air an episode testing commercial teeth-whitening products after advertisers expressed concerns.

    P.S. When I first heard about a gunman taking hostages at the Discovery Communications building, I hoped it was not a case of guerilla skepticism.

    • Bob Mcbride says:

      There is only one way to get around advertising bias, and that is to do the financing ourselves. Why not put on a show (skeptologists maybe) and attract the financing within our community? PBS style adverts could be sold at the beginning and end of the show. The main point would be to use a commercial network to reach a broad audience.

      • You may have an unrealistic idea of what TV budgets are. A season of 1-hour episodes needs $10 million. Yes, you can make Internet videos for much less, but Internet videos are not yet subject to all the union requirements of broadcast TV.

  22. AmandaM says:

    Brian, I respectfully disagree with you on the direction MythBusters should take. Personally I don’t want to see a show debunking psychics and I doubt most other skeptics would as well. We know it’s bunk, we don’t need to see it again. What we don’t necessarily already know is whether or not you can make a salami rocket, or if your car will explode if you drive it off a cliff.

    As Itzac (#10) says, scientifically debunking homeopathy (or any quack medical claim) would be a lengthy and boring process to watch.

    But there is a common thread to a lot of claims in pseudoscience, and that is the idea of an “energy field” that either exists around humans and can be manipulated. (Maybe MB has already done that show — I haven’t seen all of them. They sort of did it with the pyramid episode, but I don’t think they specifically addressed trying to measure the energy field.)

    If you can’t measure or identify the field, then how can you go to school to learn to manipulate it? Bust the myth of the “chi” and the foundation for a heckovalotta pseudoscience is also busted.

  23. Brian, I love Skeptoid, and most if not all of your blog postings, and dance the Macarena on table top in full support of your efforts. Now here’s the big “but” you’re waiting for:

    This posting could have been called “A Blueprint for Getting Mythbusters Cancelled.” I hate it as much as you do, but a show that goes after the big pillars of outrageous belief is going to last half a season, if it gets green lit at all.

    Sure, I’d love them to go after some of the real myths that affect peoples daily lives, but if they ever do, you should probably queue up a blog posting entitled “hey, remember that great skeptical show that only had a couple episodes.”

    • I do not advocate that Mythbusters change a single thing. I merely wanted to point out that it’s not the show many skeptics give it credit for. For what it is, I think it’s spot-on. If I were a network exec I would not change a single thing about Mythbusters.

  24. Jeffery2010 says:

    I agree with Brian. Just last week my daughter mentioned there was a Myth Busters on she hadn’t seen and she hoped they wouldn’t just be blowing stuff up.

    Ok – homeopothy would be boooring, may I suggest Dowsing? Big number of believers – easy to test.

    • highnumber says:

      Dowsing? Man, that’ll bring in the viewers and BLOW THEIR MINDS!

      If I may throw out a BS stat, 95% of the general public has no clue what dowsing is. Skeptics, professional dowsers and subsistence farmers are the only folks who have heard of dowsing. Did I say 95%? Must be more like 99.99% don’t know what it is.

      Excuse my tone, I am just trying to have a little fun with this, but seriously, no dowsing.

      • Max says:

        By the way, when skeptics talk about dowsing, they should mention that it’s also called biolocation.
        When I google biolocation, I don’t see any skeptical websites.

    • Max says:

      In the interview I linked to above, Adam says “Dowsing is an open question that we’ve been thinking back and forth about for years as to whether or not to do it on the show.”
      I hope the fact that soldiers are dowsing for bombs will push Mythbusters to cover it. They can’t demonstrate that dowsing in general doesn’t work, only that a specific dowsing rod doesn’t work, but that’s ok. They can even conclude the episode with a big explosion.

      • Mchl says:

        This has actual chances of being covered, as it can involve exploding stuff. Give the dowsing rod to the representative of the manufacturer and put him in front of five boxes. Tell him, one of the boxes is booby-trapped and that all he has to do is to open one that is not.
        Come on… it’s not like he has 20% chance of being torn to pieces in front of the camera, right?

