MythBusters’s Adam Savage
Karen Stollznow, a host of the Center for Inquiry's Point of Inquiry podcast, recently spoke with him.
Adam Savage is co-host of the Discovery Channel's MythBusters. He has a diverse background in animation and design, and for almost two decades he's concentrated on the special effects industry in film, theater, and television. A prominent skeptic, Savage lectures in science education and is a strong promoter of critical thinking. Karen Stollznow, a host of the Center for Inquiry's Point of Inquiry podcast, recently spoke with him.
Do you consider yourself to be a skeptic? Do you call yourself a skeptic or an atheist or a free thinker or a humanist?
All of the above. I had never sought out to identify myself as a skeptic. I hadn't quite realized where MythBusters placed within the cosmology of the skeptical universe, but, you know, we're smack in the middle of it. We always are thinking critically, especially about ourselves.
We are, I think, still the only television show willing to say that we got an entire hour of programming wrong. We'll go back and revisit our results. Often the episodes in which we come back with new data and come to different conclusions than before are our favorite episodes. We recognize that's probably the most important scientific lesson we can teach in the show. It just grew out of our realization that we had done something wrong.
It's brilliant that you're open to saying that you're wrong about something and to be able to re-evaluate. That is part and parcel of being a critical thinker.
There's a phrase I came up with early on in doing the show: "Failure is always an option." I had that printed on our crew hats and crew shirts and I realized, in fact, it is a deeply scientific phrase because people think of an experiment as something set out to prove something. And it's not. It's something set out to test something. So whether you're right or wrong about your preconceptions, the experiment that yields data is still a successful experiment. That's what we mean by "Failure is always an option."
So how would you say you apply that to your experiments?
Probably the best tool that Jamie [Hyneman, my MythBusters co-host] and I have applying skepticism to our experiments is each other. Our relationship, like any strong partnership, is based on a tremendous amount of creative tension. We have large and small disagreements constantly about the way to proceed with things.
Yeah. We are always poking holes in the other's ideas. We will fight for what we want to do until the right idea really does make itself clear. Then we'll give up. We have no ego when it comes to the elegant solution. But the fact is, up until that elegant solution has been reached we argue almost constantly. We recognize that in that push-pull there's a tremendous amount of strength. There's a check and a balance that means that everything we work on together is inherently going to be stronger than the things we work on separately.
So what do you say to people who claim that your show is not sufficiently rigorous and that you don't always apply the scientific method?
I admit outright that our show is not sufficiently rigorous. It's not meant to be a show about scientific inquiry. It's meant to be a show about critical inquiry and where to begin looking at it from a scientific standpoint. I say that we do not stand by our results. I stand solidly behind our methodologies. We always would like to have more than one test, more than three tests. Our show is not meant to be taken as any kind of science fact in terms of our results. The science is in how to proceed from one experiment to the next with what you've learned.
Preliminary tests [are] not meant to be conclusive.
Exactly. The structure of our show is five or six acts depending on the commercial break and on where in the world you watch it. In general, you start out with, What's the myth? What's the plan? Then we go down to the shop; we do some scale testing. We often do medium-scale testing. Then we do full-scale testing. Pretty much all the science happens by the time we're done with the medium-scale testing. That's the point at which we have really illuminated the features of the physics that we're exploring. The full-scale testing is usually just the trick we use to keep people watching until the end where they get to watch full-size cars smash into each other and prove the point that we demonstrated with the medium-scale testing.
That's ultimately what everyone wants to see.
It is. Even after a hundred and ninety eight hours and eight years of doing this show, everyone still comes up and says, "I love that cement truck when it blows up!" After three thousand different explosions over the years…
You can remember all of them?
...they're like wines to Jamie and me. We can sense their differences and their nuances. But for me, falling hot water heaters is the single greatest thing I like to watch blow up. There is no more satisfying thud in the world.
Are there any topics that are off-limits to you guys?
There are several categories we don't touch: what [James] Randi would call woo-woo [and] what we call oogie-boogie. I'm still ashamed we ever went near pyramid power as a story to test. All of those mystical things. Dowsing is an open question that we've been thinking back and forth about for years whether or not to do it on the show. We're never going to look for the Loch Ness Monster. We're never going to look for Bigfoot. We're not going to try to prove a negative. We are always going to look for something that we can actually get our hands on and do tests toward the goal of coming to a conclusion.
There are a lot of paranormal and pseudoscientific themes that you could test and actually come up with a reasonable conclusion. So have you ever wanted to do a show or a spin-off show that focuses on the paranormal?
