In Praise of Mythbusters (or, the philosophical benefits of explosions and robots)

Earlier this week I wrote a post about Doctor Who, which ended up being more about story-telling, fairytales, the relative lack of jokes in the Battlestar Galactica remake and the differences between science fiction and fantasy. So I figured why not talk about another favourite show? Ladies and gentleman, I give you the awesomeness of Mythbusters.

Some background: Mythbusters is, I guess, a pop-science show based around the concept of urban myths, half-truths and pub wisdom. Is the 10-second rule valid? Is it really a bad idea to put water on a chip-pan fire? Coke and alka-seltzer – bad idea? Can an exploding boiler demolish a house? All the things we half-know that we tell to each other, Mythbusters actually bothers to try out. Sure, it’s populist stuff, but it’s done more to make me interested in science than school ever did, which is a point in its favour.

Of course, that could be dull in the wrong hands, so it’s a good thing that someone had the idea to make it the TV science equivalent of a buddy comedy. Based around the Odd Couple relationship of Adam Savage (the enthusiastic puppy dog of the show) and Jamie Hyneman (totally unflappable, been there, done that, hunted the mastadon), Mythbusters is partly the sort of show MacGyver watched when growing up and partly two grown special effects designers bickering. Then you’ve got the ‘build team’ (originally a group that helped out with projects, but who now effectively take on half off the show and bust their own myths); this team is Kari (geek girl archetype), Grant (ace robot builder) and Tory (acccident prone); add the five presenters together and you’ve got a bunch of loveable geeks always on the verge of doing themselves a serious injury – and they enjoy it, probably because they get to build robots and blow stuff up (like a cement mixer).

But why’s it so important?

Well, it’s partly because Mythbusters encourages us to ask questions – not in an annoying, ‘I’m asking questions to mask my cynicism with the veneer of open-mindedness’, but because they’re genuinely interested in knowing the answers. It’s a fundamental geek thing – the pursuit of knowledge, the joy of figuring stuff out, the love of just knowing stuff. They’re not setting out to prove something; they’re not setting out to disprove something, they just want to find out what the deal is. That to me is important – it’s too easy to allow ourselves to be spoon-fed answers by people with agendas, or by people who are grossly uninformed but who have somehow adopted a cloak of authority. It’s also important because of our response to authority, earned or otherwise; science is treated as the pinacle of knowledge, except when it seems to conflict with our personal experience – "how can global warming be an issue if our winters are getting worse?" Years of scientific, theological, historical research can be flushed away with one question if the person asking it isn’t really interested in the answer, just in someone else being wrong.

So the fact that Mythbusters encourages an open mind and rewards asking questions is a good thing. Sure, a  good chunk of the show’s success is down to the presenters, another chunk is down to them providing answers to questions we didn’t even know we wanted to ask. But deep down, I think it’ resonates because it’s not taking things at face value, it’s not accepting folk wisdom as gospel. It wants to know the truth, not in a cynical way but just because it wants to find things out. And that’s a good quality to have.

Then again, it could just be down to the explosions


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