Bustin’ the science myth

By Phil Plait | March 17, 2008 9:00 am

Don’t be dissing my posse at Mythbusters, or Zombie Feynman and I will have to kick your butt and eat your brains.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Humor, Science, Skepticism

Comments (29)

  1. Nigel Depledge

    Hmmm… reminds me of “Brainiac: Science Abuse”

    Can you make body armour out of common items you would find around the office?

    OK, so they test their ideas by experiment, but none of the experiments is controlled, so I’m not sure I would call it science. Still, at least they blow stuff up every week.

  2. Christian X Burnham

    Mythbusters >>>> Braniac.

    In fact, Braniac was busted by the Guardian’s Ben Goldacre for cheating on some of their tests- something that Mythbusters would never do.

    It’s true that MB is not as rigorous as it could be, but that’s mostly due to time constraints and the need to make an entertaining TV program.

    MB has to do each experiment in a few days. They do a pretty good job given the time limits. (Even zombie Feynman approves.)

  3. Mark Martin

    Speaking of a dead Richard Feynman’s seal of approval: http://proof-of-god.freewebsitehosting.com/Feynman.html

  4. gopher65

    Zombie Feynman could totally beat Raptor Jesus in a fight.

  5. DAV

    The MB are likely more rigorous than what’s shown. The website often shows what else was done. The key point is investigation, though — both encouraging and doing. Granted some of the things they’ve done are a tad hard for mere mortals (or even recommended), for example, can a bomb explosion really cushion a fall?, how hard is ot to escape from a sinking car?, etc. and some need relatively expensive resources or skills like putting an EMF lifter in a vacuum chamber (something that Naudin apparently hadn’t thought of).

    It’s the thought that counts. It seems anymore the younger generation these days is more prone to having being spoonfed “facts” and don’t see the need to examine them.

    The blowing things up every week is getting out of hand. Now they’ve got a copycat who’s raison d’etre is doing just that. It’s title says it all.

    Er, “I said BRAINS. All they’ve got are string theorists.” LOL!

  6. yd

    I have no problem with the level that Myth Busters goes to – sure they leave a lot off, but overall they do a decent job of making people skeptical. I just hate the fact that for every hour episode a large portion is spent repeating what they just said before the commercial – time that could be spent turning a critical eye to what the tests done so far actually tell them or what other tests would be beneficial.

  7. baley

    One of the best XKCD comic strops so far

    “I said BRAINS. All they’ve got are string theorists.”
    LOL

  8. KC

    BA:

    You really should give a warning before posting a link to a comic like that . Fortunately I’d just swallowed my diet soda before reading the last panel. :-)

    Mythbusters happens to be one of my favorite shows so no diss’ing from this corner. At least they’re showing it’s possible to *test* some of these urban myths floating around the Internet – and that says a great many positive things about the value of inquiry over blind acceptance. Some of the best episodes are when they find something unexpected – just like rigorous science.

    Whether or not it’s rigorous science . . . well, they have used a control a number of times and have done double-blind tests. I’d have to say it varies. And we have to remember that they only have X number of hours and a finite amount of money to spend investigating some of these claims. There’s a few episodes that I wished they’d spent more time investigating to nail down exactly what was going on- OTOH they did prove or disprove the plausibility of the claim.

  9. They are not *scientific*, but they definitely are *investigative*, which is an important precursor to science. I don’t think they’re scientific, but I like the fact that they promote critical thinking and skepticism.

  10. Let’s see,

    Mythbusters
    Feynman
    Zombies
    Admiration for the core philosophy of science
    String Theorist punchline

    Yup, that is officially the best XKCD ever.

  11. Ted

    Mythbusters is still way, WAY better than Ghost Hunters.

  12. Mr. Random

    One investigation on MB that did not sit well with me was testing of remotely planting suggestions on people. They tested this by having someone in a room and trying to plant the suggestion of scratching his nose (by some mechanism that I don’t remember). Well he did scratch his nose after some time while in the testing room. However it wasn’t clear that the method worked since people scratch their noses because of itchiness. So they concluded with “plausible”. They should have said “inconclusive” since their setup could not falsify the technique either.

    In the past “plausible” has been used for tests which got positive results which could fit the myth being tested.

    The lethalness of falling bullet investigation was pretty good. Ditto for falling pennies.

  13. Todd

    @Ted

    “Mythbusters is still way, WAY better than Ghost Hunters.”

    This was ever in question?

  14. I’ve been a loyal Mythbusters fan for about as long as I’ve been reading BA – a long time now, and I admit I love the show (and BA!). I think the thing that some people miss when they dis the science is that Jamie and Adam and the rest aren’t Scientists – they’re Engineers and tech-geeks doing science. Arguably, that makes them scientists, but Science isn’t their primary area of training.

    While I’ve had a number of “Myths” where I think they drew the wrong conclusion from the evidence they had, it’s hard to fault them for fighting the good fight and doing some decent (and entertaining!) experimentation in the name of a good show.

    Compared to some of the other drivel that’s made it onto the Discovery Network, they are still something of a flagship.

    Cheers
    Bagheera

  15. Michelle

    I don’t like that comic… But I admit, that strip gave me a smile.

  16. JackC

    Brain and Brane! What is Brane?

    I haven’t seen that anyone even caught that double-entendre – which raises that strip to possibly the best – squared.

    JC

  17. ADB

    Oh, man, the setup was _perfect_ for a brains/branes pun. I’m a little disappointed.

  18. Mr. Random

    Bagheera, you summed up MB very well, especially when compared to the rest of DC.

  19. Bobcloclimar

    Mr. Random:
    The lethalness of falling bullet investigation was pretty good.

