I love these guys. And yes, I think they’re doing science.
AVC: You guys don’t have any formal scientific training, but you generally seem to follow scientific methods and procedures when you’re testing myths. To what degree are you attempting to scientifically prove something, vs. just indulging your own curiosity?
JH: If it turns out that we’re doing proper science from time to time, it just happens to be that that’s the most efficient way of doing it. We go into each of these stories with an open mind, and one of the great things about how the show works is that we’re not approaching it from a doctoral point of view, we’re just trying to see what happens. And we have relatively little time and a whole lot of curiosity, so the most efficient way to get there is what we do, and that often happens to be some form of science. We may not have a sample size larger than one, or we may not have unlimited resources–it’s a TV show, and we generally turn these things around in about a week or so. That being said, the fact that we don’t have formal training, that makes what we’re experiencing a little bit more accessible to the viewers. If we actually knew what we were doing ahead of time, it would just be like talking at you, instead of experiencing the situation with you.
AS: We don’t necessarily stand by our faults every time, but we will always stand by our methodologies and ethos. And the methodology is much more important to us. Given the restrictions of television, we understand why our results might not be unassailable, but whenever, for instance, on the Discovery Channel online message boards, people pipe in and say we’re idiots and we don’t know what we’re doing and we got something totally wrong, interestingly, the people who jump most vigorously to our defense are working scientists. These are people from everywhere, from Lawrence Livermore and JPL and Sandia National Labs, the FBI, all over the place, real scientists who see what we’re doing, and they consistently thank us. “I agree your results aren’t always right,” they’ll say, “but your methods are clearly showing that science is a re-creative process, and it’s an interesting process because it’s messy, and no other shows show that.”
Years ago, I remember reading an interview with a prominent scientist who lamented the fact that there wasn’t a show on TV that glorified science and made it look cool, so as to attract kids to the idea of doing science themselves. I think now between the Mythbusters, the CSI franchise, which whatever you may think of them artistically has been embraced by science educators, and of course Bill Nye the Science Guy, his wish has been more than fulfilled. Thanks to Chad Orzel, who also thinks these guys do science, for the link.