Review: How “Mythbusters” Communicates the Scientific Method

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Image from: Discovery Channel

The following blog post is a review on the journal article:

Zavrel, E., & Sharpsteen, E. (2016). How the television show “MythBusters” communicates the scientific method. The Physics Teacher, 54(228). doi: 10.1119/1.4944364

Summary of article

Zavrel and Sharpsteen (2016) felt the need to analyse the “television show that is conspicuously good at communicating the scientific method in an easy-to-understand, pedantic-free, entertaining manner…the Discovery Channel’s “MythBusters””. They also added that “while the focus of the show is on entertainment, the hosts adhere rigorously to the scientific method.”

As noted by Zavrel and Sharpsteen, “MythBusters” added additional insight to the basic “five-step” system that is usually taught in classrooms. According to the National Research Council’s America’s Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science, the system’s steps are:

  • defining the problem
  • making observations
  • formulating a hypothesis
  • testing the hypothesis by experiment
  • drawing a conclusion – confirm, abandon, or modify the initial hypothesis

The additional aspects of the scientific method that “MythBusters” covered are:

  • experimental controls
  • small-scale testing
  • objectivity
  • interpretation of results
  • importance of the repeatability of results

The methodology of this research included downloading full episodes, transcribing narration and quotes and analysing the content obtained.

They also had a classroom activity to “introduce the scientific method with a particular on emphasis on experimental controls that utilised myths from the show.” The feedback from the activity showed “increased student confidence in identifying experimental controls and greater appreciation of the importance of controls in experiment design.”

The article then proceeded to elaborate on how “MythBusters” showed the rigour of the scientific method and also how it highlighted other aspects of the method.

  • Proposing a hypothesis

It was raised in the article that Jamie, one of the hosts of the show, explains: “That’s science: you come up with a theory, you test it, either it works or it doesn’t.” It was highlighted that they had to come up with alternate and competing hypotheses “to account for an observed phenomenon and design experiments to test each one.”

  • Designing and carrying out an experiment

The article highlighted the use of controls and using single-blind and double-blind techniques “to avoid introducing bias and tainting the obtained results.” It also mentioned that variables had to be kept constant to make sure that the results are as accurate as possible. Even if the variables were not explicit in the myths they were testing, they had to come up with a measurable quantity.

  • Small-scale testing

The article raised the importance of small-scale testing for researchers, as it is the step “before investing substantial amounts of capital and time in a full-scale version.” Small-scale tests also give the MythBusters an idea of which variables they need to pay more attention to.

  • Objectivity

Many of their myths had a seemingly subjective variable, and they then had to decide to reduce the myths to a single quantifiable measurement.

  • Interpretation of results

The article highlighted the “intrinsic conservatism of science by not making sweeping generalisations or unjustifiably extrapolating the results they obtain.” The results obtained or interpreted should not exaggerate the data obtained.

  • Repeatability of results

The article mentioned that “the essence of science is that a result should be able to be reproduced on demand … Only by such repetitions can we convince ourselves that we are not dealing with a mere isolated ‘coincidence’.”

Personal Thoughts

As light-hearted as this article may seem, I think that it is important to study one of the most popular television shows that portrays some form of science. It should be ensured that the general public do not have any misconceptions of science and the practice of it, which is interesting because that is what “MythBusters” is about – busting misconceptions people might have.

Another reason why I think this article is important is because “MythBusters” might be the reason why children and teenagers get into science, or at least gain some interest in it. At least for me, that is why I took the science route for my education, and it would be very disappointing and frustrating if there were no scientific truth and rigour to the main reason why I took the science route.

It would be interesting to see other papers with analyses of other popular science shows to assess their validity and rigour in the science field. However, having said that, what worries me is what people accept as science “fact” and science “fiction”, especially for the younger demographic. I appreciate how Blockbuster movies like the Avengers series can spark people’s interest about science but there should be a way to let the public know that some aspects are purely science fiction.

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