Mythbusters and scientific rigor

A spinoff of the recent Mythbusters thread.

Which episodes particularly bugged you, for either lack of scientific rigor, stupid premise, improper testing setup, whatever? What bugs you about the show?

What do they do right?

I have three.

There was the one where the “myth” was that pouring water onto a grease fire would send flames “30 feet” into the air. Now, I have always knew the dangers of pouring water on a grease fire, so I’ve like never actually done it. I figured the water would spread the flaming grease all over the kitchen, causing secondary fires or dropping flaming grease on your skin. I never envisioned it going FOOF! and making a huge flame cloud. So the MB crew set up the rig, and sure enough it FOOFed sky high. But, by their calibrated wall scale, the flames only went 28 feet, so they called the myth “busted”. WTF? When someone says “it blew 30 feet” they don’t mean 30.000000… feet, just close.

And it was a great video. It should be shown to all HS students, and by fire departments. A lot more instructive than a dry lecture on “don’t do this.”

The second was the “hiding dope from drug sniffing dogs.” I think the basic premise of the episode is flawed, in that if there was something that would work, they’d never show it on TV (lest they teach drug smugglers new tricks). So they should have never done it at all. But, given that, I don’t even think they did fair tests of the attempts they did make. They weren’t controlling the variables properly.

Still, I did learn that you can’t really mask smells from dogs. If you put a strong odor over something, the dogs aren’t fooled. They can easily smell both, and distinguish the two. They don’t get overwhelmed by smells like we humans do.

The third was the recent one about “can you dispose of a bomb in containers around the house (where this comes from I have no idea. Like, someone comes to your door and hands you a bomb ready to go off? Happens every day around here). So they tested how much the blast was reduced if the bomb was placed in a microwave, under a bed, and in a garbage truck. That’s it? No regular oven, cast iron bathtub, refrigerator (lead-lined or not)? Things that might actually work? Nope, because they needed time for the big finish.

To conclude their rigorous study, the filled the aforementioned garbage truck with ANFO and blew the shit out of it. Why? Who knows?! Looked impressive, I guess. Maybe they had a budget surplus. Didn’t have anything to do with the “myth”.

Who would even have a kitchen with a 30 foot ceiling?

Don’t confuse me with the facts! This is television!

On an early episode, which I haven’t seen in many years (so forgive me if I get details wrong), they tested the “myth” of people being buried alive.

That’s not the kind of thing you can test by burying someone alive. Obviously if you’re in a buried coffin you’ll suffocate. But they ‘tested’ the myth by putting Jamie in a coffin and putting a lot of dirt on top. They ignored the fact that most people are buried in concrete vaults with concrete lids, and that (at least in the US) everyone is embalmed before burial. The person’s blood is replaced with fluid. They ain’t gonna wake up in the coffin.

What did they think they were testing!?

After he complained and had to get out (was the original threshold supposed to be when he suffocated?), he got out and they determined that the coffin had started to buckle. So they endangered him without having constructed a test that would have led to any conclusions.

Documented stories from mainstream media of ‘dead’ people waking up at wakes and so forth (as well as a snopes article) make it a certainty that in the past people have been inadvertently buried and woken up, but they never mentioned that.

Least favorite segment ever.

I figured that the “busted” verdict had to have been an attempt at a joke that fell flat. It was so clearly, blatantly plausible. And freaking scary.

I’ve never seen that one, so I looked it up. It was first season, 5th episode. Your description about sums it up correctly. Very poorly run test.

So much for the “myth” that the early episodes were better.:slight_smile:

That was a “movie myth” episode - specifically Kill Bill. IIRC, they also tested the “one-inch punch” that was used to break the coffin lid, which of course didn’t work, because that’s not how Bruce Lee did it.

Two major fails that stand out to me are the “tests” on corked bats and cheating a lie detector. Both were clearly set up to give the results the Powers That Be wanted them to get. No real attempts to actually demonstrate contrary results were done.

As I’ve said in several other threads, they long gave up explaining basic Physics many years ago. I think Jamie, in particular, is gun shy on Science ever since his infamous two cars crashing head-on vs one car into a wall blooper early on. (Which caused such a howl they were forced to later do a test themselves to settle it. Which came out just as Physics said it would.)

Good grief, their explosions in trenches of various shapes segment had a clearly anomalous result which they didn’t even note, let alone try to figure out.

My foggy memory seems to recall one where they were trying to set off a loaded rifle/gun with loud music. Except all they used was a sinusoidal wave as the sound, instead of something like thumping bass which might have actually done something.

