Thursday, January 7, 2016

The Conscience of Science: Part 2 Do Museums Make Us Muse?

"Overall, the nation has a big problem,” says Dr. Brian Alters, president of the National Center for Science Education.  Dr. Alters is concerned that approximately 50% of Americans polled still believe evolution does not occur.  What’s more, nearly half of college students reject evolution or consider it “just a theory.”  These data stun many other evolutionary biologists who have invested their lives for decades in classroom teaching, curriculum revision, and teacher training built upon a naturalistic evolution foundation.  Yet they seem to have failed to convince students and their teachers that life on Earth originated and evolved as a result of time, gene mutations, and natural selection over billions of years.

A museum display of the supposed evolution of humans.
How could it be so difficult to convince science teachers and their students to believe what seems logical to most scientists?  Could it be that many students (and science teachers) are turned off by a classroom that pressures them to change their whole outlook on human origin?  This notion is plausible considering that most students of science have had at least one teacher who inspired them by presenting science as an invitation to inquiry and wonder about the natural world.  Would such students sense something unnatural about a science classroom that aims to “indoctrinate” learners into a naturalistic, evolution way of viewing the world?  Could it be that indoctrination in science is “poison” to both good educational pedagogy and the process of science itself?

After 50 years in science education and research, I am persuaded that a major purpose of what I call good science is to invite students to observe God’s creation, experience wonder in response to its grandeur, think critically as they formulate important scientific questions about the natural world, and participate as researchers in a logical method of scientific inquiry to find answers to the questions.   In this second part of my series on “
The Conscience of Science,” we will consider the role of natural history museums in promoting scientific understanding and the pursuit of knowledge of the natural world.  Specifically, we’ll ask, “Do natural history museums motivate visitors to join in the “process of science” by welcoming critical analyses of what are believed to be valid theories of science while inviting participation in the discovery of what is not known?”  In other words, “Do museums cause visitors to muse—i.e. to wonder, to ponder, or to think reflectively?” Or, “Are museums more like dark, musty temples filled with images underwritten with captions that insult visitors by declaring notions about human origins which they should accept without questioning?”

I still remember my first visit as a junior higher to a natural history museum, the
Cleveland Museum of Natural History.  When I saw the reconstructions of prehistoric animals, fossils, and geologic timelines, I stood in awe of the vast scientific knowledge of the natural world.  Of course, I didn’t question the authority of science to make judgments about the fossil record, or the age of the Earth, or how the first humans originated.  After all, who was I as a young student of science and history to question the scientific claims etched in stone within this giant “temple of knowledge?”

Wikipedia defines museum as is “an institution that cares for (conserves) a collection of artifacts and other objects of artistic, cultural, historical, or scientific importance and makes them available for public viewing through exhibits that may be permanent or temporary.”  Natural history museums that aim to accomplish these functions can elicit wonder about how life on Earth originated and diversified. However, most museums of natural history present a view of life’s origin that assumes an ancient Earth and a Darwinian timeline of human evolution from ape-like ancestors.  But, how do museums communicate this message?

Do similar anatomy and DNA mean a common ancestor?
The arrangement of displays of fossils and reconstructions of plants and animals in most museums are situated in a configuration that teaches a Darwinian interpretation of life’s origin and diversification.  However, the extent to which these museum presentations line up with good science varies greatly from museum to museum.  A recent article by Marvin Olasky in WORLD Magazine, entitled “A Tale of Two Museums,” compares two national museums with respect to how they convey what is known about life’s origin.

Dr. Olasky compared the
National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC (NMNH, also called “the Smithsonian”) with the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City.   According to AECOM and the Themed Entertainment Association’s annual report on the world's most visited attractions, the NMNH and the AMNH are ranked 3rd and 12th among the world’s most visited museums.  These two museums boast a combined annual attendance by over 12 million visitors.  The popularity of such museums with their expansive collections, imposing displays, and scientific-philosophical storyline enables them to convey an authoritative if not dogmatic message about the origin of life to their visitors, especially to impressionable children somewhat like I was as a junior higher.

I encourage you to read the Olasky article referenced above.  You can also take a virtual tour of AMNH. Here, I will highlight examples from the Olasky article to illustrate how the two museums differ in the way in which they explain life’s origin through historical science.  Historical science aims to understand the significance of an object or process as affected by one event or a series of past events called "causal histories."  Usually, causal histories must be reconstructed from inferences.  The approach of historical science resembles forensic science because in both sciences, no one was there to observe the causal events—i.e. what caused the fossils.  Or, in forensics, who committed the crime?

