November 27, 2006
Blowing things up in the name of science

A catch-up item from last week: this NYT article on the show Mythbusters as science-teaching tool. To me, the value of the show is that it shows the thought process that one must go through to set up and then evaluate an experiment that's designed to test a hypothesis. It's all about "How do we know we're testing what we want to test?" and "What do the results we got (or didn't get) tell us about what we wanted to test?", two questions which I think everyone could spend more time thinking about. I like the fact that they address questions from viewers about the validity of previous experiments and try them again with those concerns in mind to see if they really did get it right the first time.

Real scientists will have legitimate quibbles about their methods, as they express in Chad Orzel's comments. It's still television, after all, so the need for an earth-shattering kaboom will win out over more mundane things every time. The clincher for me is that Olivia likes the show, which gives Tiffany and me the chance to say things like "Science is cool!" to her on a regular basis. And hey, I like a good earth-shattering kaboom as much as the next guy. Nothing wrong with that, right?

Posted by Charles Kuffner on November 27, 2006 to TV and movies | TrackBack

I agree. Mythbusters (or at least the parts we actually get to see once it's edited for TV) doesn't always do as thorough a job as "real" scientists are trained to - but that's not the point! They still introduce the basics of scientific method to a wide TV audience - and they're far more entertaining than most science shows, which encourages people to watch and learn.

Incidentally, it's quite amusing to watch a few old MacGyver reruns with the benefit of having spent several years watching Jamie, Adam, et al. You'll find yourself laughing out loud at all the things the MacGyver folks got wrong!

My biggest complaint is with the constant disclaimers, "don't try this at home!" In an interview in Skeptic magazine, Jamie and Adam said they'd actually like to encourage folks to try their own experiments at home, as long as they can do so safely. But of course many Mythbusters experiments need special safety protocols (not to mention legal waivers) which are unavailable to the average home experimenter, hence the disclaimers.

Posted by: Mathwiz on November 27, 2006 2:12 PM