    • MadScientist says:

      Dowsing sounds like a great idea. The various types of dowsing should be explored – pendula, sticks, wires. The audience should be encouraged to grab some string and a weight of some sort (a spoon maybe – and they can bend that spoon with their mind later). There are any number of dowsers who would be happy to appear on TV, and I suspect some may even be happy to appear on a televised controlled test. Anyway, I think the audience should be educated about the ideomotor phenomenon and shown how this can lead to wrong assumptions about magical powers – and the controlled tests should show just that. Of course some time is needed to explain how the test was designed, and for many types of test we can explain the chances of getting things right by accident (and how the test is designed to help determine whether something was accidental or not). I suspect it could all be crammed into 40 minutes – too short and the audience won’t learn anything, too long and they’ll be bored to death.

  25. Somite says:

    The Mythbusters are just being safe and entertaining which seems to be the theme of skeptics lately. Thus explaining their disproportionate following among skeptics. Same for the Bad Astronomer. The problem is that if you are going tackle meaningful problems you are going to ruffle feathers. The solution to a problem might be, and usually is, associated with a political, social or religious point of view.

    If you want to tackle climate change it requires progressive politics.

    If you are going to tackle extremism you have to point out religious moderates feed the extremists and suggest secularism

    and so on…

    Only approaching subjects that are obviously bunk and unimportant can you ensure to minimize the number of people you alienate. Thus, bigfoot, UFOs and telepaths are the favorite targets of skepticism. I think exposing the obvious bunk idea is fun, but unless you target the real problems every once in a while you risk being ineffectual.

    As an aside: I was saddened by the obvious libertarian political pushing of P&T after the excellent bible and evolution episodes. They came back to form with the vaccine episode but the climate change and environmentalism shows were clearly libertarian demagoguery.

    • MadScientist says:

      I wouldn’t brand it as libertarian demagoguery, but the scriptwriters certainly don’t understand the issue. It has happened a number of times – remember the episode on second hand smoke? (Queue Mark Russel and “Secondhand Smoke” sung to the tune of “Secondhand Rose”.)

      • Somite says:

        The one was the worst. I am a toxicologist and yelled through the whole episode. They missed the point that cigarette is a carcinogen. Once that is established at any dose its exposure must be reduced as much as possible. There is no “safe” dose.

      • Max says:

        Surely at a low enough dose it’s insignificant compared to, say, the smog in the air.

      • Somite says:

        When something is toxic its benefits need to outweigh toxicity. Entertainment in a bar does not justify the exposure of non-smokers to second-hand smoke. Second-hand smoke is not an insignificant dose.

      • I agree with you in principle, but there is a safe dose. There’s a safe dose of everything, including plutonium (you have about 20 million atoms of plutonium in you right now). The ideal exposure is zero, but there’s also a point of diminishing returns.

      • Jon says:

        Sorry: there is no known safe dose for tobacco smoke, either firsthand or secondhand. That’s the fact.

    • WScott says:

      just being safe and entertaining…Same for the Bad Astronomer.

      Uh, yeah, because Phil never debunks mistaken beliefs. Have you actually seen his website? Sure, he doesn’t focus as much on evolution or climate change – because he’s not a biologist or climatologist.

  26. Did I miss it in the comments, or am I the only one willing to admit that he loves explosion porn? Is it just me? Does no one else watch reruns of “The Detonators”?

    I’m fine with “Mythbusters” being what it is, but the show you describe is an excellent idea.

  27. Philip says:

    YES! I’ve only seen a handful of episodes, but I got the impression very quickly that the show was devoted more towards the sensational (which tends to be very simple to investigate, and often serves just as an excuse for explosions or crashes) rather than the complex or the important. I much prefer Penn and Teller for going into stuff that matters like homeopathy and other quackery that rob people of their money and put them at serious risk of health complications or whatnot.

    And they do it in half-hour episodes, providing a (usually) solid introduction to the topic and its main problems, so I don’t buy any argument that Mythbusters doesn’t have the time to tackle serious stuff. For the casual viewer, an overview of why lie detectors don’t work and aren’t admissible in court is all that’s really needed, not an in-depth analysis of how physiological effects can be misconstrued.

