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Science Communication in 'Mythbusters'

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"I hope you guys left the explosives at home."
— President Obama welcoming television's "Mythbusters" to a science education event (CongressDaily 2009)

The primary aim of science communication is to communicate the scientific method effectively with an entire audience. In order to do this, Olson suggests that the goal is to “move the process out of your head, into your heart with sincerity, into your gut with humour, and, ideally, if you’re sexy enough, into your lower organs with sex appeal” (Olson 2009). The Discovery Channel television show Mythbusters portrays an example of this effective communication, as it breaks the bridge between subjectivity and objectivity by presenting the scientific method in a context of popular culture and myth. Firstly, it does this by arousing scientific interest by referencing popular urban myths, wives tales or movie scenes and testing these by embracing the spontaneity of the cast. This cast plays a vital role in accessing the ‘gut’ and ‘heart’ of the viewers, as they break stereotypes previously formed in the media about scientists but still communicate scientific concepts effectively. Mythbusters accurately communicates the modern image of a scientist by embracing diversity within the scientific field and utilising sex appeal. Finally, the show uses communication techniques to target audiences and demographic that aren’t often targeted by scientific communication. All these factors work together to arouse the interest of the television-viewing audience and communicate the scientific method in a relatable and accessible way.

The format of Mythbusters arouses scientific interest by referencing popular urban myths, wives tales or movie scenes and testing these in an intriguing way. Myths and legends are not typically associated with science. By definition, they contradict the scientific method because they exist without experimentation or proof. Though the intuition that humans have about particular urban myths “is not science, yet it is a very important and powerful precursor to science” (Olson 2009). Mythbusters harnesses the appeal of the human ‘gut-feeling’ and curiosity and uses it to present “thinking and processes that are grounded in scientific method” (Schwartz 2006). The Mythbusters team of Adam Savage, Jamie Heineman and their three assistants represent scientists who use their cognition to explain phenomena that are intriguing because of their appeal to the gut instinct. Mythbusters aims to prove and disprove common urban myths, legends or wives tales, therefore reaching the public in a way that is familiar. Though “some scientists think that since science is a serious matter…and popularisation should not be superficial or jocular”, many believe that using elements of sensationalism is a very effective way to capture the interest of an audience (Gregory and Miller 1998). However, it isn’t just the intriguing subject matter that allows Mythbusters to communicate so effectively, it also provides a “candid look” (Zavrel 2011) into the processes and culture behind science and engineering. Schmidt states that “By illuminating the scientific method and by centering the narrative arc on the creation and execution of the experiment, the Mythbusters give the audience an unrivaled “scientific” experience on television” (Schmidt). It does this by providing a platform to seamlessly bridge the objective and subjective divide, to overcome the stereotypical awkwardness that inhibits scientist’s communication (Olson 2009). Hyneman and Savage understand how to utilise scientific equipment to accurately test myths in a way that will react well on camera and attract the audience. This is particularly important for the medium they use to communicate; TV. Television is a superficial medium, in which audiences pay more attention to what they’re seeing than the facts they hear (Olson 2009). To transfer science into a television medium, there needs to be a bridge between science and common knowledge, by relating issues to everyday life (Gregory & Miller 1998).

