Muddling Science at Parks and Museums

That’s the title of this article from the August 2006 issue of GeoTimes. The article is by Kathryn Hansen. The article details some of the difficulties faced by national parks and museums in communicating science to the public.

It begins as follows:

STOP: This exhibit is about animal thinking. It contains some things you may agree with, some you may disagree with, and others that may even trouble you. Come explore and see what you think.

This disclaimer, attached to a bright red stop sign, is the first material offered to visitors at the Think Tank, an exhibit about animal cognition at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C.

Charming. It’s pathetic, of course, that there are people who take offense at the suggestion that animals think. But even worse is the very idea of warning people that they may see something with which they disagree. People accustomed to thinking about things simply take it for granted that they may disagree with something they see in a museum exhibit, and it doesn’t occur to them to make an issue out of it. You just know this sign exists because some religious nut, for whom disagreements represent affronts to God, complained about the exhibit.

Sadly, I suspect that for many people the sign has the following effect: Without the sign the exhibits represent the received word of science, with which normal people can not disagree. But with the sign the exhibits represent nothing more than an intriguing guess, something people can dismiss if they find it disquieting.

Later we come to this:

The reactions speak to a larger issue regarding the way that parks and museums communicate science, particularly evolution, to the public. As reported in the December 2005 Geotimes, some parks and museums have stepped up to the task to make evolution understandable, so as not to be confused with religious beliefs such as “intelligent design,” which holds that the complexity of life is evidence that something intelligent must have designed it, and “young-Earth creationism,” which holds that God created Earth and life about 6,000 years ago. Despite these efforts, however, science museums and parks across the United States are facing the challenge of educating what remains a largely confused public.

Kudos to Ms. Hansen for correctly identifying ID as a religious belief. And her comment about the public being largely confused is also right-on. Even otherwise very well educated people often have very strange ideas about science.

The article goes on to describe how some national parks have to rely on volunteers to serve as “intepreters.” Frequently these are people who know very little about the relevant branches of science:

As a result, parks now rely less often on professional rangers and more often on volunteers to conduct education programs, Wade says. Those volunteers may or may not have the scientific background to effectively communicate complex topics to the public, says Allyson Mathis, an interpreter at Grand Canyon National Park who works with the public and trains employees and volunteers.

Many interpreters who regularly speak to the public about geology and science “don’t know what science is,” Mathis says. “They couldn’t define it, they couldn’t tell you the difference between a fact and a theory,” she says. Those kinds of distinctions are key to explaining more complex scientific concerns.

I also found this interesting:

Another NPS controversy, however, persists. Despite some outcry in the scientific community starting in 2003, Grand Canyon: A Different View, a book that describes the Grand Canyon’s formation in accordance with a literal interpretation of the Bible, is still for sale at Grand Canyon National Park’s main bookstore, which is owned and operated by the nonprofit Grand Canyon Association. Although some scientific groups were concerned about the book being sold alongside science books, other groups did not think the book should be sold at all (see Geotimes, December 2004).

The park now shelves the book under the “inspirational” section, Barna says. Although the controversy prompted NPS to call for a policy review, park officials deemed it unnecessary to remove the book, and nothing else has changed, Barna says. “We are not ready to take it on,” because of what removing the book could mean for other “inspirational” books at the park, such as books about photography or Native American beliefs, he says.

Personally, I don’t have a problem with the book being available, as long as it is not in the science section. In fact, I thnk it sends a good message to have the book shelved in something that is plainly not the science section.

But what I do find interesting is the implication that science is not inspirational. It’s as if they are saying, “Over here we have the best conclusions drawn from evidence and reason.. Yawn. Over there we have comforting stuff made up from whole cloth. Much preferable!

“Inspirational,” like “New Age,” is bookstore lingo for “Total Crap.”


  1. #1 Joseph j7uy5
    August 25, 2006

    But what I do find interesting is the implication that science is not inspirational.

    Of course, science is incredibly inspiring, but inspiration is not its primary purpose.

  2. #2 Richard
    August 25, 2006

    As a bookseller I can vouch for your comment about the “inspirational” section. It’s where all the miscellaneous nonsense gets deposited. See also, “Self-help”.

  3. #3 Marvin E. Kirsh
    August 25, 2006

    On viewing the blogs I ascertained that sometimes science is put on the line-questioned-as a suitable career-for conflicts with religion,as a budget topic, etc.
    I wanted to add a few thoughts to these topics.
    In early education we are exposed to both math and science, and most of us view them both as a study of extraction of facts from the world and logical interpretation. I wanted here to point out something I believe very vital to this notion. mathematics is a study of almost perfection-what equals and what does not equal. In its’ very complicated forms we talk about space-time-multiple dimensions-relativity, etc: and sometimes forget that the real world is not a perfect circle. if you define all that is, as either a perfect circle, or not a perfect circle-science and math are opposites, and it is quite easy to forget this when for instance we speak of mathematical space, multi dimensional relativity. Recently a Russian mathematician solved a problem in topology a century old, that basically all certain kinds of mathematical structures reduce to a sphere in mukli dimensions of any kind: i.e that there exists some athematical-physical focus that is equi-distant from every point. And we forget and say that space is round or circular, and closed. In fact it must be the opposite. if not for the intuitive creations of science-biology-medicine-we might never come to ask these questions, or reason consciously that a fifty manifold structure has little to with the big mish-moshes of the real world. In fact being able to prove things about fifty manifolds and knowing that it is opposite of the real world gives us a fantastic leverage when we think, plan, design, piece our sciences and social knowledges together. It even says in the proof that science and social knowledge are inseparable.
    When I review some of the data gathered and analyzed by science, I realize that science is indispensible -that despite our stages of theory the world cannot be understood without it -whether it’s ideas are right or wrong, as it involved history-time passing -event, and as long as we know where our perfect mathematical thinking should stop- we know about ethics also.
    There are lots of areas in science for a person to consider and if one belives the activities in it are wrong, he should not dismiss a scientific career altogether, if he has interest and inclinations that way.
    There is perfectly no excuse to commit a wrong to find out something-if we need to know something, it would become knowable in an honest ethical way or it would be not important. This comes to say a little bit-if we are digging up our environments, with sophistocated intellectual methods, straining ourselves to look past what we observe that is with in reach, it might mean the key to the problem is buried in our own human history-if we are digging blindly it might mean that we already know of the existence of something-have unconsciuosly defined something- a problem root-theme, …. we already know the solution is somewhere in the graphs, lines, (open!-life-active communication processes inside ribosome and microsome, chromosomes, DNA, microtubules and copulating pili figures), and all the colors, gears, and imagery of our imaginations. If we are getting too mathematical either there are historical like pieces not found, or our imaginations to know of them is represssed, having extraneous complications to our living. But the answer is always somewhere, (that is not in a ten manifold space).
    Don’t let science talk you into being self abusive=punishing-mathematical figures won’t explain human behavior which is obviously at its best with rest and self entertainment and relaxation. A grave digger can contribute to society when he earns his wages and performs his tasks, where as compulsive mathematics can dig it’s grave.

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