It's very difficult. One of the things I like about our show is it's very localized to us. We have brought experts in from the outside from time to time. That introduces problems from a production standpoint. If you're going to be testing the paranormal, by definition you're bringing people in, and there's a gotcha aspect to that. That is not what MythBusters is about. It's not to say that I don't realize that everyone claiming to have mystical powers is a charlatan, but I don't think within the narrative of our show that kind of arc works for us. It's very, very tricky. It sounds very easy to test whether or not someone can stop a watch with their mind, but when you get into it, if all you end up with are negatives, you don't really have a television show there. Not, at least, MythBusters.
To some extent you need to have brief shows where you can treat something sufficiently within a single episode.
We are constrained by the time. It's absolutely true. One of the shames is the international cut of MythBusters is fifty-two minutes long, but the U.S. cut is forty-four minutes long, so there are eight minutes missing from every U.S. episode. Often, great jokes lose their punch lines in the edit. It's unfortunate.
The show is so popular, but how do you think people feel when you're taking away these myths and these legends from them?
I've never gotten a complaint. Also I've never had anyone e-mail me on the positive side and thank us for all the groundbreaking work we're doing in urban legend research. I think everyone realizes that the premise of the show is an excellent scarecrow on which to hang a show that tricks you into learning about science.
We recognized early on that the structure had that sort of trick in it. We have [had] these great stories that often ended with hilarious or terrible things happening, and we got to demonstrate them, which is inherently interesting. And then there's our enthusiasm. We realize our enthusiasm is a great driver toward what the audience enjoys watching. We as communicators, both of us through totally different means, are good at communicating what we're enjoying and why we're enjoying it. That is inherently involving.
What influence do you think you've had on science communication and science education?
Science teachers are among our most fervent fans. They say Thursday mornings after our show airs are some [of] their most exciting talks in their classes. An MIT professor told us that he thought MythBusters was a significant reason that engineering schools, which about ten years ago often would allow people to go all the way through a PhD program doing all theoretical work on the computer, now require their grad students to do hands-on work. He believes it is in no small part due to how MythBusters has been part of the DIY zeitgeist that has absolutely exploded in the last five years.
It's a winning formula for you guys.
I hope so, because we want to develop some more shows for Discovery. We've just signed on for several more years of MythBusters. It's still rating as strong as it ever has been, actually. It's the longest-running show on Discovery, at this point. In addition, we've signed up to develop for Discovery several new shows with some business partners we have. We're really, really excited about it. We have a deck of ideas. Some very strong, some medium formed, some very loosely formed.
You've got the best job on Earth! How did all these myths originate?
I've thought a lot about why great myths perpetuate. We all want to know how the world works. That's the natural human inclination. When a good narrative helps you understand how the world works you latch onto it. The narrative provides a mnemonic device for your brain. A meme, if you will. I think we pass those around because they're easy bites of information to pass around. Also we are storytellers. We like telling each other stories whether they're true or not. Sometimes the most elaborate stories for us provide the most lovely fodder for a myth because there are so many parts to work on.
Would you say that more of the myths you investigate happen to be true or false? What's the ratio?
Something like sixty percent of the stories are busted, and then an even split of them are plausible or confirmed. We don't care whether we bust or prove something. We're totally agnostic where that's concerned.
Has there ever been any kind of backlash coming out as a skeptic?
I've had kids e-mail me and say, "Why do you think this?" I don't respond to all of it; I'm not looking for a fight. I have occasionally written back to someone and said, "How nice for you" when they've told me I'm an idiot. But for the most part, everyone is incredibly respectful.
Do you find that most of the detractors complain about your being an atheist rather than your being a skeptic?
Actually, I get far more complaints about being an idiot than an atheist. If you troll the Discovery forums, you will find countless, countless posts of people saying we are total idiots; we have no idea what we're doing. Then the people who step up and defend us are working scientists at NASA, Sandia [National Laboratories], and [Jet Propulsion Laboratory]. All over the country working scientists are the ones knowing that we are doing the right kind of work, even if we're not doing it as rigorously as anyone, especially us, would like. The methodologies are sound.
How does it feel to be such a guardian for science and skepticism and atheism?
A guardian for science? [Laughing.]
I take the responsibility seriously. I follow my natural inclination, and the success comes from that. I follow what feels right to me. I let that guide me rather than the idea that I am a guardian or I am a voice. When you are a public figure, your job is to be truthful.