Climate change deniers now welcome at the Science Museum?

This post was written by Owen on March 28, 2010
Posted Under: Environment

This week, the Science Museum announced a new exhibition on climate change, set to open in November.* Nothing unusual about that, except that the Museum’s last Climate Change exhibition (“Prove It! All the evidence you need to believe in climate change”) only closed in February. It seems a bit odd to open another one so soon afterwards. How is this one different? Well,

Prof. Chris Rapley CBE, Director of the Science Museum, said:

“The Science Museum aims to provide the answers to people’s questions about the science of climate change, becoming a trusted destination for public engagement with climate science. The scientific community has, with some exceptions, concluded that climate change is real, largely driven by humans and requires a response. Our exhibition will deliver an immersive, enjoyable and memorable experience that explains their work and results and shows how science and technology can contribute to a low-carbon future. Our objective is to minimise the shrill tone and emotion that bedevils discussion of this subject, satisfying the interests and needs of those who accept that human-induced climate change is real, those who are unsure, and those who do not.”

Yep, that’s right. The Science Museum thinks that part of its remit is to accommodate the ‘interests and needs’ of climate change deniers (and while we’re on the subject, yes, it is legitimate to call them deniers, and no, neither the climategate emails from UEA nor a couple of errors about glaciers in an IPCC report undermine the science of climate change. Just so we’re clear.) Oh, and in what I’m sure is nothing but a massive coincidence, the exhibition is co-sponsored by Shell.

Acknowledging the existence of climate change deniers isn’t harmful in itself. The problem is how it’s presented. I’m pretty sure the Science Museum wouldn’t have an exhibition about evolution that aimed to ‘satisfy the interests and needs’ of creationists, or one about medicine that tried to make space for faith healers. In both cases the beliefs in question might get a mention, perhaps as part of a wider explanation of hypothesis-testing and the scientific method, but no more than that. So why is this issue being treated differently? At a guess, because of the current popularity of climate change denial in influential (albeit conservative wingnut) circles. But it’s not the job of a science museum to pander to anti-science points of view just because they happen to be given a lot of column inches in the Daily Telegraph.

If you’d like to let the Science Museum know your views on this, They have a contact page here.

*Original source: Reuters, via the ever-awesome Ben Goldacre.

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Reader Comments

Bridget McKenzie

My post on this story takes a slightly different, still critical, view (link below). An answer to your ‘why a second exhibition?’ is that the first was a small temp display to coincide with COP15 and the one announced is a major £4m permanent-ish programme, not just a new gallery. They haven’t changed tack. Chris Rapley is passionate about communicating the urgent threat of climate disruption and gets a huge amount of stick for using public money for that. The voting element You Decide/COP 15 display was hijacked by deniers, who skewed the vote. The phrasing you’re rightly critical of is unfortunate but I know that they mean by it to fulfil their duty to engage with the widest public. They must welcome everyone, people of varying convictions. Moreover, they’re keen not to preach to the converted but to engage everyone in the science. I suspect that because Rapley isn’t from a museum background (he’s a polar scientist) he doesn’t have the fine command of language to describe interpretation approaches that are inclusive and based on dialogue. But his words have been unfairly twisted by the press accounts, as you can read here:

Written By Bridget McKenzie on March 28th, 2010 @ 11:36 pm
Special K (NJ)

Accepting “doubt” by a museum, scientific,
Is not exactly a new concept, terrific–
Renouncing blind certainty
And accepting the principle of uncertainty
Is inherent in science generally; and in all
its disciplines, specific.

Written By Special K (NJ) on March 29th, 2010 @ 3:09 pm

Bridget: Thanks for your comment. If Chris Rapley genuinely is passionate about communicating the threat of climate change to the wider public, as you say, then I may have unfairly maligned him. If so, I apologise. However, imagine if he’d been opening an exhibition on evolution and said he wanted to ‘satisfy the interests and needs of those who think evolution is the best theory on the available evidence, those who believe every word of the book of Genesis is to be taken literally and those who are undecided’. That, in my view, would be an extraordinary and inappropriate thing for the director of a science museum to say. The only real difference that I can see between the two is that climate change denial is much more prominent, as a result of various PR campaigns by individuals and groups with massive vested interests (Exxon, for example: It might just be poor phrasing on Professor Rapley’s part, but seriously? Having an exhibition sponsored by Shell and then making it sound like you’re trying to make climate change denial look more respectable really doesn’t look good. That’s pretty damn careless.

Written By Owen on March 29th, 2010 @ 6:09 pm
Special K (NJ)

In the absence of proof of one’s thesis
(That’s independent of the eye of the beholder)
Concern over “respectability” of others’ opinion
Is quite a presumption for “concerned ones” to shoulder.

Written By Special K (NJ) on March 29th, 2010 @ 6:27 pm

Special K: So we shouldn’t ever defer to the testimony of others when forming our opinions on anything? I take it you’re agnostic about whether or not the world is round then?

And stop writing comments in verse – it makes you sound like a pretentious cock. And even if it didn’t, rhyming ‘certainty’ with ‘uncertainty’ = massive fail.

Written By Owen on March 29th, 2010 @ 6:37 pm
Written By mek on March 29th, 2010 @ 8:08 pm
Bridget McKenzie

In my comment above, written late at night when I was too tired to check myself, I made an error in describing what happened to the online voting of the Science Museum exhibition at the time of Copenhagen. I got the name wrong, as it was called Prove It not You Decide. And it wasn’t hacked, but manipulated. I didn’t mean to suggest the Science Museum opened itself up to hacking. Owen, I think you’re right to raise the question you are but I just wanted to put their statement in the context of museum practice, where the focus is on attracting people to visit by hooking them in, making links between their existing interests and new ideas. I think that’s what is meant by ‘satisfying the needs and interests’ of all people.

Written By Bridget McKenzie on March 29th, 2010 @ 9:58 pm

The difference is that creationist doubting evolution does nothing to change the way in which we lead our lives.

Climate change deniers on the other hand are many and if they don’t understand anthropogenic effects on the environment, then we will be living in a very different future than the one we would hope to live in.

So personally I think if you can present climate change to them in a way that may make them believers, then surely it has got to be a good thing and not something to be criticised…

Written By Timothy Han on March 31st, 2010 @ 11:56 am

But museum exhibits about evolution do attempt to prove how we know that evolution takes place, so they do attempt to address the doubts of creationists.

No point preaching to the converted.

Written By Mary Earth on March 31st, 2010 @ 3:51 pm

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