Evolutionary view of human origins at the Smithsonian Museum
Olasky recounts how the Smithsonian welcomes visitors to travel “Evolution Trail” of the museum which leads from simple aquatic forms of life all the way “up” to the “Mammal Family Reunion.” Here visitors are invited to “come meet your relatives” in the “Human Family Tree.”  Olasky expresses the theme of the Smithsonian as follows:

Evolution is the cornerstone of modern biology.  There is no scientific controversy about whether evolution occurred or whether it explains the history of life on earth.

Olasky notes correctly that this sweeping claim is false.  On the contrary, more than 800 Ph.D. scientists have signed onto the Scientific Dissent from Darwinism (see  Olasky notes that even the famed evolutionary biologist, Ernst Mayr, acknowledged “a large, ‘unbridged gapbetween humanlike species in the fossil record and our supposed apelike australopithecine ancestors.” Although he died in a decade ago, Mayr’s somewhat tentative and skeptical tone is reflected in museum captions like the following:

Not having any fossils that can serve as missing links, we have to fall back on the time-honored method of historical science, the construction of a historical narrative.

Although this statement at the Smithsonian admits to the absence of “transitional fossil forms,” the museum dismisses the fact that the “construction of a historical narrative” (i.e filling missing gaps) involves much of what Olasky rightly terms “speculation and storytelling.”  Filling gaps with little or no fossil evidence has given historical science, and the natural sciences in general, a bad name. 

Here, we should note that historical science is also involved in the risky business of predicting future global climate trends by piecing together the past history of global climate and constructing models that project future climate trends.  Because of the uncertainty and risk involved in reconstructing the past and predicting future trends, the claims of historical science about both evolution and global climate trends must be subjected to ongoing scientific testing.

In view of the gaps and uncertainties that exist in the fossil record, how can natural history museums serve their visitors in a manner that is consistent with good science? Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language defines science as “Systematized knowledge derived from observation, study, and experimentation carried on in order to determine the nature or principles of what is being studied.”  Recall that by using the term, good science, I want to emphasize the “quality” of the science.  In our context of “musing about museums” and the message they convey about the origin of life, readers of Olasky’s article will find that the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City offers its visitors at least two marks of good science as follows:

1) Good science affirms that well accepted science knowledge is durable, but must always be open to revision and even rejection when new evidence consistently emerges.  The AMNH supports good science, when it admits the need to correct errors in prior scientific claims.  For example, according to Olasky, the AMNH admits that Pterosaurs (“flying reptiles”), once thought to be mammals related to bats, are now believed to be archosaurs, more closely aligned with crocodiles.  The “take home message” from this humble admission is that science is a process of ongoing inquiry, subject to error, and in need of occasional correction.   As such, good science is not a stale and boring activity that smells like a preserved museum specimen, but rather an invitation to wonder and excitement in pursuit of truth about the natural world.

"Good Science" caption at National Museum of Natural History
2) Good science acknowledges that certain questions about the natural world may be difficult or impossible to answer.  Unfortunately, many brilliant, motivated scientists find it difficult to admit that there are limits to what we can know about prehistoric life forms.  Refreshingly, Olasky found some evidence that the AMNH admits to the limits of science.  For example, one statement admits,

We cannot be sure how pachycephalosaurs used their skull caps, because theories about the behavior of extinct animals cannot be tested. 

Commendably, in regard to whether carnosaurs were hunters or scavengers, another AMNH caption states that, because of

…fossil bones that are often incomplete, or that have been distorted… We may never have all the evidence needed to support these ideas.

There you have it.  It seems clear that Dr. Olasky’s “A Tale of Two Museums” presents two visions of the science of human origins as presented in major museums of natural history.   We have learned that a museum can represent the spirit and approach of good science.  Or, it can present a distorted and dogmatic version of science through overstated conclusions that lack solid support from the fossil record.  Instead of becoming more convinced of the support for Darwinian and neo-Darwinian evolution of life, visitors may leave with a sense that they have been manipulated or insulted.  Most sadly, such approaches diminish the wonder of science as an invitation to inquiry about the natural world, or creation.

In my next article on “The Conscience of Science” we will consider in more detail the difference between good science and what I will call “incredible science” with respect to how the science addresses evidences for human origin.  Hopefully, we can identify specific reasons why about half of Americans surveyed have persisted in rejecting the claim that humans evolved from non-human primates and ultimately, from ancient life forms.

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