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Why 'MythBusters' Was the Best Pure Science Show in TV History

J.B. Spector

There’s a moment in one of the many MythBusters episodes when the late Grant Imahara says something wildly nerdy, and Tory Belleci does an eye roll and says “Dude, we’re trying to make science cool.”

In that episode, the team tested whether ice can form on the exterior of a passenger aircraft and then become a destructive missile by falling off at some point during the flight. It’s not as straightforward as it sounds. Do large ice chunks actually form at cruising speeds? How big do they get? Can they fall in chunks or do they fall in smaller crystals, which would be harmless? Can the chunks, if they fall, reach anything on the ground?

It’s an interesting question with real-world impact. They found through testing with NASA that yes, at about 12,000 feet, the ice that forms at higher altitudes can fall off in a large chunk that can then fall fast enough to do some damage on the ground. It was just one of many results that surprised the MythBusters team. As often as not, the team would come up with an expected outcome to the myth they were testing that did not go how they expected, surprising them and the audience, and doing science in the process.

The show has been off the air for a few years now, and sadly Imahara suddenly and sadly passed away a year ago, but MythBusters retains its watchability and is still the best pure science show TV has produced.

Here are a few reasons why.

The scientific process was and is a process, not an institution, and MythBusters followed that process

According to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the scientific process involves five steps. Those are:

Define a question to investigate.

Make predictions.

Gather data.

Analyze the data.

Draw conclusions.

That’s exactly what the MythBusters did, on every myth they investigated, every time.

But that was the only thing about the show that was predictable. They came up with experiments, they built contraptions or some kind of method to conduct those experiments, and then they let the results happen and speak for themselves. The conclusions they drew came in the form of whether the given myth was Confirmed, Busted, or Plausible.

They followed the scientific process and let it lead the way.

Science, contrary to most of what the media says, is a conservative process philosophically. It doesn’t allow flights of fancy or agendas to get in the way of the data when it’s done right. MythBusters did it right.

No preaching, no agenda

You can’t watch most documentaries on any subject now without getting some preaching. Watch any documentary about Easter Island that was made in the last 20 years or so and you’ll get a global warming lecture — even though the true archaeology and anthropology on Easter Island’s collapse continue to evolve. There’s too much agenda in most of what passes for science TV.

I’m pretty sure I have watched every single MythBusters episode, from the early seasons with just Adam and Jamie, through all of the seasons with the second team of Grant, Kari, and Tory (and sometimes Scottie), back to the final season with just Adam and Jamie. Google tells me that all that adds up to 282 episodes across 15 years. I’ve seen many of them multiple times.

They didn’t try to shoehorn the latest media fad into their findings. That’s not to say they ignored the world outside the show. They didn’t. They produced shows about movie myths, some of which got a little silly; they visited the Star Wars universe more than once; they visited all kinds of myths that came from urban legends and social media. Urban legends probably launched the show, in fact.

But through the years and many myths, they didn’t get political. When they tested myths involving firearms, for instance, they didn’t lecture anyone about guns. In fact, it was obvious that the entire cast enjoyed handling and firing the guns they tested and they never apologized or shied away from that. They seemed to enjoy everything they did. Guns were just another part of the process. So were explosives. And rockets. And more explosives. And armor. And duct tape. So much duct tape.

They didn’t push global warming or any other faddish political issue. They just busted myths.

 

They didn’t take themselves too seriously

The show grew from a tiny fanbase to a national one in a few years, but as it grew they never seemed to get wrapped up in any star nonsense. They did multiple shows testing fart myths, for instance.

They tested, um, aspects of successful restaurant operations. For science.

 

They blew stuff up. A lot.

 

They built a freakin’ Iron Man suit and tested it. “It’s like a cooking show, but with guns!”

 

They almost stubbornly insisted on keeping things light and funny even while they nearly blew themselves up, burned themselves, and generally put themselves in a bit of jeopardy for the sake of science.

 

Rocket cars, duct tape, exploding water heaters, and other mayhem

They built everything out of duct tape — a coat, a fire, a bridge, a boat, and probably a bunch of other things over the years.

 

Right, an airplane. They repaired an airplane with duct tape and tested it by flying it.

 

Duct tape is useful and fun. Applying it to science was the right thing to do.

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They promoted from within and didn’t let their personal issues get in the way

MythBusters started out as just the two hosts, Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman. They expanded the cast as the show’s popularity grew, not by going out for established TV personalities who had market awareness or social media followings, but by noticing and building around the talent they already had on hand. Kari Byron, Tory Belleci, and Grant Imahara are all great on TV but they are all skilled builders and testers in their own right. They’re legit. They actually know this stuff. They were either around the m3 workshop — the movie effect-building business Jamie and Adam owned — or on the show. Byron, for instance, was a builder behind the scenes who appeared almost as an extra for myths before she was promoted to co-host. They painted her silver in an early episode. Imahara built and operated R2D2 during the production of the Star Wars prequels.

Adam and Jamie worked together on every myth, and they worked together off-camera on movies, but it’s well known that not only are they not friends, they don’t even particularly like each other. The same isn’t true for the second team, Tory, Grant, and Kari. The trio were genuine friends and obviously enjoyed working together. Adam and Jamie were definitely not friends. But through the show’s entire run, it only ever came up in minor comments or off-stage events and never got in the way of the science. Off the set, they haven’t been shy about what they think about things. But on the show they let the work and the results speak for themselves. They also responded well to legitimate criticism. When viewers questioned how they handled a particular experiment, they often went back and took the feedback into account to see if the viewers had a point. Much of the time, they did, and the MythBusters aired the result.

MythBusters was good TV and solid science. The networks have tried to replicate and replace it with the kid MythBusters show and White Rabbit Project, which featured Byron, Imahara, and Belleci, on Netflix. The secret sauce that MythBusters had has not been duplicated so far and may not ever be.

But across 15 years, MythBusters succeeded in making science cool.