Why MythBusters matters
The golden age of the scientific communicator may be behind us, but there’s still hope for science on TV. We just shouldn’t expect a return of Carl Sagan and Jacob Bronowski.
I grew up in a country steeped in experts, poured into the nation’s living rooms from a state broadcasting system that believed its mandate was to educate the people. With no advertisers to pamper, no ad breaks to interrupt the flow of an argument, and largely immune to commercial pressures, the BBC financed an astonishing range of science programming.
During the day you could switch on BBC2 and be immersed in hard math and applied physics from the Open University. In the evening its populist big brother BBC1 aired intelligent documentaries of all types, as did its “light entertainment” rival ITV, to prime time audiences of millions. Imagine that.
This didn’t mean flashy production values, though David Attenborough’s marvelous Life On Earth showed there was a place for them, but programs in which an educated host would simply talk to you for an hour.
Desmond Morris unpeeled human biology and sociology. Kenneth Clark traced the history of art and philosophy. Bronowski showed us just how much we owe to all those giants on whose shoulders we stand. With communicators of this stature, you needed little more than their face and their voice.
Even though the BBC is no longer the gold standard in intelligent broadcasting, Britain still leads the way in expert-driven science and education: Dan Cruickshank’s hands-on feel for architecture, Michael Wood’s tramping through ancient archaeology, David Starkey’s erudite unraveling of history, Howard Goodall’s infectious love of music, and many more.
It is in Britain that, if you’re lucky, you can sit down in the evening with your meal on your knees and have your horizons opened, your beliefs questioned, your bigotries examined, and your patience tested by Jonathan Meades.
Though Meades might employ every trick in the post-Richard Lester, post-Monty Python director’s manual to extend your attention span to the end of his argument, he does at least expect you to have one.
Ironically, the one field of science that lacked adequate mainstream coverage in Britain when I was growing up was the one I was most interested in. This may be because Britain already had a long-running monthly round-up of progress in astronomy, The Sky At Night, which had been broadcast live since 1957.
The Sky At Night was aired too late in the evening to get astronomy the mass appeal it needed. Most people knew its host Patrick Moore only through comedians’ parodies of him as the archetypal mad boffin, one eye screwed shut, the other wide open on a non-existent telescope, but Moore was far more than this. He was a last fading link to genuine stature in astronomical communication. Since his death in 2013, after more than 50 years in the presenter’s chair, the program has been empty at the core.
Britain’s lack of prime time astronomy may also be due to an American series, Cosmos, Carl Sagan’s extraordinary full-tilt blast across the universe of the mind. Sagan was everything a scientific communicator should be: logical, erudite, impassioned. He should have occupied the same stature in America that Attenborough enjoyed in Britain.
There’s been little to get excited about in American scientific documentaries since, though Oliver Stone has shown there’s still hope for sociopolitical documentaries and Neil deGrasse Tyson is brilliant at enthusing kids. US science on TV tends to be simplistic, trite, skimming over issues, barely questioning assumptions, timid around its audience, and riddled with inaccuracies. I find it unwatchable.
Through The Wormhole is typical: an insulting mishmash of science and religion hosted by a Hollywood actor known for playing god in a Jim Carrey comedy.
I pity the kids who might turn to programs like this for the scientific grounding their education system either can’t or won’t provide them.
Outside of Britain, the day of the traditional scientific communicator may be over. But there’s one series that demonstrates you can still educate a mass audience. An Australian show overseen by a Brit, MythBusters has spent the last thirteen years debunking the wildest fantasies in Hollywood action movies.
Of course, it hasn’t worked. It hasn’t worked at all. Over the same thirteen years, Hollywood action movies have grown even more fantastic. You can watch the latest Mission Impossible movie knowing there’s not a plausible second of action in the entire two and a quarter hours of it.
But let that pass, because the mythbusting of MythBusters is all a smokescreen. It’s the thing that pulls you into the show, but it’s not the point of the show.
The point of the show is to teach a rigorous, experiment-based scientific process. Debunking myths involves challenging assumptions, testing hypotheses, building the apparatus for new science, repeating experiments to confirm results, and most of all believing nothing until it is proven.
Put on paper, a show like this shouldn’t stand a chance. But MythBusters pulls in huge audiences, and has innumerable imitators.
Why is MythBusters so beguiling? Because if you’re examining something that happens in a Hollywood action movie, by definition that something is likely to be spectacular.
The episode that recently aired, for example (235 in the series’ confusing numbering system), spent much of its broadcast time attempting to see whether Brody really could have exploded the shark at the end of Jaws by shooting a compressed air tank wedged in its mouth.
Frustrated by early failures, the two hosts, Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, blasted their tank with ever-greater ordnance, before resorting to C-4 to get the requisite bang. And spectacular it was, too.
Savage looks like the archetypal scientist geek: scruffy, skeptical, with birdlike nervousness and a winning grin. He never stops talking. He’s the kind of person you’d expect to see touting his latest graphic novel at Comic-Con.
Hyneman, the gruffly quiet one, exudes danger like a barely-containable cross between a Hells Angel and a back woods survivalist. He’s wound so tight you know he’ll lead to a massacre eventually, and can only be appeased by being allowed to play with the big guns.
These two men are superb scientific communicators. They know they’re the transgressive uncles who lark about dangerously in their garages and garden sheds. They also know they’re operating under stealth.
MythBusters is about showmanship. It has to be. The stunts and the pyrotechnics pull in the crowds. But it’s mainly about science.
The more gleefully outlandish Savage and Hyneman are, the more we forget they’re teaching us. For kids whose eyes glaze over whenever an “expert” begins droning at them, this is an invaluable last link to the classroom.