The cast plays a vital role in accessing the ‘gut’ and ‘heart’ of the viewers, as they break stereotypes previously formed in the media about scientists but still communicate scientific concepts effectively. The format of the show lends itself to look spontaneous, no matter how planned out the experiments are. The initial reactions and results of the experiments are all recorded, forcing the cast to have a gut reaction that is very sincere, rather than a reaction that is scripted and therefore stuck in the ‘head’. Olson states that “Spontaneity and intuition reside down in the lower organs… It gives a wonderful energy that audiences love.” (Olson 2009). This energy that is perceived by the audience creates very likeable characters of the actors in the show. There are several examples of the show appealing to the heart or gut of the audience to communicate their scientific findings. “The Smell of Fear” explored the possibility that humans emit a detectable scent when scared (see Appendix). Hosts Kari, Grant and Tori were put in situations in which they would be sufficiently terrified, allowing the audience to sympathise with them and accessing the ‘heart’ of viewers. The ‘heart’ and ‘gut’ were accessed during “The Morning After”, in which Grant and Tori test which alcohols provide the worst hangovers (see Appendix). The test subjects were the hosts themselves, who drank and slept over at the lab in order to control the experiment. The comedy of their exploits and hangover tests attracted the audience who could relate to the hosts and the scientific experiment itself, because of the humour used. Another way that the Mythbusters team connects to the audience is allusions to previous experiments when deciding what equipment to use or what safety precautions to undertake. Not only does this accurately represent the experimental method used by scientists in the field, it also allows the audience to reminisce along with the protagonists. Using personal anecdotes and experiences can connect to the public and human conscience (Gregory and Miller 1998), and Hyneman and Savage utilise this in order to attract the emotion and attention of viewers. This inclusion of a very personal layer to Mythbusters also plays a part in “countering harmful negative stereotypes” (Zavrel 2011). In the media, the common portrayal of the scientist is one of disconnect; either they are antisocial and incapable of basic human interaction or they are depicted as unreachable elites, operating in a mysterious and incomprehensible world (Yıkılgan 2009). The National Research Council study on perceptions of scientists in the media found that “scientists and engineers are often ridiculed. They may be cast as monsters or as evil” (Zavrel 2011). Instead of portraying the scientists in Mythbusters as a Dr. Frankenstein type, they are sympathised with and respected by viewers, because the show has managed to bridge the gap between the logic of science and the emotion of the public.

(L-R) Tory Bellici, Kari Byron, Grant Imahara
(L-R) Tory Bellici, Kari Byron, Grant Imahara
Mythbusters accurately communicates the modern image of a scientist by embracing diversity within the scientific field and utilising sex appeal. The focus that Mythbusters has placed on the Mythbusters Team has enabled them to establish a culture around the scientists involved, which places respect and admiration on the scientists themselves. Unlike previous stereotypes of scientists, “Grant and Kari, members of the build team, reflect the emerging face of science and engineering in the 21st century” (Zavrel 2011). Grant Imahara, a Japanese-American, and Kari Byron represent the increasing number of women and minorities that are practicing science in the real world (Zavrel 2011). Though some theorists argue that the show is reinforcing patriarchal stereotypes by casting the two ‘main’ protagonists as middle-aged white males, (Yıkılgan 2009) there are other factors that need to be considered when analysing the shows effectiveness. Research by Stienke suggests that models in media can “influence views of possible selves” and also have an influence about the future career that an individual aims for (Stienke et al 2008). An experiment by Stienke showed that viewing scientist characters on television led to a positive change in how adolescent girls and boys viewed their futures in relation to science (Stienke 2009). In this way, Mythbusters is contributing to the acceptance of science as an important and respected career in the eyes of a generation that is increasingly sceptical of scientific information. Though there is only one female host, “off camera we have female researchers, producers and coordinators. There are tons of women” (Byron in Visco 2009) who contribute and work on the show. Specifically, Kari Byron represents a confident and capable woman whose opinion is respected by her male counterparts. She breaks the stereotype of the scientist who is socially awkward, by being proud of her gender and harnessing her sex appeal. The use of sex appeal is extremely useful when communicating science because “The lower organs include everyone, but as we move upwards, our audience narrows” (Olson 2009). Kari appears on the show as confident and relatable, and has used her sex appeal to promote her field by posing provocatively in FHM in a labcoat. Though some members of the public believe this to be objectification (Yıkılgan 2009), Byron herself states that “because we don’t have makeup and hair on the show…getting prettied up was really great. And the pictures weren’t that racy” (Byron in Visco 2009). From this interview, and other research it is clear that on Mythbusters, Byron is a respected contributor to episodes and remains so because of her capabilities in science and engineering.