  28. steelsheen11b says:

    There will never and can ever be a rigorous based skeptic show aired on TV that would attract large numbers of viewers the format constraints are against it. Same goes for the woo shows. First and foremost it is an entertainment media and guess what? “explosion porn” puts butts in the seats the same way low light camera shots of fat nerds reacting to random/planned noises off camera “prove” ghosts exist.

    So the question, at least for me, is what is better a pure unadulterated by “things going BOOM” fundamentalist approach to skepticism which would only appeal to the already converted. Or a “reformed” version that is explosive filled entertainment based form that has the potential to attract more people to the rigorous standards of skepticism AND blow thing up? For me I would take 80% pure with larger numbers AND explosions over purity and an almost no numbers.

    Was that to dickish?

    • I disagree. Skeptologist Partners are currently working on two such show proposals. No doubt it is hard to come up with an idea that’s sensational enough for network TV but that has critical thinking as its central message, but we’ve got two pretty good ones. Why has it been taking so long? Because it’s hard work.

      • steelsheen11b says:

        Is it “hard work” becasue of the constraints of the TV format?

      • No, it’s hard work because of the market-driven need to be sensational and whiz-bang. It’s hard to find such content that’s good science and that delivers the payload of encouraging people to rethink what they hear on Oprah.

        So, not a format problem, more of a difficult creative challenge.

  29. GeorgeFromNY says:


    “If you want to tackle climate change it requires progressive politics.”

    “As an aside: I was saddened by the obvious libertarian political pushing of P&T after the excellent bible and evolution episodes.”

    Wouldn’t healthy Skepticism include criticism of collectivism and statism, when warranted? Are we to regard P&T holding a so-called “Libertarian” position on something as prima facie evidence of dereliction of duty, Skeptically-speaking?

    I’m not looking to pick a politics fight with you – I’m not a Libertarian myself – but I am curious as to your answer.

    People tend to be all for science and whatnot until it tells them something they don’t like hearing. Sacred cows graze on both sides of the political fence, let me assure you.

    Which brings us back to Mythbusters – where I agree with you entirely about feather-ruffling.

    Like Brian, I enjoy the show – I recommend it to everyone – but his criticism of it is well-founded. Put simply: MB is gunning for clay pigeon targets. Forget sacred cows; they won’t even approach the pasture.

    • Somite says:

      My point is that P&T shoehorn the issue to the politics. Answers to problems should be independent of ideologies.

  30. Pamela Lee says:

    I love Mythbusters for what it is, including the explosions. I love it the same way I love a Top Gear challenge episode, it’s entertainment.

    I agree with almost everything you’ve said. One small point I would make is that, as you well know, with paranormal claims the better designed the experiment the smaller the effect tends to be. You have acknowledged the constraints which they work under. These constraints include budget and time as well as their own lack of particular expertise in the field of paranormal research. These problems could be worked around but I would worry, given the nature of the show, that if they were not carefully handled you could actually end up with a “CONFIRMED”. We might end up with psychics, faith healers, dowsers and all sorts running around saying they had been ‘proven’ to have powers because Mythbusters tested their particular woo and said so. Im not sure the risk would be worth the possible reward.

    Watching the two hour special that started the latest series of Mythbusters I was very impressed by Adams attitude. Some of the same thoughts that you have expressed here did run through my mind. But if nothing else I felt his enthusiastic attitude to testing, the scientific method and science in general was a lovely thing for my kids to see. I think you feel the same way from what youve said above.

    I really hope your show gets on the air as I feel you would be much better placed to provide the kind of entertainment you describe.

  31. Marge says:

    First ever episode of Mythbusters I ever watched, they ‘busted’ the myth that one sword could slice through another. I’ve seen this happen, live action, as I do historical swordsmanship as a hobby – the reason they ‘busted’ it is that they only used new swords. Every blow you land with a sword bends the blade back and forth, causing significant cumulative metal fatigue; if you happen to hit the blade on one of its weak points you can slice it in half (it can also snap at a point unrelated to the blow, again because of the back and forth motion). It is an uncommon event, but still eminently possible.

    They also talked total bollocks about swords for the entirety of the section. I was so pissed off with what they were passing off as fact that I never watched another episode (if they talking such rot about something I knew about I couldn’t trust them on things I didn’t know about), and have been rather baffled as to why people think they’re so awesome.