    That one was terrible. They didn’t check the possibility that their determination of the terminal velocity was wrong, and so only set up the final test (dropping from a balloon) to check the penetration at that velocity. They could have sent the balloon up a bit higher and dropped additional bullets from there just as a quick sanity check.

  20. Trebuchet

    One other good aspect of Mythbusters is their willingness to revisit and change some of their conclusions. Just like good scientists, but quite unlike the ID crowd.

  21. Neil

    For the record, this is coming from a layman whose highest achievement in the sciences is getting an A in college Astronomy 101 to fulfull my science requirement.
    I enjoy Mythbusters quite a bit, but the “science” could be more rigorous and they could make some mention of any basic scientific principles that are relevant to the myth in question. I have been a sideline fan of science, if not a participant, for years, and there have been a few episodes where it seemed to me that the experiments they set up were badly controlled, or too generous in scope, making a real determination unlikely. It took them 2 or 3 tries to figure out that a frozen chicken is harder than a thawed chicken, and thus will shatter glass more effectively even when launched at the same force.(If you haven’t seen that episode, it’s not as strange as it sounds!) I can’t seriously believe that anyone who has spent much time launching and detonating things would have trouble with the concept. Water balloon vs. ice balloon-not a real head scratcher there!
    But that brings me to the second point. Their focus is on the hands on model of experimentation. I think that most of their ideas, while perhaps not fully scripted, are still designed to get the audience thinking on their own, right along with the Mythbusters. While it looks soft on a first glance, halfway into the show I find myself talking to the screen. “But hey, what about the penny that gets thrown off a building in a vertical position, avoiding the tumbling that slows it down? Will that put a dent in somebody’s skull?” Sometimes these questions get answered, sometimes not, but thinking and enthusiastic skepticism are brought into play, which is about the best you can hope for from for-profit television.
    All in all, I’m a fan. I would like more educational value and carefully crafted experiments, but that’s a rare treat on ANY station.

    I have similar copmplaints about Penn & Teller’s wonderful show which shall not be named here. They get a wee bit political and forsake some of the content for comedy and drama, but it’s infinitely better than no content at all, which is all one can usually find.

    Maybe P.B.S. or one of the “educational” cable channels will do another spinoff that still has fun explosions and capable hosts and whatnot, but focuses in on the science instead of the special effects.

  22. Mr. Random

    Bobcloclimar, I will have to rewatch that episode but I remember coming away with some satisfaction from that episode, particularly when they did find some of the bullets they shot straight up.

  23. uknesvuinng

    In regards to the mind-control episode, the plausible verdict had nothing to do with the nose scratch. “Plausible” was given to the half-hertz magnet test because the EEG showed some interesting variation. However, as I recall, they gave it a disclaimer that the variation could have just been interference from the magnet on the results an not a measure of something actually happening in the brain.

  24. I, too, was disappointed at the lack of a brane/brain pun, but one should recall that Feynman died before the Dirichlet brane was postulated (and, thus, before many of the developments which led to spin-offs in pure mathematics and other areas of physics outside of quantum gravity). Then, too, Randall Munroe may have decided that it was beneath his dignity to repeat a joke from User Friendly.

  25. TierOneGirl

    Zombies+Mythbusters+Stick Figures= Awesome!

  26. BigBadSis

    Because of this one post, I’ve spent more time on wiki this morning learning more about Richard Feynman, Jonathan Coulter, zombies, and code monkeys than I ever thought possible. I hope my boss isn’t watching my every computer click… Thanks for all the laughs this morning!

  27. Irishman

    yd said:
    > I just hate the fact that for every hour episode a large portion is spent repeating what they just said before the commercial – time that could be spent turning a critical eye to what the tests done so far actually tell them or what other tests would be beneficial.

    While that does get slightly repetitive, it is a convention to the necessities of the modern TV audience, which is prone to channel flipping and coming in to the show at any point along the way. The repeats are used to draw in and update these itenerant viewers so they can perhaps get interested in the show.

    Mr. Random said:
    > So they concluded with “plausible”. They should have said “inconclusive” since their setup could not falsify the technique either.

    > In the past “plausible” has been used for tests which got positive results which could fit the myth being tested.

    My observation is that “plausible” has been used for everything from “we couldn’t outright disprove the possibility” to “we don’t know of a confirmed case, but given the right circumstances it could happen”. It seems to me they have self-limited by sticking to the three category rating system.

    Bagheera said:
    > I think the thing that some people miss when they dis the science is that Jamie and Adam and the rest aren’t Scientists – they’re Engineers and tech-geeks doing science. Arguably, that makes them scientists, but Science isn’t their primary area of training.

    Actually, I’m not sure what Jamie’s training is, but most of them aren’t engineers, either. Okay, Grant has a Bachelor’s in Electrical Engineering. The rest are artists and craftsmen (craftspeople? craftspersons? craftisans?). Yeah, they know how to weld and how to build things, but don’t let the professional societies hear you call them engineers. ;-)

    Neil said:
    > It took them 2 or 3 tries to figure out that a frozen chicken is harder than a thawed chicken, and thus will shatter glass more effectively even when launched at the same force.(If you haven’t seen that episode, it’s not as strange as it sounds!) I can’t seriously believe that anyone who has spent much time launching and detonating things would have trouble with the concept.

    To be fair, the biggest difficulty they had was designing a test set up to demonstrate the difference. They agreed with the concept, but it was the frustrating practical application that was the trick.

    > “But hey, what about the penny that gets thrown off a building in a vertical position, avoiding the tumbling that slows it down? Will that put a dent in somebody’s skull?”

    The key thing to realize is that all falling pennies will tumble. No matter how carefully you aim the penny to fall flat vertically, any air imbalance and the penny will tumble.

  28. Linkage

    Also for the penny test, they modified a gun to fire a penny at bullet-like speed (1000 ft/sec). Still did nothing, or at least almost nothing.

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