Exhibiting bias _ city journal

A group of prominent scientists have united for an odd quest: to reduce funding for science education. They’ve joined with environmental groups and progressive activists to demand that hundreds of museums of science and natural history “cut all ties with the fossil fuel industry and funders of climate science obfuscation,” which means rejecting donations or investment dividends from anyone who doesn’t meet their standard of purity.

They began last year by demanding that the American Museum of Natural History in New York have nothing to do with the industrialist David Koch, a major benefactor and member of the museum’s board of trustees for more than two decades. There was no evidence that Koch had influenced the content of any exhibit at the museum—donors are prohibited from involvement—but the activists got their wish this year when Koch resigned from the board. Though he and the museum said his departure was voluntary, the activists are hailing it as a victory and pointing to other museums, including the Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh and the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, that have divested themselves of fossil-fuel investments and banned donations from these companies.

Nearly 150 academics have signed on to the cause, including George Woodwell, founder and director emeritus of Woods Hole Research Center; James Powell, former president of the science museums of Los Angeles and of the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia; and some prominent climate researchers, like James Hansen of NASA, Michael Mann of Penn State University, and Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research. They claim to be concerned that museums compromise their integrity “by association with special interests,” but some interests are obviously more special than others. The scientists and their allies haven’t objected, for instance, to the Boston Science Museum’s wind-energy exhibit being sponsored by an engineering firm that helps build wind farms or by a Massachusetts state agency with the explicit mission of promoting wind power.

Only fossil-fuel companies are targeted, supposedly because they’re causing climate science to be distorted or censored, yet the scientists and their allies can’t point to any damning examples. Their favorite accusation involves a Koch-sponsored exhibition at the Smithsonian on human evolution and adaptation that includes one panel asking if millions of years from now, some humans’ bodies might have adapted to various new environmental conditions—a hotter planet, a colder planet, or another planet with lower gravity. What’s wrong with asking those questions? Nothing, except that the mere mention of human adaptation is taboo to devout greens: There must be no distractions from their predictions that global warming will wipe out the human species.

If you’re looking for biased environmental science at museums, you can find it, but the bias goes the other way, toward eco-alarmism and left-wing politics. Before any more scientists denounce David Koch’s influence at the American Museum of Natural History, they might try visiting the place first. A good place to start the tour, for historical perspective, is in one of the least popular parts of the museum: the Hall of New York State Environment. It’s a quaint nook with a musty collection of dioramas from the early 1950s, long before Koch was on the board. The human impact on the environment is depicted in a historical series of dioramas of Dutchess County in upstate New York.

First, there’s “The Forest Primeval,” some of which is cut down to make room for “The Settlement” in the 1790 diorama. Most of the forest has given way to farmland in the 1840 diorama, titled “High Tide.” But by 1870, some of the farmland is lying fallow, and by 1950, much of it has been covered again with forest. One cause of this trend is depicted in the tiny models of farming equipment, a progression from a simple ox-drawn plow to more elaborate machines drawn by horses and, ultimately, by a motorized tractor. By 1950, the diorama’s copywriter exults, “the invention of the gas engine” and “the remarkable development of specialized machines” enabled farmers to grow more food with less labor on less land, allowing farmland to revert to forest.

That is indeed a remarkable trend, but you would never guess it from the modern environmental exhibits at the museum—the ones that get a lot more visitors. In the Hall of Biodiversity, there are no homages to gas engines and machines. Fossil fuels and modern technologies are the great villains. Photographs and videos of gas pumps and smokestacks are juxtaposed with images of traffic jams, smog-filled skies, and vanishing woodland. Forests are shown being destroyed by pollution, burned by farmers, and bulldozed to make room for ranches, roads, and factories. Nowhere is there a hint that the rest of the world is going through the same transition that occurred in the United States: the rate of global deforestation has slowed and has already reversed in many places. Just as in upstate New York, the amount of forestland in China and India has been increasing.

Which message do the visitors take home? A few years ago, I went to the museum and gave a quiz to a class of high-school students who had just toured it. I asked about two long-term trends in the United States: Was air pollution getting better or worse, and was the amount of forestland increasing or decreasing? None of the students—nor their teacher—got both questions right. Most had no idea that air pollution has been declining for decades while the amount of forestland has been increasing.