  32. J. J. Ramsey says:

    “In no way does Mythbusters deserve its high reputation in the skeptic community for promoting skepticism or critical thinking.”

    I’m sorry, but the message “Test stuff” is a cornerstone of critical thinking, and to the extent that the Mythbusters get that message across, they are helping to promote skepticism. They approach critical thinking from a different and arguably more light-hearted angle than the usual debunker, but that’s okay. Not every skeptic has to take the same angle. Let the Mythbusters be the Mythbusters, and the Skeptologists be the Skeptologists.

    • erikthebassist says:

      isn’t it also possible that they feed science denial by showing more often than not how sloppy science can be at it’s worst?

  33. Lone Wolf says:

    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 annoys me when people say that. The show is only an hour long and they do multiple myths per show. They have many hours of footage they have to squeeze down into 40 minutes. They don’t show all they do because they only have 40 minutes.

    • MadScientist says:

      So, you have inside information on controls etc? I shake my head at the TV a lot and grumble “that’s no control” and there are probably a lot of scientists out there who do the same; my sister refuses to even watch the show.

      • LovleAnjel says:

        They actually did a special episode where they showed them doing statistical significant numbers of tests and controls from different episodes. Sometimes you can tell how cut it’s been– there was an episode involving aluminum foil, and every time they cut back to Adam he had a completely different foil hat on (all made from the same sheet, you could see it get more and more crumpled over the five minutes that actually aired). As someone who has done ridiculous repetitive testing, I would hope they cut all but the most interesting bits for the show. It would be ridiculously dull, otherwise.

      • Lone Wolf says:

        I do recall an interview where Adam said they do allot more than gets on TV but you don’t even need that. The show is an hour, after commercials its 40 minutes, after the obligatory exposition and them talking about the myths there is about 30 minutes left, depending on how many myths they do there is only 5, 10, 15 minutes for the myth. 15 minutes is only 2.5% of 10 hours, 10 hours of footage cut down to 15 minutes leaves 97.5% on the cutting room floor.

      • Adam_Y says:

        You don’t watch the show much do you? Mythbusters actually has the best example of how must woo and bullshit gets started in the first place. I’m not going to say which myth it was but there was an entire myth that follows the mantra of tightening experimental procedures until the mysterious effect disappears.

  34. erikthebassist says:

    I agree Brian. This is not a show about skepticism or critical thinking. Skeptics want it to be because we desperately need the outreach and because in his free time, Adam is such an active skeptic, but Mythbusters is his day Job. It tickles my geek bone but it is what it is.

    On a side note, I found it quite amusing when an NWO conspiracy theorist once tried to use a Youtube video of Adam talking about why they won’t do a show on RFID chips as proof of his conspiracy.

  35. Kenneth Polit says:

    The show is entertainment first, skeptical second. That’s OK by me, it at least opens the door to critical thinking. However, the episode where they tested how to beat the breathalizer made me ask this question: if they had found a way to beat it, would they actually tell us?

  36. Danniel Soares says:

    What do you guys think about some studies (at least one) that suggest that by trying to refute false claims, you can actually end out reinforcing them? I can imagine that a program with high-audience that aimed to debunk more mid-to-higher profile false claims could actually serve as a tremendous promotion for these claims.

    I think skeptics should pay more attention to this sort of thing, trying to find out more about how the message of science and skepticism has to be toned and articulated in order to be more effective. I’d also like to see some of the “accomomdationism versus non-accomodationism” “debate” being based on actual psychological studies of how people come to abandon nonscientific views.

  37. Beelzebud says:

    They’re still miles above P&T’s Bullshit, which just uses naken women, lots of the word “fuck”, to hammer home their point that climate change is a hoax, and that social security is a ponzi scheme…

    • steelsheen11b says:

      You have a problem with naked women?

    • LovleAnjel says:

      I don’t remember them saying that climate change was a hoax. If you can make through to the end of the episode, they make a very level and reasoned statement about it. They just start out saying crap to rile people up and get them to watch.

    • P&T made me laugh so hard. I love that show. I love their approach also. I mean, you can pussy foot around a topic and hope people will listen, or, you can deliver a message inside a warhead of vulgarity. Either way…believers never listen to reason.

