Revisiting MythBusters: Television, Time, and the Ongoing Story of Science

Revisiting MythBusters: Television, Time, and the Ongoing Story of Science

Author: Ben Riggs – Northwestern University, United States

In the early 21st Century, science on television has perhaps been most exemplified by the procedural reality series MythBusters. Produced by Australia’s Beyond Television Productions and distributed globally by the Discovery Channel, MythBusters has been routinely celebrated in public for its engaging presentation of scientific protocol, where the testing of an individual “myth” within an episode is said to positively demonstrate scientific methods (e.g., Schwarz, 2006; Heritage, 2015). The popularity of MythBusters suggests that television remains an important venue for communicating science to the public, despite “frequent criticism […] of the way science is represented” on TV (Hook & Brake, 2010, p. 33). While acknowledging these criticisms, this paper argues that MythBusters, which produced over 250 episodes during its original series run (2003-2016), actually presented a fuller, more nuanced vision of science than at first glance, by embracing the complex narrative seriality which typifies much of the contemporary fiction (non-scientific) TV landscape (Mittell, 2015).

In the MythBusters lexicon, a “revisit” is when series hosts reengineer and reevaluate previously-tested myths with new techniques or testing conditions. Drawing from recent work in the humanities-based field of television studies, this paper makes the case that the revisit resists the linearity and boundedness of a single scientific test by both calling back to previous episodes and by suggesting that future tests could yield alternative results. In other words, a regular viewer of MythBusters, who understands its protocols as a television series, would see that science is ongoing, subject to replication and revision, and self-correcting. Thus, by considering how the “representation” of science—and the scientific enterprise itself—may be defined temporally, this paper argues that a media technology like television, which delivers serialized, ongoing stories, is uniquely able to represent science as happening over time—a feature heretofore under-scrutinized in science communication scholarship.

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Presentation type: Individual paper
Theme: Time