Mythbusters and animal products


in Films and movies, Geek stuff, Politics, Rants, The environment

I enjoy the show Mythbusters quite a bit. I like the contrasting personalities of the hosts, and I like the way they stress how the ultimate test of any theory is experiment. The constraints of a television show can somewhat restrain them, when it comes to being rigorous and showing their work, but it is obvious that there is more thinking (and math) that goes on in the background.

One aspect of the show I don’t fully approve of is their frequent use of animal products. They often use dead pigs as stand-ins for human beings, usually when testing myths about whether something would be deadly or not. They also use lard as a lubricant, and other animal products.

I don’t think it is always wrong for human beings to kill animals for their own purposes, but I do think there are many reasons to oppose factory farming and many reasons to use non-animal alternatives when possible. In that spirit, it seems to me that the Mythbusters could find analogues for human beings that didn’t have to be raised in the kind of conditions these pigs probably were. Also, it seems plausible that testing urban legends isn’t a sufficiently important purpose to justify the use of animal products, when there are reasonable alternatives available.

In the grand scheme of things, Mythbusters is a minute consumer of animal products. Fantastically larger quantities get consumed by human beings and other animals every day. That being said, the Mythbusters are role models within a certain community, and it might have a positive effect if they established a policy on the use of animal products that takes into account some of the ethical considerations involved.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Matt February 16, 2011 at 1:28 pm

I know this comment doesn’t address the point of your post (animals), but Mythbusters would be so much better if they didn’t use the 3 helpers. They’re annoying, and their stuff is so overly scripted.

Antonia February 17, 2011 at 10:00 am

Doesn’t this just go back to the problem that we don’t have an adequate synthetic substitute for a complex set of related tissues and their tolerances that applies to medical/forensic/safety research in general?

A challenge to Mythbusters to construct their own bone/muscle/ligament/skin analogue may be worth it but I suspect a lot of factory animals would also die in that process.

OK there is a case for them going for organic free range more often and avoiding products with more simple properties where substitutes exist – like lard. However isn’t the most common lubricant substitute for lard petroleum jelly?

Animal products are also far more pervasive than seems apparent to consumers, as the pig-05049 project by Christien Meindertsma showed, taking 3 years of research to track all the products (185 documented) which one particular dead pig contributed to – aside from the obvious meat products items included a fine bone china figurine, cigarette filter, insulin, colouring crayons, a bullet (gelatine used in it P55), bath pearl, heparin, lemonade, car paint, whipped cream, and a love heart. ‘Meindertsma says she finds the main interest in her project in its implications for conservation efforts. “In taking good care of the Earth, basically, the first step is knowing where our things come from,” ‘

Antonia February 17, 2011 at 10:35 am

While the individual pigs would be slaughtered for the market whichever purposes the buyer had, I agree that such deaths being used for essentially entertainment purposes is highly ethically suspect and further reinforces the normalisation of animal exploitation for the whims, rather than needs, of mankind.

Mythbusters does try to demonstrate something of the rigour of science and value of scientific research and I personally find the use of animal carcasses in this context less distasteful than, say, for apparent food production that is actually put to the purpose of overeating contests where most of the food will ‘lost’ before digestion. That’s not to say that there is a persuasive (ethical or other) argument supporting such a distinction.

Gruesome myths more likely to use carcasses are a core part of how Mythbusters appeal to and retain such a large audience with such a proportion outside the traditionally ‘science docu’ viewer range. While its worth asking the non-vegetarian team to consider taking a stand which (under present conditions) would either compromise the (important to them if limited) research validity justification for their activity, or require them to drop testing those kind of myths, it doesn’t seem likely there’ll be any change. I certainly hope its raised on the show though.

Taking an ethical stance here on the carcass point appears to require both registering it with the show and, however regretfully, switching the show off.

Milan February 17, 2011 at 6:33 pm

Good points, Antonia.

Perhaps the biggest trade-off the Mythbusters make it between accuracy and practicality. The more realistically you test a myth, the more effort it takes and the more it costs. In some cases, it may also involve imposing more suffering on animals.

After all, the reason why they test myths about human beings on crash test dummies is because they acknowledge that suffering is to be avoided.

Tristan February 26, 2011 at 8:57 am

Mythbusters is a TV show, and as such the greater part of its impact on culture is in representation, not brute consumption of commodities. At the level of representation, I don’t understand how the fact they use animal products to test their myths is any different from shows that re-enforce the idea that eating meat or daily products from factory farms is ok, which is pretty much every single piece of television out there.

If you are concerned with brute consumption of commodities, then every show uses a huge amount of meat to feed its crew – a single day of shooting (it takes at least 8 to 10 days to produce a single hour long drama) might mean the cooking of two hundred steaks, dozens of pounds of bacon and and 20 chickens. Crews on most shows are large, and vegetarians few and far between. Moreover, food is used as a tool to make the crew happy, not just fed, so premium and rich food is over-supplied and readily available for most of the day.

I can certainly understand the argument for boycotting Mythbusters, or boycotting any TV programs that use and/or positively represent the consumption of factory farmed meat. And, I’m sympathetic, although I’m not personally radical enough to boycott all cultural representations that re-enforce the norms of animal torture and slaughter – because I feel that would mean shutting myself out of too much of society. But, I certainly understand those who take such radical positions. What I can’t understand is what would motivate such a position if it were not an extension of a more comprehensive animal welfare or rights politics.

Milan February 26, 2011 at 12:12 pm

I think boycotting Mythbusters over the issue would be pretty pointless, but raising a matter in a way that makes the hosts at least think about the ethical question a bit could be worthwhile.

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