Finally, the show uses communication techniques to target audiences and demographic that aren’t often targeted by scientific communication. An important part of science communication is the consideration of the attributes of audience you wish to communicate to. Mythbusters aims to make science relatable to a demographic that is often dismissed and not targeted by scientists. Young adults have a limited interaction with scientific knowledge. Though they do learn about science as part of a curriculum in school, there is often a negative perception of the sciences among high school students. Students believe that the skills needed to succeed in science are too high and unattainable, therefore hindering the positive experiences and learning that occurs in the classroom (Shernoff et al 2003). 24% of the visitors to the Mythbusters website are young adults of high school age (Quantcast 2013). Mythbusters uses techniques that effectively communicate the more cognitive parts of their experiments to the target audience. For example, when each myth is introduced, cartoon drawings are used to illustrate the equipment and science behind the proposed experiment. All the hosts regularly address each other and the audience directly in order to explain the facts behind the experiment set-up or any failures that occurred while testing myths. There is also an omniscient narrator that animatedly explains the team’s scientific methods. Another strategy used effectively by Mythbusters is the inclusion of relevant popular culture references and episode specials to remain applicable and interesting to the younger demographic. Mythbusters regularly includes special programming and topical episodes to attract the interest of their audience. For example, a James Bond special aired coincided with the release of Quantum of Solace, a new James Bond film (see Appendix “James Bond Part 1”). Similarly, a Breaking Bad special coincided with the air date of the finale episode of Breaking Bad and even included cameos from the show’s star Aaron Paul (see Appendix “Breaking Bad Special”). As Massarani & Moreira state, “the public, who have been progressively isolated from the science arena since the 17th century are returning to “Breaking Bad Special” – Episode 207 “Breaking Bad Special” – Episode 207 play an important role” (Massarani & Moreira 2004). This public involvement has caused Mythbusters to consider doing specials like the episodes listed above, and was also the reason Mythbusters utilised public suggestions for myths and legends to test since it’s outset. Not only can viewers suggest myths for the team to ‘bust’ (Discovery Channel 2013) Mythbusters also regularly revisits myths they have already proved ‘busted’, ‘plausible’ or ‘confirmed’ if they receive further information or suggestions from audience members feedback (see Appendix). This follows Olson’s ‘motivate then educate’ model, by appealing to the heart of the audience by making the show accessible and personal and then introducing the scientific method to communicate ideas about science.
The aim of science communication is to arouse the interest of the audience and then communicate the scientific ideas in a way that will be easily decoded but remain accurate. The Discovery Channel television show Mythbusters gives an insight into the scientific method by piquing the curiosity of the audience and exploring popular myths, legends or movie scenes. The cast of the show accesses the audiences ‘gut’ reactions by being humorous and relatable, bridging the gap between the scientifically objective and the subjective nature of emotion. Mythbusters accurately represents the diverse nature of the scientist itself and breaks negative stereotypes previously formed by science communication media. Olson’s idea of using sex appeal to communicate science is personified in Mythbusters by members of the cast, though their credibility remains in the scientific field. By following a ‘motivate then educate’ model, Mythbusters has targeted a younger demographic that is not often exposed to science communication outside of a learning environment. The audience’s interest is aroused by popular culture references and then the scientific method is explored in an educational, relatable and engaging way.

References
Discovery Channel (2013), “Email us your Myths! Discovery Channel”, Discovery Communications LLC. Accessed: 1/11/13 at http://dsc.discovery.com/tv-shows/mythbusters/about-this-show/mythbusters-submit-a-myth.htm
Gregory, J. & Miller, S. (1998), Science in Public: Communication, Culture and Credibility, New York: Plenum Press, Chapter 4.

Massarani, L & Moreira, I (2004), “Popularisation of Science: Historical Perspectives and Permanent Dilemmas”, Quark no.21. Accessed: http://quark.prbb.org/32/032075.pdf

Obama in CongressDaily, 23rd November 2009, “The Final Word” Science Education Event. Accessed: Film & Television Literature Index

Olson, Randy (2009), Don’t be such a scientist: talking substance in an age of style, Island Press, Washington D.C. Chapter 1, p.17-47.

