Adam Savage – Skeptic (Confirmed)

July 09, 2010

Adam Savage is an artist, actor, educator, special effects designer and co-host of the Discovery Channel’s TV show Mythbusters.

Adam has a diverse background in animation and design, and for almost two decades he has concentrated on the special effects industry for film, theater and television.

A prominent skeptic and atheist, Adam lectures in science education and is a strong promoter of critical thinking.

Karen Stollznow spoke with Adam in Las Vegas at The Amaz!ng Meeting, the annual conference of the James Randi Educational Foundation.

In this conversation, Adam speaks about his identification as a skeptic and atheist, and his work to promote science and skepticism to the public. He talks about his experiences on Mythbusters; why the show appeals to skeptics, and how he applies skepticism to his experiments.

Adam talks about testing pseudoscience and the paranormal, how myths and legends develop, and how the public reacts when their cherished myths are busted.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Friday, July 9th, 2010. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m Karen Stollznow point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and to the grassroots. My guest this week is Adam Savage, artist, actor, educator, special effects designer and co-host of the Discovery Channel’s Myth Busters. Adam has a diverse background in animation and design. And for almost two decades, he’s concentrated on the special effects industry for film, theater and television. A prominent skeptic and atheist, Adam lectures in science education and is a strong promoter of critical thinking. I spoke with Adam at the amazing meeting, the annual conference of the James Randi Educational Foundation. 

Adam, welcome to Point of Inquiry. Thank you. We here at the amazing meeting, and I guess my first question is to ask you, do you consider yourself to be a skeptic, decoys of a skeptic or an atheist or a free thinker or humanist? 

All of the above and all. I guess by accident, I mean, I had never sought out to identify myself as a skeptic. James Randi. Give me a call about five years ago to come to, I think, time for. And he was always a hero of mine. Absolutely familiar with the giraffe and what they were doing. And when I came here, I realized I was among my people. And so I just felt so familiar with everybody. I hadn’t quite realized where myth busters placed within the cosmology of the skeptical universe. But we’re smack in the middle of it. 

And oh, that was to be my next question. Why are skeptics such fans of Myth Busters? I know it’s fantastic shape, but why skeptics in particular? 

Well, you know, there are a lot of complaints leveled at our shows that we aren’t rigorous enough in our science. 

To be another question of mind, do things cavalierly. But I and I’ll answer that when you ask. 

So but one of the things is that 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 programing wrong. And we’ll go back and revisit our results. Often the episodes in which we come back with new data and come to different conclusions that we did before our favorite episodes. We recognize that that’s probably the most important scientific lesson we can teach in the show. And it, again, was unintentional. It just grew out of our realization that we had done something wrong. Let’s do it again and we can figure out a way to make it work from a programing standpoint. And we did. 

Can you tell us a little bit about that? I was going to ask you if there were any shows you’d done. We’d reached a conclusion. And yet perhaps your audience members had contacted you afterwards and said, you’re wrong here old. You would disprove it in some way. 

Yes, we had we had done an episode called Sniper Scope in which a very famous Vietnam era sniper named Carlos halfcocked. The third, I think, had shot an enemy sniper. From a long distance, 515 hundred yards. Something like that. But specifically, he’d shot him through his scope. So his bullet pierced the opponent’s sniper’s scope and went through his head, through his eye. And we got a scope. We got some powerful long distance rifles. We learned how to shoot and we couldn’t get the bullets through the scopes. And we busted it almost immediately. We got some very angry e-mails from a lot of snipers, which is not a group I enjoy pissing off. 

There’s the famous Onion headline. 

Wife of Sniper seeks 3000 yard restraining orders. 

But many pointed out that we’re using the wrong kind of scope. 

We were using the wrong kind of kind of ammunition. And one of our fans actually sent us a box of unopened ammunition from the year the event was supposed to have happened. 

Incredible. And many from zero to add and also outlined exactly what the two rifles were. 

And so we went back with that. We realized we had gotten almost every piece of the story wrong. And we went back with all of that information and showed that it was, in fact, possible. And so, you know, we were thrilled to do that. 