      BTW…what episode had the naked women? I must have missed that one. ;)

    • GeorgeFromNY says:

      If it’s a Ponzi scheme with naked women, count me in.

      I haven’t seen the ep, but if P&T did outright call Social Security a “Ponzi scheme,” that was silly and wrong.

      Even supporters of SS – and I am one – worry about FICA’s math hitting an econo-demographic wall but that does not make the whole project a deliberate fraud.

  38. Lee Fairbanks says:

    I like the way the show pulls young people into skepticism and I think getting them at a young age is important.

    That said, there’s just a plethora of shows that are simply an insult to Science. We have kids/young adults consuming this nonsense at an alarming rate. There are “Ghost” shows and “Bigfoot” shows and then we have 2-5 (national & local) channels that are completely or, in part, devoted to Christianity. Of course the Internet is a good source to find information about skepticism but it’s also a great place to propagate conspiracy theories, mythology, fake science and religion. I think there’s a chain reaction that occurs from one belief to the next. It’s why the 911 conspiracy originally spawned on the UFO sites.

    These ignorant ideas are everywhere and I think they are likely to fester inside young brains and then solidify, as adults, into either conspiracy theories, religious theology or both.

    I remember going to the movie, “Chariots of the Gods,” when I was a kid. To have a idea what it was about, the cover tells it all. The cover of the movie depicts a Mayan relief sculpture of a person facing upwards. And then next to it is the image of an Apollo astronaut in a space capsule (also facing upwards). The implication is that these Mayan sculptures were “proof” that aliens visited us in ancient times. As a kid, I was impressionable, yet, I remember being skeptical of it all. However, being a kid, I enjoyed flirting with the idea and the movie gave it plausibility.

    This may be a falsehood on my part but I don’t remember there being all that many shows/movies that promoted these strange ideas. Not only that, I don’t think they were repeated as often and so, if you happened to have missed the airing, that was usually it; you never would see it. Yet, today, there’s an army of people that believe in these conspiracies and myths. One can only dread the beliefs our youths will have, as adults, after having witnessed so many hours of these pseudoscience TV shows. I just can’t imagine how it couldn’t affect their viewers. I think it’s dangerous stuff.

    Mythbusters is pretty much the only thing on TV that helps our cause. And while there’s just ONE show devoted to breaking down the myths using Science, there are another 30+ devoted to spreading ignorance.

    Myth-busters? I’ll take it.

  39. Lee Fairbanks says:

    One more thing. I think someone should develop a show that is completely devoted to revisiting all the same locations that the Sci-Fi channel featured on “Ghost Hunters” show.

    I think that would be fun. I think it would be fun and interesting to re-enact the video footage and then go through and explain how the “Ghost” hunters got it wrong.

    I’m so glad the Sci-Fi channel took that guy off that pretended to talk to dead people. Man, that was totally overboard.

  40. matt mills says:

    like everything else nerdy/on the internet, XKCD has already covered this:

  41. Alan says:

    I wouldn’t be the least but entertained by an episode debunking homoeopathy or other such nonsense. Nor did the pyramid power episode entertain me. I already know this stuff is gobbledygook.
    I’d rather just watch them blow stuff up.

  42. Steve Bruun says:

    Perhaps the best way to look at Mythbusters is to say that it aims to get viewers into the habit of asking questions and testing claims. If they tried to do this with the sacred cows, the controversy would overpower the message and maybe get the show canceled or moved to Sundays at 4:00 a.m.

    So instead, get people asking questions and testing claims about less important things – things that matter to their pocketbook but won’t have them firing off angry letters. Once the skeptical habits are in place, then viewers can, in their own time, apply skepticism to The Big Questions. One should never attempt a major project until after one has mastered the use of the necessary tools.

    My own interest in skepticism began when I saw a lecture/presentation by James Randi at the university I was attending. He went after spoon-benders and Ouija boards. This introduction to critical thinking was much more effective than any immediate, frontal assault on what were then my most cherished beliefs.

    For those who want Adam and Jamie to go after bigger targets – Mythbusters won’t be on TV forever. Perhaps, once the decision has been made to discontinue the show, they can devote their final season to frying bigger fish.

