Mythbusters topics, from the Skeptoid files

The new Mythbusters: Jon Lung and Brian Louden

Awesomely, a new season of Mythbusters is afoot, with new hosts Brian Louden and Jon Lung. They were selected by winning Mythbusters: The Search hosted by Skeptoid friend Kyle Hill (you may have also noted Skeptoid Media’s The Feeding Tube host Tamara Robertson on the show).

And, equally awesomely, Brian and Jon are super friendly and approachable, and love engaging with us on social media. (This is soooo important, especially considering Mythbusters’ potential for impact on society and the world.) And recently, Brian asked me the following question:

I told him it was a glorious question, one deserving of some deeper thought. Rather than just throw out ideas, I wanted to give them in context of what I think separates a program that’s merely entertaining from one that’s truly a piece of important work. I wanted to find ideas that fall somewhere in between the best that Mythbusters can possibly be, and its baseline:

  • When Mythbusters is at its best: When it truly challenges real pseudoscientific beliefs — real beliefs, believed by real people in the real world. (Educational and entertaining)
  • When Mythbusters is at its baseline: When it devolves into little more than “Will It Blow?” How much dynamite does it take to blow up a cement truck, a fake shark, a car. (Merely sensational)

I get that blowing stuff up, and crashing trucks into each other, and shooting things, is fun; and Mythbusters will always have that element. I’m saying it shouldn’t just have that element.

In an interview with CSI, Adam Savage once said:

There are several categories we don’t touch: what [James] Randi would call woo-woo [and] what we call oogie-boogie. I’m still ashamed we ever went near pyramid power as a story to test. All of those mystical things. Dowsing is an open question that we’ve been thinking back and forth about for years whether or not to do it on the show.

I think that was a mistake. Those are the myths people really believe. In life, it doesn’t matter how far you have to drop Buster before his arm will break off, but it does matter if you believe a miracle juice cleanse will confer magical super-health on you — or you give away your money to charlatans for some other reason. [Randi actually did do the dowsing test with the Australian Skeptics, and the result was both entertaining and educational.]

With regards to its science, Mythbusters has always done as good a job as is reasonably possible within the constraints of their program, and they deserve high marks for that. They’ve always followed the scientific method, even if informally; and they’ve always gone out of their way to explain how it could have been done even better given more resources. And that’s really what makes Mythbusters great. But science is of little value until it becomes applied science. That’s when it impacts us. Does it do anyone any good to apply science to shooting a raccoon out of a drainage pipe? No. But it DOES do good when we apply science to improving the world, or improving the viewer’s ability to interpret the world. That’s the difference between programming that’s fun and educational, and programming that’s just fun.

Mythbusters will never be in danger of running out of fun.

So with all that in mind, in accordance with Brian’s request, I run my eye over the Skeptoid catalog, and offer what I think would be the best topics I’ve covered that Mythbusters could do a live-action test of. I offer these without regard to whether the first Mythbusters series may have already covered them.

  1. Quantum Mechanical Bomb Tester: A simple lab rig ought to be able to detect whether a bomb is a dud or not by actually setting it off — but, through the magic of quantum mechanics, it both sets it off and doesn’t set it off. It’s complicated. But do it right, and you can actually test the bombs without dying.
  2. Hypnosis: The Stanford scales tell us that everyone is susceptible to between 0 and 12 of 12 possible tests under hypnosis. Can we find out the answers to popular questions, like whether you can hypnotize people to do certain things?
  3. Lie Detection: Can the Mythbusters fool a polygraph machine? Can the polygraph machine fool a jury?
  4. X-Ray Specs and Sea Monkeys: Did the popular toys sold in the back pages of comic books actually work?
  5. White Hat Journal Hoaxes: Can our Mythbusters get nonsense science papers published in predatory open-access journals?
  6. Feng Shui: Will people in rooms designed by various Feng Shui masters realize any benefits from being in there?
  7. Organic Produce: Is organic produce actually more nutritious, or actually contain less pesticide and herbicide?
  8. Locally Sourced Produce: Can local sourcing of food actually result in a lower footprint of delivery and logistics costs?
  9. Gluten free dieting: Can non-celiac people who self-identify as gluten sensitive still feel any ill effects once blinding and controls are applied?
  10. The Rorschach Test: Can experts match subjects to their dossiers based on Rorschach inkblot tests?
  11. Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity: Can people who self-diagnose as sensitive to electrical equipment still retain their ability when blinding and controls are applied?
  12. Cryotherapy: Can subjects realize any benefits from cryotherapy once blinding and controls are applied? (The same test could be done for other New Age therapies: salt caves, etc.)
  13. Chemicals: Are people more or less likely to embrace a food (or other product) when its ingredients are given with chemical names rather than common names?
  14. Memory Myths: Are our memories really as perfect as we all think?
  15. Sailing directly downwind faster than the wind: Even professional aeronautical engineers say it’s impossible, but the record so far is more than 4x wind speed. Act now, because I know the guy selling the Blackbird cart.

There are 15 ideas for you. (The well is deep, so there are plenty more where those came from.) Have fun!

About Brian Dunning

Science writer Brian Dunning is the host and producer of Skeptoid.
This entry was posted in Science, TV & Media, Urban Legends and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Mythbusters topics, from the Skeptoid files

  1. Hmm… I had long ago stopped wasting my time on MBs withtheir increasingly tedious blow-ups and rotten logic, but maybe if it comes round again I might start watching TV again…

    • erique says:

      It did get tedious, mostly entertaining, but tedious…and some guys I know only watched it for Kari…sad, really. I guess, ultimately, it is just TV entertainment, if it weren’t entertaining no one would watch it, so they blew a lot of stuff up, always gets viewers.

  2. erique says:

    Not sure there is a point debunking woo-woo stuff, people with working brains already know it is bull, and those that believe will always believe, there will never ever be enough proof to dissuade them they are wrong…that’s is the problem with belief. All debunking woo-woo does is make sceptics act smugger, more superior, patronising and gives us a laugh, and it does nothing to change someone’s belief. I often have a laugh with myself with this though “What if the invisible sky-fairy did exist and told believers that it didn’t…”

  3. Jim says:

    Re your Gluten-Free dieting suggestion; it’s possible to have an allergic response to gluten, without having a Coeliac condition (which isn’t an allergic response at all). I think that there is a very large population with non-diagnosed allergic responses that lead only to very mild symptoms; i.e. “most people are slightly allergic to lots of things”. The suggested test sounds like you want to separate real coelic disease sufferers from “annoying poseurs”, but many of these are likely to have some level of allergy response to gluten anyway, so they’re not “wrong”. Well, not all of them 🙂 So the test will not support your (assumed) hypothesis.

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