It’s brilliant that you’re open to saying that you’re wrong about something. And to be able to reevaluate that is part and parcel of being critical thinker. 

There’s a phrase that I came up with early on and during the show, and I my brain toward some sort of always goes to a worst case scenario where I said failure is always an option. And then I had that printed on our crew hats and our crew shirts. And I realized, in fact, that actually 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. And that’s what we mean by failure is always an option. 

I love that, sir. How would you say you apply skepticism to your experiments? In what ways? 

Probably the best tool that Jamie 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. A healthy skepticism it. Yeah. And we are always poking holes in the other’s ideas. We will fight for what we think we want to do until the right idea really does make itself clear. And then we’ll give up. We have no ego when it comes to the elegant solution, but the fact is, is up until that elegant solution has been reached. We argue almost constantly and we recognize that in that push pull, there is a tremendous amount of strength. There is a check and 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 your show is not sufficiently rigorous sense that you don’t always apply the and 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 a critical into 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. More than one task, more than three tests. We’ve done a few episodes recently where we are able to test, you know, 20 and 30 people to test a theory. We’re able to do a whole bunch of iterations. And we’ve you know, when it becomes really important to us where we want statistical significance out of our numbers, there are times in the last couple of years we have gone out of our way to achieve that. But again, 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 in center. It’s not meant to be conclusive in that short a period. 

Exactly. And the structure of our show, you know, it’s a five or six act show, depending on the commercial breaks and depending on where in the world you watch it. And in general, you know, we start out with what’s the what’s the myth? What’s the plan? Then we go down to the shop, we do some scale testing. We often do some medium scale testing, and 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 sized car smash into each other and prove the point that we demonstrated with the medium sculpt. 

And that’s ultimately what everyone wants to see. It is a you know, it’s funny. 

It’s even after one hundred and ninety one hours and eight years of doing this show, everyone still comes up and says, I love that smell truck when it blows up. 

I have a favorite explosion after I tell until after after 3000 explosion, 3000 different explosions over the years. I remember items to Jamie. We really, really can like. 

Since their differences in their nuances. But for me, failing hot water heaters is the single greatest thing I like to blow up. 

There’s no more satisfying thud in the world. How many times have you done that? I think we’ve lit up about nine or ten of them at this point. Two separate episodes. Any plans to do that in the future? 

No, I think we’ve done everything we can. Unless we decided to go through a three story house. But it just barely made it through a two story house. 

So I figure why I decided that I can always do it in your spare time. 

So are there any topics which are off limits to you guys at all? Any any themes may be to do with skepticism or ideas that you just can’t touch? 

Well, there are there are several categories that we don’t touch there. I mean, what what Randy would call wew what we call boogie boogie. I’m still ashamed that we ever went near Pyramid Power as a story to test with that all of those mystical things. Dowsing is a real quote. It’s an open question that we’ve been thinking back and forth about for years, whether or not to do it on a show. We’re never gonna look for the Loch Ness Monster, we’re never gonna go look for Bigfoot. We’re not gonna try and prove a negative. We are always gonna look for something that we can actually get our hands on and do tests. Towards the end of coming to a conclusion, rather than go look for something and not find it and proclaim that it’s not findable. 

Okay. I would still say that a lot of paranormal and pseudoscientific things that you could taste and actually come up with a reasonable conclusion. So have you ever wanted to do a show or a spinoff show that focuses on the paranormal? 

It’s very difficult. One of the things I like about our shows, it’s very localized to us. 

We have brought experts in from the outside from time to time, and it’s often introduced interesting problems from a production standpoint. And if you’re going to be testing the paranormal, by definition, you’re bringing people in. 

And there is a gotcha aspect to that. That is very not what Myth Busters is about. It’s not to say that, you know, 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 art works for us. It’s an interesting one. It’s one we’ve thought about a lot. You know, one of the ones we’ve actually wanted to do and I’ve actually written a whole outline about it, is dogs that No. One, their owners are coming home, which is pretty close to a paranormal subject matter. 