Quantcast (2013), “Mythbusters.com Traffic and Demographic Statistics”, Quantcast Corporation. Accessed: 1/11/13 at http://quantcast.com/mythbusters.com
Schmidt, D.J. (2012), “Beyond Cosmos: Carl Sagan and a New Approach to Media Science Communication”, Montana State University, Montana. Accessed: http://scholarworks.montana.edu/xmlui/bitstream/handle/1/2203/SchmidtD0812.pdf?sequence=1

Schwartz, J (2006), “The Best Science Show On Television?”, New York Times, Iss. November 21st 2006. Accessed: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/21/science/21myth.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Shernoff, D., Csikszentmihalyi, M., Shneider, B., Hernoff, E. (2003), “Student engagement in high school classrooms from the perspective of flow theory.”, School Psychology Quarterly, Vol. 18, Iss. 2, p.158-176 Accessed: http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/spq/18/2/158/

Stienke, J. et al (2008), “Gender Stereotypes of Scientist Characters in Television Programs Popular Among Middle School-Aged Children”, Science Communication Interest Group (SCIGroup), Annual Meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) Chicago, IL.
Accessed: http://www.femtech.at/fileadmin/downloads/Wissen/Themen/Frauen_im_fiction-Format/Gender_Stereotypes.pdf
Stienke, J (2009), “Seeing Oneself as a Scientist: Media Influences and Adolescent Girls’ Science Career-Possible Selves”, Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering, Vol. 15, Iss. 4, p.279-301.
Visco, Danielle (2009), “The Blast Interview: Kari Byron”, Blast Magazine, B Media Ventures LLC. Accessed: 8/11/13 at http://blastmagazine.com/the-magazine/entertainment/tv/kari-byron/

Yikilgan, Fulya, 2009, “THE IMAGE OF SCIENCE IN MYTHBUSTERS”, Department of Communication and Design, Bilkent University. Accessed: http://www.thesis.bilkent.edu.tr/0003731.pdf

Zavrel, E. (2011), “How the Discovery Channel Television Show Mythbusters Accurately Depicts Science and Engineering Culture”, Journal of Science Education and Technology, Vol. 20, Iss. 2, p.201-207.

Episodes of Mythbusters Referenced
“James Bond Part 1”, Episode 95, January 16th 2008
Myths: Based on James Bond’s wristwatch in Live and Let Die, an electromagnet in a watch can deflect bullet.
Based on Casino Royale, a propane tank can be shot with a 9mm pistol and explode.
Based on Live and Let Die, a speedboat can jump off a ramp and survive, then continue driving.
“The Morning After”, Episode 127, October 21st 2009
Myth: A hangover caused by beer is less severe than a hangover that is caused by a mixture of beer and other liquors.
“The Smell of Fear”, Episode 193, October 28th 2012
Myth: When sufficiently scared, humans will give off a detectable scent through their sweat.
“Breaking Bad Special”, Episode 207, August 12th 2013
Myth: Mercury fulminate can be used as an impact explosive to destroy a room. A bath, floor and ceiling can be dissolved using hydrofluoric acid.

Mythbusters Revisited Episodes:
“Myths Revisited”, Episode 14, June 8th 2004
Retest: Ice Bullet, Chicken Gun, Exploding Breast Implants, Goldfinger
“Mythbusters Revisited”, Episode 38, October 12th 2005
Retest: Blown Away, Running in the Rain, A black car will heat up faster than a white car.
“More Myths Revisited”, Episode 64, October 25th 2006
Retest: Salami Rocket, Fuel Efficiency
“More Myths Reopened”, Episode 75, March 21st 2007
Retest: Exploding Trombone, Finger In A Gun Barrel, A fired bullet can pierce a snipers scope.
“Mythssion Control”, Episode 143, May 5th 2010
Retest: Knock Your Socks Off, Compact Compact
“Presidents Challenge”, Episode 157, December 8th 2010
Retest: Ancient Death Ray
“Revenge of the Myth”, Episode 185, May 6th 2012
Retest: Water heater canon, Excavators can thread a needle and pour a glass of wine.…...

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