11 March 2016

Goodbye Mythbusters though we need you more than ever…


If the Discovery Channel wanted to test the myth that it’s impossible to make a scientific rationalist weep, then they’d have busted it last Saturday when they broadcast the very last episode of Mythbusters in the US.

Over 14 years, Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman have engineered their way through countless experiments to test common myths. How far do sneezes travel? Can you really make bullets from ice? How hard is it to find a needle in a haystack? It all sounds stupendously inane and, in a sense, it was. Yet the beauty of the show lay not in the questions but the methodology behind the answers. They  championed the majestic clarity of the scientific method; promoting a keen-eyed rationalism, a healthy scepticism, as well as their own enthusiasm for the process. This was education as education was meant to be: expansive, good natured, yet teaching us a little humility through their motto ‘failure is always an option’. It is unsurprising, then, that Mythbusters has been credited with playing an important role in the rise and popularity of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) in the United States and beyond. Generations of youth have been excited by the science and methodology that underpinned Mythbusters and Savage and Hyneman have become spiritual godfathers to a whole generation of makers and engineers, as well as countless Youtube imitators, some good, many not, and a few downright dangerous.

Mythbusters was a show that from the beginning harkened back to older television. I first became aware of it when I discovered Adam Savage urinating on an electric fence on BBC2. At the time, I thought the new show was part of the long tradition the BBC had of broadcasting innovative but educational programming. That it subsequently switched to the Discovery Channel only galvanized my belief that the corporation had lost interest in the genre. Mythbusters should have been a perfect fit for that early evening slot where the BBC once had The Great Egg Race, a granddaddy to all these shows. Hosted by Brian Cant and with expert analysis by Professor Heinz Wolff, Egg Race set teams of scientists, engineers and hobbyists the task of building a contraption powered by a single elastic band to see which could carry an egg the furthest distance. In these days of celebrities getting on each other’s nerves in the middle of a tamed jungle, pushing inert eggs around a studio doesn’t sound like much fun (though, on second thoughts, it sounds just like I’m A Celebrity). Yet the show engaged that part of the brain excited by problem solving, innovation, and the beauty of well-engineered solutions.

The end of Mythbusters is not just a loss to its fans. It feels like a step back towards the Dark Ages. Not only has the Discovery Channel long since lost its direction but it would even be incapable of fashioning a rudimentary compass from a needle and floating leaf. Like so many of those channels that once claimed to promote learning, Discovery UK is now dominated by meat-headed genres such as car renovation shows: Bitchin Rides, Fast N’ Loud, Extreme Car HoadersStreet Outlaws, Misfit Garage, Overhaulin’. Then there are those tedious stew-your-own-shoelace specials hosted by Bear Grylls or his insect chewing pals who all seem to think they’re Ray Mears: Ed Stafford Into the UnknownLost WordsKings of the Wild. There is even Naked and Afraid in which naked couples survive in some hostile territory with only their heavily-blurred genitalia to protect them.

Channels might have sought wider audiences but the result is that the age-old battle between science and the supernatural is being played out and largely to the detriment of the science. This is certainly true in the wider context of documentary channels where superstition has managed to pollute the schedules. Why, for example, is ghost hunting scheduled on channels devoted to natural history? Why are alien abduction documentaries presented in the context of real science? How did channels devoted to biography become overrun with shows whose titles include the words ‘Real’ and ‘Housewives’? What should we make of the Science Channel (owned by Discovery) following Mythbusters with The Unexplained Files, which asks the question: ‘When 200 people witness the same unexplained bright white aircraft hovering over their town, are UFOs to blame? Also explore the baffling case of the seven-foot “mothman”‘?

These are the most striking examples but there are others which show how difficult this debate becomes and how entwined it is in the broader tangle of religion and secularism. That religion intrudes into the scientific is not always a problem. Discovery currently broadcasts the ‘Jesus Code’, which attempts to ‘decipher the life of Jesus through six extraordinary objects associated with his life and death’. That doesn’t sound too bad given that theology done well can combine philosophy with history. There should be nothing objectionable to a rationalist about the study of religion. More problematic, I think, was when Bear Grylls recently discussed the science of glaciers with President Obama. He did so repeatedly making a point about verifiable data yet the show ended with Grylls asking if he might pray for the President. That is troubling in the very same way as the story from this past week of the science journal, Plos One, publishing an article that included the line ‘hand coordination should indicate the mystery of the Creator’s invention’.

Mythbusters might have ended with a sense of it having achieved all it had set out to achieve yet there’s a lurking suspicion that it was really victim to a new audience demographic that no longer shares its rationalist values. Savage and Hyneman leave us as we enter a depressingly familiar period in our history, when quality news outlets are closing by the week and many that survive do so by pandering to the ignorance of their audience: celebrity news and the very worst pseudo-science and conspiracy theory. This year might well be named the ‘Year of the Flat Earther’ given that believers in planar nonsense are again on the rise if we’re to judge by the number of channels devoted to it on Youtube. This year, the rapper Bobby Ray Simmons Jr (aka ‘BoB’) tweeted his belief that the earth is flat. Had he been a lesser-known idiot, he wouldn’t have attracted the attention of America’s favourite astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, who wasted his time trying to convince BoB that he was wrong.

There are, of course, some who would argue that none of us have the right to question or complain. Yet every day we are expected to pander or, at least, accept unverifiable nonsense in the name of a warped epistemology which maintains that ‘everything is unknowable’ and ‘there is no objective truth’. Just last year, Conservative MP David Tredinnick argued in favour of astrology. ‘Astrology offers self-understanding to people,’ he claimed and compounded his ignorance by resorting to a familiar defence. ‘People who oppose what I say are usually bullies who have never studied astrology’. Without wishing to sound like a bully, I’d reply that people who have never studied witchcraft know enough to say that old ladies don’t turn into cats or ride broomsticks across the moon. Yet it’s a sign of our current plight that Tredinnick (Capricorn) sounds almost reasonable compared to cricketer Shane Warne (Virgo) who last month asked ‘If we’re evolved from monkeys, why have them ones not evolved?’ Of course, he had the answer. ‘I’m saying “aliens”‘, said the alien monkey experiment with 708 test wickets to his name.

We needn’t look to flat earthers or spin bowlers to realise that the enlightenment left a few corners in shadow. A day doesn’t pass when some politician, celebrity, or sports star doesn’t make some supremely dumb utterance couched in ignorance and superstition. It might appear harmless but our world is filled with too much brutal ignorance, where superstitions are used to justify every form of punishment and oppression. We must always accept that ignorance is our natural condition and it’s important that we defend our institutions, whether they’re academic or popular, against even the most casual supernaturalism. The battle against ignorance never ends and the passing of Mythbusters should be a good moment to remember, recognise and then renew its values.

David Waywell writes and cartoons at The Spine.