But it’s very difficult one to get the control for. Like, when you start to think about the control, you realize you could spend weeks just finding someone who gives you what they believe is a positive that might demonstrate as a positive when you’re filming it. It’s very, very tricky. It’s in all of those the you know, it sounds really easy to test whether or not someone can stop a watch with their mind. 

But then when you start to get into it, if all you end up with are negatives, you don’t really have a television show. They’re not at least myth busters. 

And I guess to some extent to you, trafficking in sound bites and need to have sort of free shows where you can treat something sufficiently within a single episode. And a lot of these are very open ended. 

We are constrained by that. By the time it’s absolutely true. One of the shames is that the international kind of myth busters is 52 minutes long, but the U.S. cut is 44 minutes long. So there’s eight minutes missing from every U.S. episode. And often great jokes lose their punch lines in the in the edit. It’s unfortunate. 

So the show is so popular that how do you think people feel when you’re you’re taking away these myths in these legends from them? 

I’ve never gotten a complaint whatsoever. And I’ve been also I’ve never had anyone e-mail me on the positive side and thank us for all the groundbreaking work we’re doing, an urban legend research. I think everyone realizes that the 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. No, you ended up with these great stories that often ended with hilarious or terrible things happening and you got to demonstrate them, which is inherently interesting. And then there’s also this aspect of our enthusiasm. We realized that our enthusiasm was a great driver towards what the audience enjoyed. Watching that we as communicators, both of us, through totally different means, are good at communicating what we’re enjoying and why we’re enjoying it. And that is inherently involving. And so we really do follow our nose in that vein. 

And how what impacts and what effects and influence do you think he has on science, communication and science education? 

I’ve been told a lot. I’ve been told by science. Jamie, I speak at the California and the National Science Teachers Association meetings for the last three years. I think we’re doing again at the California this year. 

Science teachers are among our most fervent fans. They say Thursday mornings after our show airs as some of their most exciting talks in their classes. And M.I.T. professor told us that he thought Myth Busters was a significant part of the fact that engineering schools, which about 10 years ago often would allow people to go all the way through P.H. program to him. All theoretical work in the computer now require there they’re they’re grad students to do Hands-On work. And he believes that it’s in no small part to how Myth Busters has been part of the DIY zeitgeist that has absolutely exploded in the last five years. 

I think it’s made it more accessible to the average person who might not otherwise be interested in in science. 

And, you know, we take that really seriously. We always look at the very first experiment is always what would two guys with a Sunday do in their garage? That is, you know, when we did, we’ll toast always land buttered side down. We started with a machine and afterwards we realized that we’d screwed it up. We should have started with a table and toast and knocking it off with our hand. We’d immediately gone to Elegante. Yes, that’s a really good point. And we feel like that. That. Starting with the two guys in their garage is the point of intersection where people get really excited, like, oh, I can do that. I see exactly what they’re doing. I know exactly how they’re thinking. And then we build from there. And by the end there, you know, it’s expanded. And they the narrative what we build to is also the narrative of usually how we’ve argued through the story. We’ll sit there and go to a story and I’ll have the whole thing out my head. Another world. We should do this, this this is this and this. And James says, well, I disagree about number four. I don’t think we should do that. I think that’s stupid. And we’ll go back and forth and then we’ll build a tangent off of that based on his disagreement. 

And the tangent might lead somewhere else and say looking at things from starting from a more simplistic angle, has that influenced any of the themes that you’ve you’ve worked on at all in any way? 

Well, I mean, it’s a it’s a constant and very organic process. The Central Brain Trust of Myth Busters is Jamie Mee, our director, Alice Dallow, and our executive producer Dan Trapster. Jamie are now executive producers of the show as well. But the four of us really nut out everything creatively. And then as we dove into each episode, things change constantly and where we end up as often miles from where we start. So we outline before we start filming, we know that on Tuesday we’re gonna be here. On Friday, we’re gonna be at the bomb range. But the results of their experiment on Tuesday very well might change what we do on Friday and often does. And I think, again, that’s actually something that lends to lends itself to the veracity of the show that people can tell. And I think that some of the imitators of myth busters, some of the shows that have attempted to capitalize on our success have failed because. The outlook, it’s clear that they’re following an outline that someone thought before they started filming, right. 

