What to Do When You Encounter Science Denial at the Science Museum
Those are the words of Philip Kennicott, the Washington Post’s art and culture critic, in an opinion article published last weekend. His message rings especially true with me, because I recently went to a Koch-funded exhibit at one of the world’s top science museums.
On the 4th of July, 2017, after watching the Independence Day Parade in Washington, D.C., I went to Smithsonian Natural History Museum in a joyful mood.
I have visited the museum before, and every time I visit, I am attracted to all different types of exhibitions, from wildlife specimens to the beautiful gem collection. As a graduate student from China, I always had the impression that the Smithsonian Natural History Museum is one of the best museums in the world.
But this visit was different. As I wandered the museum’s bottom floor, my eyes were drawn to the words “David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins” on the wall. I started to wonder, is that one of the billionaire Koch brothers I read about in the book “Dark Money”, by Jane Mayer? With that question in mind, I started looking at the exhibition carefully.
The first thing I saw were faces of ancient humans. About half of the exhibition is a display of skeletons of early humans, using different time frames. That part made sense.
The other half of the exhibit is focused on how ancient people adapted to the changing environments. As I looked closer, I was honestly shocked. I have studied the conclusions of modern climate scientists, because my background is in environmental engineering. The fact is that our climate has changed beyond its natural variability, especially during modern industrialization time, and those changes are already affecting our planet.
The Hall of Human Origins tells a very different story, by focusing on the good effects of climate change, without mentioning the ways that climate change will make it harder for humans to live on planet Earth. Guests learn that dramatic climate change drives human evolution, which apparently means that climate change is good because it makes people more adaptable to the environment.
These message is essentially what David Koch himself has asserted: “The Earth will be able to support enormously more people because a far greater land area will be available to produce food [due to global warming].”
The exhibit has the tendency to exclude anthropogenic climate change from the story of Earth’s climate. Visitors are shown global temperature change from 10 million years ago to today. Presenting climate data in this way weakens the understanding that human activity is closely related to climate change in the shorter time-scale, since Industrialization began. If I took the Smithsonian’s word for it, then I would have the impression that climate change is not really a thing, or at least it happens very slowly.
The exhibit does mention CO2, the primary greenhouse gas that humans put in the atmosphere, with a graph representing the dramatic rising CO2 levels from 400,000 years ago to now. But it is difficult for people to visually tell the correlation between increasing CO2 level and temperature rising on such a large time span.
To the museum’s credit, there is one display that makes it clear that human fossil fuel use is changing the global climate:
I left the museum full of curiosity and questions. I found that Dr. Joe Romm, a physicist and author, published an article in 2015 on ThinkProgress stating his doubts about the exhibition. I found out about a new nonprofit organization, The Natural History Museum, which wants science meddlers like David Koch to leave the Smithsonian natural history museum’s Advisory Board.
I hope that these criticisms make an impact, and I hope that sharing my story will increase awareness and create opportunities to protect cultural institutions from the influence of biased benefactors. The Smithsonian museum is so famous, even in my home country, China, that it was even more disappointing to see the biased exhibition. There are a huge number of people from all over the world visiting the museums on a daily basis, including kids and teenagers.
The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History has the responsibility to be neutral and unbiased, and soly deliver the most reliable and scientific facts to the public. Unfortunately, the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins exhibit fails to do that.
An edited version of this post also appears on the Greenpeace USA website: What to Do When You See Science Denial at the Science Museum