  43. I absolutely agree – let them work on real myths that are still “alive” today! Let them show people, that they believe in crap!

    That’s why I love Penn & Teller better – they don’t care about hurting peoples crazy feelings. Let’s get Mythbusters to bust some myths – like creationism and other kinds of rubbish still living in peoples minds around the world!


  44. Mario says:

    Yeah I beg to differ, none of the claims of the author of this article are made by those two guys, they are by far one of the very few good shows airing this days, this is what pays the bills of this two skeptics.
    What you’re doing is setting a standard for a show that only us skepticals would want to watch, and that’s at best 20% of population, no company would put money on it.

    • I guessed you missed my point entirely. I was not advocating that skeptical TV should not appeal to the mass market; quite the opposite. It is possible to do both if the writers & producers work hard enough, and if they’re motivated to do so.

  45. MArtin says:

    ugh. What exactly is wrong with their methodology.

    Given the time constraints and things they are trying to do I think they do a bang up job with the science to be honest.

    The key point is that a lot of the ‘oogie boogie’ myths are quite frankly BORING as hell to do experiments on. That’s left to a professional lab as far as i’m concerned.

    I mean seriously Michael, what the hell do you expect from tv? Something that’s entertaining and original or something where they just do a dawkins and go up to people in long dialogue.

    The mythbusters are good at blowing shit up, and that’s how it should always be. Good physical science dealing with historical myths and urban legends.

    Again it’s waaaay better than P&T’s bullshit. Mainly because 1: they’re not assholes, 2: because they like doing interesting physical stuff that they’re trained for. (P&T are magicians are they not?) 3: They’re more honest in that they don’t use shoddy editing tricks.

    P&T did all the homoeopathy stuff already. Plus they let their politics get WAY more involved than the myth-busters do. Honestly homeopathy can get debunked with a priori reasoning but you can’t blow up a shit ton of TNT with a priori now can you!?

  46. WScott says:

    Somite & Mario, in replies @ 11: Laughing at stupid people is fine, and I realize that’s P&T’s shtick. But it’s not the same things as showing why someone’s beliefs are incorrect. I don’t object to the “and then there’s THIS asshole” approach in and of itself. I just wish they’d spend a little more time showing why [topic of the week] is bullshit in between the pointing and laughing. They could be using humor as a means to get people to consider new information, rather than just score cheap shots. I enjoy the show, but it’s just preaching to the choir. And given the size of our choir, I’d rather see a little more outreach.

    • MArtin says:

      indeed. if it’s preaching to the choir then why are they bothering iwth the show if people already KNOW why it’s bullshit.

      Either make a show demonstrating they’re wrong or don’t make one at all. The insults can be added later.

  47. JayC says:

    Mythbusters has generally been driven by a simple formula:
    For a given myth:
    1. Introduce the myth to the audience.
    2. Recreate the circumstances of the myth.
    3. (If not created yet) recreate the results of the myth.
    If a myth cannot be tested or replicated through these two steps, it doesn’t fit into their formula. So myth requiring more than a few minutes of introduction for an audience member to thoroughly understand the basis of the myth would be immediately thrown out. Furthermore, “sacred cows” are often (understandably) very ill defined, so “recreating the circumstances “of a myth in a way that could cover most (likely contradictory) understandings of the sacred cow would be impossible in a timely fashion. So what’s left? Myths that are easy to understand, and that can be (at least somewhat) timely tested, all summable in a 40 minute or less time span. This formula is not the formula to attack the problems of the world! But to have Mythbusters disobey this formula is for Mythbusters to not be Mythbusters any more!

    Could they be a bit more courageous? Certainly. But any show like that is going to have some degree a rule-by-committee mentality with a fair number of members (if not all) NOT believing that provoking critical thought should be the one true primary goal. If anything, I think most members would agree that their real goals is to continue to perform jobs that maintain income, that they love doing, and if they can teach a little critical thinking along the way, it’s an added bonus. I find absolutely nothing wrong with this attitude; in fact I find it quite wonderful.