You can’t blame them, given what they’d just seen at the Hall of Biodiversity. The message is unrelentingly gloomy, and sometimes just outdated or wrong. There’s an image of a forest supposedly decimated by acid rain, which was a much-proclaimed eco-catastrophe three decades ago—until an extensive federal study concluded that there was ‘”no evidence of widespread forest damage.” There are warnings of resource shortages and admonitions to “reduce, reuse, recycle—and rethink.” One exhibit panel claims that “global warming has already resulted in more frequent and severe coastal storms as hurricanes,” which is contradicted by both data and theory. There has been no upward trend in hurricanes over the past half century (the last decade has been especially calm), and the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that “future changes in storms are likely to be small.” A video shows much of Florida and Long Island disappearing under the rising ocean—representing a sea-level rise far beyond what IPCC projects.

The hype was even worse when the museum presented a special show on climate change in 2008. The exhibition, which toured other science museums in the United States and abroad, displayed a model of lower Manhattan under 16 feet of water, while the rest of the world was ravaged by storms, droughts, fires, and plagues. In a review of the exhibition for the New York Times, Edward Rothstein criticized it for being concerned less with science than with frightening visitors. “What we need from a museum is not proselytizing but a more reflective analysis,” he wrote, complaining that the exhibition “made me feel like an agnostic attending church and listening to sermons about damnation.”

Unfortunately, that’s the trend in science museums, as Rothstein has documented over the past decade while writing about museums and exhibitions for the Times and the Wall Street Journal. Curators pride themselves on promoting moral agendas. Showing the wonders of nature is no longer enough: visitors must be hectored to transform their lives, check their privilege and prejudice, respect native cultures, and save the planet. “Over the last two generations,” Rothstein concluded in 2010, “the science museum has become a place where politics, history and sociology often crowd out physics and the hard sciences. There are museums that believe their mission is to inspire political action.” And the political actions are inevitably the sort that academics deem “progressive.”

Given this trend, why would anyone worry about the influence of donors like David Koch? Even if conservatives ever imagined they could use their money to promote their ideology, they’ve so obviously failed that they’d be idiots to expect any future returns on it. Since they’re not shaping science exhibits to their politics, why not use their money to make better museums that teach more people about science?

Because the current campaign against Koch and other donors isn’t really about science or museums. It’s about politics. The campaign is sponsored by a coalition of environmental and progressive groups, including MoveOn. org and the Working Families Party. It’s being led by a group calling itself The Natural History Museum, which sends a bus around the country with exhibits about “the socio-political forces that shape nature.” The group is financed by various foundations promoting progressive causes like “the relationship between economics, racism, climate, gender and sexual orientation” (as one donor, Solidaire, describes its interests). The donors also include a group promoting the construction of green buildings (another apparently acceptable special interest) as well as the Queens Museum (New Yorkers’ tax dollars at work!). The Natural History Museum’s mission statement isn’t easy to understand—it reads like a sophomore trying to impress his Marxist professor of sociology—but it seems to be mainly about moving beyond the evils of “capitalist enterprises” to “a collective future.”

To reach this future, the group is using the modern Left’s favorite method of debate: silence the opposition. The activists and the scientists allied with them are following the twelfth of Saul Alinksy’s “Rules for Radicals”: “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.” The letter to museums is part of the larger campaign to demonize David Koch and other conservatives, to deny them any public credit for their philanthropy, and to prevent any reputable institution from having anything to do with them. The goal is not only to punish David Koch for his support of conservative groups but also to intimidate other philanthropists. The letter is a warning shot to donors and corporations: if you give money to a conservative cause, you will be banished from museums and respectable society.

In this fight, the science museums are just bystanders. If their budgets suffer, if their visitors end up paying higher admission fees or seeing fewer exhibits, that’s just collateral damage. A dedicated leftist can excuse it as a small tradeoff to reach our glorious collective future. But the curators and scientists who have signed on to the cause have no excuse for the damage they’re doing. They’re supposed to give science priority over politics—or at least that used to be the professional ethic. These days, it’s looking as outdated as those dioramas from the 1950s.

John Tierney is a City Journal contributing editor and a contributing science columnist for the New York Times.

Photo by David Creswell