How to be a good scientist, as demonstrated by the Mythbusters

Many people think that scientific research happens exclusively in expensive labs with complicated equipment. There’s a perception that the average person can’t do or understand the research or its findings. The truth is, it doesn’t take years of school or a fancy degree to do science. One of the best examples of how to be a good scientist comes from people who aren’t technically scientists: Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage, AKA, the Mythbusters.

The core of science is that ideas are tested by controlled experiments, then the results of those experiments are used to form new ideas. Anyone can do this.The Mythbusters have made a successful TV show by applying this principle (and blowing stuff up). In addition to using the scientific method, here are some qualities that the Mythbusters and scientists share:

  1. Use new information to form more educated opinions. The Mythbusters take common myths and ask if they are true. Scientists begin with previously published information and observations and ask a question to expand on that foundation. While they have a hypothesis, no one truly knows what will happen until someone performs the experiment. What the Mythbusters do so well is that they evaluate the findings of their experiment; and if they contradict the Mythbusters’ original hypothesis, they change their minds.

A great example of this in the history of science was in 1801, Jean Baptiste Lamarck published his Theory of Inheritance of Acquired Characteristics, suggesting that animals (and other organisms) adapt to their environment. The animals that adapt the best can then pass along the traits they acquired to their offspring. This theory was widely accepted for 60 years until Charles Darwin published his Theory of Natural Selection, which states that animals who happen to be best suited for their environment survive long enough to pass along their traits. Since there is more evidence for Darwin’s theory, the scientific community has accepted Natural Selection.

  1. Consult experts. With nearly every myth, the Mythbusters consult with an expert in the field to find out more about the facts surrounding the myth. The expert will often make suggestions on how to design an experiment to prove or disprove the myth. With all of the information available today, it’s impossible for one scientist to be an expert in everything. In 2013 alone, there were over 800,000 scientific papers published in PubMed, the database for biomedical research articles. One thing common to almost all of these papers is that multiple scientists contribute to them. The first author, the scientist primarily responsible for the work in the article, consults experts to help them with their studies. Those experts will often be included as additional authors for the article. Just like the Mythbusters and scientists, the everyday person cannot know everything. We all should have experts in our life that we are able to take advice from and reevaluate our opinions based on the facts they present.  
  1. Listen to criticism. The final step in the scientific method is to communicate our findings. Scientists publish papers, present at conferences, and discuss their findings in press releases and with the media. The mythbusters provide a concise summary of their findings in a TV show aired to nearly 2 million viewers. The communication is critical, in part because it allows for criticism of the work. No one can perfectly consider every angle of a question. The Mythbusters  devote entire episodes where they take criticism from fans and revisit old myths to address those criticisms. When scientists make discoveries and publish their findings, their papers have to go through a peer review process, during which other scientists evaluate the methods and results and offer criticism. The scientist who wrote the paper then has to address  those criticisms before their study is published. Similarly, when scientists apply for research grants, a study panel evaluates the grant proposal and gives criticism on the proposal whether or not the grant was funded. These peer review processes are in place to make science better by making scientists accountable for their ideas in a way that allows them to improve on their research.

In 14 years on the air, the Mythbusters have tested 1,015 myths. Of those myths, 548 were busted, 216 were plausible, and 251 confirmed. They have truly illustrated the art of science and added so much to how we view the world. I tip my lab goggles to these wonderful scientists.

Check out the Mythbusters series finale tonight on the Discovery channel.

benBen is a fifth year PhD student in Virology and Microbiology. He plans on pursuing a career in Public Health after finishing his degree.

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