    Does their teaching of critical thinking measure up? While not Skepticism 101, there is just enough there to crack open other avenues. For instance, I think I can safely say that if it hadn’t been for Mythbusters, I wouldn’t be here. When I started listening to Skeptoid, I was actively seeking to fill an increasing void that Mythbusters, by their own admitted standards, would not fill. Sure, there are other avenues, to tackle urban legends, Dr. Dean Edell to tackle quackery, that fill their respective niches. And accepting or rejecting statements or propositions from the above avenues does require critical thought. But sooner or later, after enough reasoning through these avenues, one begins to analyze one’s own belief systems for consistency and contradiction, to see the voids of reason, and, most importantly, to not be fearful. Further analysis may reveal that some contractions were actually based on statements based on little more than some weird form of faith, which we can then finally resolve to the more reasonable choice!

    So, yes, we should not make out Mythbusters to be anything more than Mythbusters claims to be. Nor should its value be underestimated. It has plenty of flaws, and that is partially due to its constraints, but we should recognize, for although it is very entertaining, it is flawed, and, if anybody asks, we should be able to point out WHY it is flawed. It still serves as a conversation opener and a motivator in ways we’d recognize as beneficial.

  48. JayC says:

    *Cough* two steps vs. three steps. Ooops. You can see where I post edited :-/

  49. Henk van der Gaast says:

    a) haven’t received a cheque for a long time.
    b) agree, I have seen a few episodes and everyone tells me they are a skeptical science show. When everyone tells me something my bullsniffer comes to fore.

    I have great criticisms of nearly every gee whiz science show or just gee whiz shows. The problem is, if it doesnt go bang, kids wont watch it and their mothers wont tell you how good it is.

    Sadly, every kid that I know that watches the show also tags along to naturopaths and chiropractors with their mother.

    so is the show effective? Nope, its just a really good show like the A-team or McGyver. I have probably seen ten of the episodes of all three added together. They are just a bit more credible than stargate or star trek.. fun, but boring after an episode or two…

    Gee whiz world, lets all watch Oprah or Dr Phlu

  50. Steve Thoms says:

    Brian, I get that you’re not ‘hating’ on the Mythbusters (despite what some commenters here are accusing you of). I get that you and I share a great love of the show. I get that you think it’s skeptical cred may not be quite up to snuff as much as you like it, and you’re here to point it out.

    My question is: Why?

    I’m no fan of utilitarianism, but what utility could be served by telling everyone that a much-loved show which a decidedly scientific bent is not as skeptical as some people trumpet it as?

    We’re still licking our wounds from the ridiculous ‘Dick’ fighting (ewww), Pope-Gate, and Boobquake, and this post seems like needless (although possibly inadvertent) antagonizing.

    So what if a good hunk of it is “explosion porn?” They’re about to start their 8th season…You have to blow some stuff up to keep the audiences coming, and if they blow up stuff while delivering a scientific message, I’m happy with that, and ‘m not about to punish them for their methods. You need to take the exploding with the good. Luckily, the exploding is also good.

    Are we to expel it from our skeptical ranks, off into the entertainment nether-realm like Penn Jillette’s Radio show? Or do we give them a pass, because a) They’re still entertaining and b) They’re still doing science!

    Having a post that effectively says “Stop calling Mythbusters a skeptical show!” is, IMHO, kinda pointless, and will only piss people off because you’re coming off as a bit pretentious here.

  51. Zach says:

    “In no way does Mythbusters deserve its high reputation in the skeptic community for promoting skepticism or critical thinking. It doesn’t.” I would argue that it does. Sure, MythBusters doesn’t deal with homeopathy or chiropractic, but it helps people learn how to look at those topics critically. It’s not as though believers wake up one morning and say “Gosh, homeopathy must be a myth.”. If they did, this website wouldn’t be needed, as we would all be skeptics and there would be no reason to argue or debate. The point is, MythBusters starts to let people think in a critical way so they can start to think about the bigger problems in skepticism. If there wasn’t anything like MythBusters, there would be a lot less skepticism. I wouldn’t be a skeptic had it not been for MythBusters.

  52. qwyzl says:

    penn and teller’s “bullshit” series did a lot of serious debunking…. they (actually, penn), use a lot of coarse language, but it’s an interesting series.