I don’t remember that episode, but that sounds like a valid test. Typically, if something responds badly (breaks or explodes) due to vibration, there’s a specific resonant frequency that causes it to happen. A common way to test for it is to use a powerful sine wave and vary its frequency (i.e. a “sine sweep”).

Wasn’t that a different episode? They were testing the supposed myth that if you let the cement dry in a mixer, you could supposedly set off a small explosion that would shatter the cement (and make it easy to remove) without damaging the mixer. They tried it first with small explosions and found these didn’t work - the hardened cement didn’t shatter and was less affected by the explosions than the mixer was. So they decided to set off a big explosion for the final scene. It cleared out the cement but also destroyed the truck.

MB asks interesting questions that can be answered in 15 seconds, then pads and vamps to fill out a half-hour show. Can’t stand it.

They’ve done both. First time (the concrete mixer episode you refer to), their high-speed camera didn’t work. So I think they were just looking for an excuse to blow up a truck again, hence the second time (the bomb disposal episode).

Personally I thought both were wastes of air time. Sometimes “now we reproduce the result!” part of the show is interesting because it demonstrates just how unlikely the myth is. These explosions though, I didn’t see the point.

Their testing of corked bats seemed fine to me and made sense. What did you think they missed?

And I know that polygraph tests are controversial, but if you go to Google Scholar and look through studies done, depending on what was tested and what the testing methodology was, you’ll see the following three results:

  1. Polygraphs have no useful predictive power for lying, under normal circumstances.
  2. Polygraphs have significantly predictive power for lying, when there are harsh consequences for being caught by the detector.
  3. Techniques for defeating the polygraph are easily learned and effective.

The Mythbusters haven’t tested #1, but they came to the same results as the current body of science for #2 and #3.

Everyone hates Mythbusters so obviously nobody watches it. Which is why end was canceled after half a season. :stuck_out_tongue:

Exploding garbage truck on YouTube, if anyone wants to see it. Yeah, it’s a different episode from the cement mixer.

It mostly seems to me that they just forgot the first law of comedy: The first time you go down to the quarry and [del]throw stuff down there[/del] explode the bejezus out of a large piece of machinery, it’s funny. The umpteenth time you do it… not so much.

In terms of lacking rigor, their fundamental failings fall into the following forms:

  1. Overly small sample size.
  2. Failing to perform double-blind studies.
  3. No randomization of test order to correct for gained proficiency/acclimatization of the subjects.
  4. Choosing the most televisual interpretation of a myth rather than the plain meaning.

I’d actually like to see an episode dedicated to the first three.

The last one I simply accept as a necessary evil.


The classic, CLASSIC fuckup where they tried to put the airplane-on-a-treadmill thing to bed “once and for all.” The question is whether an airplane could take off from a treadmill that matched the airplane’s speed. Not from a treadmill moving at a constant speed. I had no problem with their “treadmill” – a sheet of canvas being dragged by a truck. But they completely ignored the fact that the truck should have been matching the airplane’s speed. And then at the end Adam looks in the camera and said something like “There, we proved it. Can you please stop arguing about it on the internet?” Argh!

The second one is more a problem with scientific rigor – and thus more in line with the OP. When they tested the fuel efficiency of air conditioning versus driving with the windows down, they compared apples to oranges. For their windows-down test, they just lowered the windows and drove for half an hour. But for their air conditioning test, they blasted the A/C on full for the entire duration of the test. I think the driver (Jamie?) was wearing a ski parka to prevent hypothermia. Who does that? What useful information does this provide? If you could use the energy of the windstream blowing in the windows to cool your car down to 45 degrees, that would have a pretty big impact on your fuel efficiency too.

If they had put the A/C on a comfortable setting, the A/C fuel efficiency would have blown away the windows-down efficiency.

Fair enough and I can see that. But the actual myth involved bass I think, so you think they would have at least tried it just in case a broader spectrum of low frequency sound did something a single frequency wouldn’t to move the firing pin.

I could have listed the episodes I thought had good scientific rigor, or sound science. I did leave that possibility open in my OP.

But, it is getting really hard to watch any modern episode. The endless repetition is nearly unbearable.

Announcer: When we last left Adam, he was preparing to test the myth of exploding bocce balls from the movie Retirement Before Dishonor by rigging the balls with C4.

Adam (immediately after above) I’m rigging the bocce balls with C4 to demonstrate the scene of exploding bocce balls in the film Retirement Before Dishonor..

No shit Adam! And in the next 2-3 minutes of the episode, I’m sure every word heard will be repeated once or twice more.