Here was some of those imitators. Can you not tell us? Well, Discovery has tried several times and, you know, with greater and less your success, there are a bunch of other shows. 

I think Timewarp is actually terrific show on Discovery. The high speed camera show a sport science on ESPN, which is not at all personality based, would actually gets quite into some lovely science if a little bit long winded. I enjoy watching that. There’s a host of them out there. I keep on catching them on different networks. 

It’s a winning formula for you guys. I hope so, because, you know, we want to develop some more shows for discovery and we want to develop. I’ve been hearing about that. Can you tell us about that at all? Well, we’ve just we’ve just signed on for several more years of myth busters. Congratulations. Thank you. 

It is still rating as strong as it ever has been. Actually, it’s the longest running show on discovery at this point in testing. Yeah, I have no idea. We would get here and we’ve signed up, in addition, for sending up for more myth busters. We’ve signed up to develop for discovery several new shows with with some business partners we have. And we’re really, really excited about it. 

And have you created those years while they’re still in their early stages? 

It is. Is it both? We have a we have a deck of ideas, some very strong, some medium formed, some very loosely formed. We have ideas about things. We’re not sure if they’re right for the web or for television or for other media. And that’s what we’re gonna spend the next few months hammering out. Exciting. Yeah, it’s very exciting. 

And what have you got coming up for Myth Busters in particular? 

We just finished an episode. Do we have this list of stories? It’s probably about 300 stories at this point that we haven’t done. And I’d say 60, 70 percent of those aren’t really full episode stories. 

There you are interviewing them, although eventually I. 

Absolutely. We’re never going to run out. I mean, at the time we finished doing myth busters, however, many years from now, there will still be a roster of a couple hundred stories left to do. But we just finished one that I have always wanted to do, which is called reverse engineering. And I’d been told years ago that the Corvette Stingray, the 1979 stingray, was so poorly designed with its weird ducktail that it was more aerodynamic, going backwards and forwards and has this. And we actually looked into it and found it was the Corvette Stingray. It was another sports car. And we obtained was the source of the myth that was the most commonly cited source of this myth. And so I always wanted to do this story because I knew what the punchline was. The punchline is you take that sports car, you cut it off its chassis, flip it 180 and race it against a forward facing car. The absurdity, any obscenity of seeing a backwards car racing a forwards car, 100 miles an hour, something I’ve always wanted to see. And a week ago, we did it. 

The results are stunning and concise. And as I said, it’s mind bending this. 

I was the driver of the of the backwards car and it’s mind bending to stand on a track and watch me slalom at 60 miles an hour in a car going backwards or when you look at the hardest job on Earth. 

So he isn’t really general question about these myths. And I don’t know if you can even answer it. 

And it’s a broad fit. How did these myths originate? 

I have spent a lot of time thinking about this, even though this isn’t within the purview of Seifer supposed to look at on the show. I thought a lot about why great myths perpetuate. And I think. We all want to know how the world works. That’s the natural human inclination. And when a good narrative helps you understand how the world works, you latch onto it. It’s like the narrative provides a mnemonic for a mnemonic device for your brain. A meme, if you will. And I think we pass those around because they’re easy bytes of information to pass around. It’s we are we are also we are beings of inventory and we are storytellers. And we like telling each other stories whether they’re true or not. And sometimes the most elaborate stories for us provide the most lovely fodder for us for a myth, because there’s so many parts to work on. 

What would you say overall that some more of the myths that all the more of the stories you investigate happened to be true or false? Well, we race here. 

We actually did the breakdown. If I remember correctly. Something like 60 percent of the stories are busted. And then an even split of them are plausible or confirmed. It’s a much more heavily skewed in the Bustan category. We don’t care whether we bust or prove something. 

