Cognitive Daily

The Best Science TV Show of All Time

This week’s “Ask a ScienceBlogger” question is easy: The best science TV show is Mythbusters.

Let’s face it: most TV science programming is downright awful. It dumbs down the content, and tends not to explain the really interesting part of the question at hand. As I wrote recently over on Word Munger,

Whether it’s Nova or the National Geographic Channel, every documentary I’ve watched recently seems to follow the same pattern.

1. Introduce “mysterious” or “controversial” element
2. Bring in a tiny bit of factually relevant material
3. Interview a sexy or “culturally diverse” expert. There are no ugly experts any more
4. Present either (a) a cheesy dramatic reenactment of the tiny bit of factual material or (b) a crappy computer-animated rendering of the tiny bit of factual material
5. Sum up what’s been presented before
6. Remind viewers that we’ll soon hear about the mysterious or controversial element
7. (if on commercial TV) break for a commercial. On public TV, you have no choice but to move directly to step 8
8. Sum up what’s been presented before AGAIN
9. Remind viewers that we’ll soon hear about the mysterious or controversial element AGAIN
10. Repeat the above nine steps, ad nauseum, making sure to use the EXACT SAME reenactment or animation at least five times
11. At the end of the episode, when the mysterious or controversial element is finally addressed, it will inevitably be either untrue or have a completely boring explanation


Mythbusters follows this pattern to a certain extent too. There’s a little too much recapping, and not quite enough new stuff. But I like the fact that the two experts-in-chief seem like real people. It’s true, the underlings look a little too stylish to be believable, but even they always appear to be genuinely excited about the results.

What I like about the show is that each episode tackles several different “myths,” sometimes arranged around a theme but often not. Then the team tries to replicate it in a (relatively) controlled manner, either busting or confirming the myth. The most telegenic myths, of course, involve explosions and death, but even relatively benign myths such as whether using a cell phone can actually disrupt an airplane’s navigational system are tackled with similar enthusiasm. Even if a myth is busted, the team always seems to manage to create a spectacular explosion or disaster to finish off each show.

You really can learn something about the scientific method and experimentation by watching Mythbusters, and it keeps you entertained at the same time. That’s a combination that’s hard to beat.

A couple runners-up:

Junkyard Wars (called “Scrapheap Challenge” in the UK). Similar to Mythbusters but rather less science content.
Scientific American Frontiers. More of a straight documentary, this show managed to avoid repetition and keep things interesting. Host Alan Alda’s enthusiasm was infectious.
Good Eats. Not technically a science show, but Alton Brown always sneaks in some science content about food.

Comments

  1. #1 ERIC JUVE
    October 24, 2006

    Good eats, really an inspiring cooking show. It doesn’t seem to be on much anymore. A lot of the episodes made me go into the kitchen to test his recipes right now. It was somewhat how my mother taught cooking ( a retired home-economics teacher with a background from the deppresion), ratios, interactions of ingredients, not so much on flavors. Spices as paints, basic ingredients as canvas. Good call.

  2. #2 ericnh
    October 24, 2006

    I’ve become a big fan of Mythbusters. This strikes me as the kind of show that could really help draw more kids into enjoying science because it shows that, far from being boring, science can be a lot of fun. Plus it tackles myths and topics that most people have either heard about or can understand (like how corrosive is soda, or the cell phone/airplane myth you mentioned. I especially appreciate how, even after busting a myth, they push their experiments to the limit just to see what it would take to get “x” to happen. And like you said, if it ends the show in a bang, so much the better for entertainment.

  3. #3 ericnh
    October 24, 2006

    Love Good Eats too, because it shows how some cooking is as much science as art.

  4. #4 Bill Shirley
    October 24, 2006

    I enjoy Myth Busters intermittently, but what they do to the “scientific method” makes me cringe.

    The conclusions they draw are almost always flawed.

    “It is claimed by some that this was done 1800 years ago. We attempted with what we think were their methods and failed. Therefore, they could not have done it, either.”

    I have to call b—s— on that one! And there logic is frequently as flawed as that.

    I would have to totally disagree on it being a good science show, but as an engineering geek fest, it’s an A+.

  5. #5 Dave Munger
    October 24, 2006

    Bill,

    I agree with you — a lot of times their conclusions are off-base. However, I do think the fact that they show their failures along with their successes gives a more realistic picture of science than a lot of “science” shows, which emphasize what we “know,” instead of the process of getting to know. Yes, the conclusions are overstated, but implicitly they’re giving their audience the tools to figure that out.

  6. #6 Toby
    October 24, 2006

    I agree that Mythbusters is great, but Nova is also at times excellent. A few my favourite science shows of all time were Nova documentaries; I especially like ones related to the history of science. I think Mythbusters has fewer duds than Nova, and it probably more likely to inspire someone to become a scientist or engineer. Nova has much more variety, and is probably more likely to inspire someone to become a science journalist — or a graphic artist. :-)

  7. #7 Gordon Worley
    October 25, 2006

    I’m not a huge fan of MythBusters, but I know a lot of people, even people who would normally say they hate science and math, enjoy MB. And when you get that happening, some of those people eventually stop hating science and math and start enjoying it because they realize that it can be fun.

    Personally, I like watching some of those crappy science one-hour documentaries. Although they’re low on science, I can’t help but be drawn in by the reenactments and computer animations. I typically watch them only for that.

  8. #8 Daniel Sroka
    October 25, 2006

    Rough Science is also an interesting show. A Brit import where a team of scientists are dropped down “Survivor-style” in some remote area, and are asked to perform various tasks using their disciplines and the scraps of materials they are given.

  9. #9 Matthew Conrad
    October 25, 2006

    Calling Mythbusters a science show makes me feel sick to my stomach. Calling it the best science TV show of all time is a travesty.

    Mythbusters is at most an engineering show, and at least what it really is — a special effects show. The participants on the show are not scientists, and it is painfully obvious to scientists who watch it.

    You may like it the most. But choose any reasonable scientific criteria to base the decision upon, rather than your feelings. Criteria such as, for instance, how they practice the most basic principals of the scientific method. Which they basically neglect entirely.

  10. #10 Ted Pell
    October 26, 2006

    Mythbusters was better in the beginning when it was just Adam and Jamie. I still enjoy the show but it seems they are sometimes really stretching it to come up with new “myths”. Often the outcome of the experiments are easily predictable. Remember the episode about the sharks? or the one about the tooth fillings picking up radio waves? or being struck by lightening because you have a tongue piercing? Those were almost ridiculous.

    Good Eats is a great show considering it is a cooking show. Alton Brown is very clever and I like his props and quirky sense of humor.

    Recently I have been watching old episodes of Cosmos with Carl Sagan. Even though it is dated this show is very interesting and informative and gets my vote for favorite science show. If you haven’t seen this, give it a view. I think you will like it as well.

  11. #11 Brad
    October 27, 2006

    I enjoyed your template of most science shows, but they are slightly better than Gossip shows, which use the “when we come back [insert single photo pan or short clip], the real story of [enter celebrity obsurdity]” four to seven times in a half-hour segment. Then at the end of the show, when you actually view this most controversial item, it is almost the same length as the coming attraction was. Mind-numbing.

  12. #12 Xander Miller
    January 31, 2007

    Myth Busters is alright but it is really just abunch of guys thinking of clever ways to blow stuff up. If we are talking best science show of all time, it has to be Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series. In 13 episodes it explained everything from atoms to time, light, mind and the universe. And it tied it all together in beautiful narratives discussing the historical figures involved.