  53. Anita Ikonen says:

    Agree with you on that Mr. Dunning. Mythbusters has won such a large platform and audience, this resource should be utilized for maximum benefit to people and society now that it can.

    But this would require a major reform in its design. To emphasize more on everyday common psychic hoaxes and superstitions that cause actual harm would add an emphasis on moral issues which some of the “explosion porn” audience would not find appealing to them. I worry that most of the Mythbusters audience is entertained by quick and simple stories, and to capture the skeptically-inclined audience which possesses the intelligence and engagement in society would require a different show altogether.

    I do not think there is a way to transform a Mythbusters with a skeptical moral to it such that it would appeal to its current audience, without taking away from the impact of the message.

    Perhaps a branch off the Mythbusters theme, a series all in its own, and truly skeptical in nature. We need more skepticism on TV.

  54. Gwen says:

    It’s only skepticism and/or critical thinking if it’s being applied to a cherished and/or potentially harmful belief?

    If you want people to use critical thought on the above, you must first teach them how to do it. You first teach them how to do it by doing it in fun, non-threatening ways. You must first get them to learn and enjoy scientific inquiry before you can ever expect them to apply it to their more cherished beliefs.

    That is why Mythbusters does deserve its high reputation in the skeptic community for promoting skepticism or critical thinking.

    They don’t deserve a reputation for challenging popular and/or controversial ideas on which there is debate and some measure of health/well-being depends. They have no such reputation so that’s covered.

    They have the reputation fitting for what they are.

    As others have pointed out, promotion of critical thought requires both the critical thought AND the promotion. This is a function of more than one variable and they have found a relative maximum.

    If you want to max out just the critical thought, you have James Randi out there only getting attention from people who are already skeptics.

  55. bvvvvt says:

    im calling bs in the author actually watching the show for if he had he would have noticed that they do in fact challenge theyre viewers , almost all the myths and urban legends come from viewer suggestions and they state this in most episodes and have stated this on many interviews , then there are the many revisit shows where the viewers point out discrepancies with the methodology or the result and re test them , they also encourage viewers to visit the discovery channel web site where there are several blogs discussing everything from results methodology and suggestions , while yes they do fowl things up in theyre investigations they also make it very clear that they are not scientists and they are just regular joes stumbling through the process , so yeah busted !

  56. Lightningbarer says:

    Stopped watchingvthe show when they did the edison episode, frankly bugged the hell out of me how long they took on the Kite elightning thing, if he had calculations that he said worked, but didn’t under testing then that a failure and immediate throwing out of the “scientific community” butvthey strung it along for halfvthe show.

  57. Doodwithcar says:

    Agreed, the myths are benign and they will often simply prolongue the show by adding a bigger explosion which they explicitly state its just for show. An xample that come to my mind are testing armor vs a western colt (of course the armor fails, thats why its obsolete, dips**t. How about we test the armor vs a nuke while your at it?). Now thats just not science, thats ratings.

    Id also like to point out one more thing you did not include: incredible bias/variable exclusion. While most research can only be completed with some sort of bias or variable exclusion, Mythbusters seem to exhibit this at a higher level.

    In some shows they use “experts” to test theories (catching arrows, punching ring-print), then, in other shows they use themselves (running with armor, etc.) Now, this is inconsistent. Dudes from mythbusters strike me as out of shape, especially compared to a 6th century soldier. Furthermore, though the arrow catching karate expert could not catch random arrow fire, i feel the need to point out that he is not a soldier, and he is not adrenaline-hyped from combat. The mythbuster fail to even mention these, and therefore you can believe they did not even consider it. (ps. Various civilizations claimed they had soldiers catching arrows in the midst of battle…but i get they are all lying sobs…)

    There are other myths they test where the findings are concerning… But what I dislike modt is the fact they fail to mention the variables they are excluding and the actual control… (i.e lets test 10women and men’s resistance to cold water and see who can stand it the longest. Thatll tell us which sexe is more durable to pain……ummm… Where they from? South? North? Medical condition? You know theres this russian dude who can literally run naked in -20Celsius and not even ‘feel’ cold at all? Google him.)

    Anyways, after proving/disproving a potentially biased/incorrect myth, they blow it up and call it a day. Dumb show.