We are totally agnostic where that’s concerned and certainly accounting for that sort of disparity. Do you think? 

I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it. I mean, if I had to hazard a guess, I would say that the best stories are often the most fantastic ones, the ones that have the least hold on reality, because they they sound you know, sometimes something sounds intuitive, but it’s counterintuitive. And sometimes it’s a good story because it sounds counter-intuitive when in fact, the answer is intuitive. It goes both ways. But yeah, I would say that oftentimes the more spectacular story is the one with the less hold on reality. 

Do you feel that being in the public eye that you have promoted skepticism? 

Absolutely. And I consider that an important mission. That’s why I come back to TAM every year. It’s why I go speak at conferences like the Hope Conference or Def Con or e.g.. Those are those are all things that I do on my own. And not to say that Jamie is not a, you know, promoting skepticism. This is very specifically a mission. I take great responsibility for it and feel that being in the public eye make gives me a responsibility to use my my powers of communication to help people think critically. Absolutely. 

Has there ever been any kind of backlash coming out? 

As a skeptic, I have to say that I gave a speech at the Harvard Humanist, decided they were to Jamie no lifetime achievement award earlier this year. And I’m actually going to read it here at Tamme because I was thinking about everyone here at 10:00 when I wrote it, and it got proposed posted up on Boing Boing because the editors of Boing Boing are friends of mine. And I got a lot of e-mail about it, almost all of it incredibly respectful. A lot of people trying to convince me that Jesus died for my sins and that I can accept God. And, you know, I’ll be happy, you know, internal life, et cetera, et cetera. 

But all was really gracefully sweet tone. And I even had lapsed Catholics or confused people who wanted some clarification. I’ve had kids e-mail me and say, why do you think this and that? I don’t respond to all of it. I off. I’m not looking for a fight, but there’s no need to have a fight. I have occasionally had a couple of beers and written back to someone and said, how nice for you. 

And they told me, I’m an idiot, but good to hear you do that too. For the most part. 

For the most part, the dialog has been very civil. I have not I’ve not gotten a lot of backlash even on Twitter. When I tweet about things like that, I, I get the odd comment that says, you know, it’s a shame you’re going to go be with Richard Dawkins in Las Vegas. But for the most part, everyone’s incredibly respectful. 

Do you find that most of the detractors complain about your you being an atheist rather than you 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. And then the people that step up and defend us are working. Scientists at NASA and Sandia, JPL all over the country, working scientists, the ones knowing that we are we are doing the right kind of work, even if we’re not doing it as rigorously as anyone would like, especially us. The methodologies are sound. 

I’m just one last question. How does it feel then to to be such a guardian for science and skepticism, an atheist and a guardian for science? 

I take the responsibility seriously. And they also recognize that it’s one based on a natural inclination. And like everything that I have achieved success within my life. I follow the natural inclination and the success comes from that. And so when I wonder how to proceed in terms of proclaiming my ideas and my skepticism in public, I follow what feels right to me. And, you know, I let that guide me rather than the idea that I am a guardian or I am a voice. And I trust that as a communicator. That that message has a truth to it. There’s a quote from Emerson self-reliance that he says To know that what is true in your secret heart is true for all men. That is genius. And I love that quote. I extend it to women. And, you know, the is this thing we all go through, it is actually, I think, totally universal. I think we all do it in our own ways. But there are absolute amazing universalities to that. And, you know, when you are a public figure, your job is to be truthful about what you’re going through. 

Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure talking with you. Thank you. This is a lovely interview. Thank you. 

Thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry. For more information, you can visit Adam’s Web site. Adam Savage dot com to participate in the online conversation about this show. Please join our discussion forum at point of inquiry dot org. The views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dot org. 

The inquiry inquiries produced by Adam Isaac in Amherst, New York. And our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Waylan. Today’s show also featured contributions from Debbie Goddard. I’m your host, Karen Stollznow. 

Karen Stollznow