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Muddling Science at Parks and Museums

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. Most visitors walk by the sign without more than a passing glance, on their way to marvel at the orangutans grooming one another and swinging in makeshift trees. Among visitors that pause to read the sign, however, offhand remarks vary from “How can you disagree with thinking?” to “This exhibit’s going to make you think — not interested.”

At the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., a sign at the entrance to the Think Tank, an exhibit on animal thinking and evolution, warns visitors that the exhibit may contain some information with which they disagree. Such disclaimers, along with other changes in parks and museums, could pose challenges to effectively communicating science to the public. Photograph is by Kathryn Hansen.

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.

Since the inception of the National Park Service (NPS) by Congress in 1916, visitors have traveled to the parks for an enjoyable retreat, but also to learn about the natural world. Budget deficiencies, however, are “dramatically affecting the number and quality of interpretation and education programs being presented in parks,” says Bill Wade, an official with the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees.

Overall, funding for national parks increased between fiscal years 2001 and 2005 from $1.4 billion to $1.7 billion — a rise of about 1 percent per year when adjusted for inflation, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. But the amount allocated for daily operating costs, which pays employee salaries, actually dropped 0.3 percent per year.

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.

Beyond these challenges, NPS has been working through revisions to its 2001 management policies to address parks’ “changing needs and circumstances,” after Congress and the Department of the Interior showed interest in such a review, according to an NPS statement on Oct. 18. An early draft “deemphasized evolution,” Wade says, and some appearances of the word “evolution” in the Natural Resource Management chapter were changed to “natural processes.” Additionally, revisions to the Interpretation and Education chapter were “extremely disappointing,” because they weaken the role of interpreters and reduce their status as professionals, the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees wrote in their comments to NPS.

Indeed, the draft spurred public outcry: More than 50,000 comments were submitted to the NPS Web site during the open comment period that lasted through February, according to David Barna, a spokesperson for NPS. After reviewing public comments, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne announced June 19 the release of a new draft of 2006 management policies, according to the Interior department. The draft was presented to the Senate on June 20 and will now undergo final review by NPS employees.

The draft more closely reflects the 2001 version, with changes mostly to business and homeland security procedures, Barna says. “We listened to the public,” he says. “This controversy, for the most part, will go away.” Indeed, evolution was returned to the Natural Resource Management chapter in all instances where it was previously removed.

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.

Native American culture is a large part of the Grand Canyon’s heritage, and park interpreters should tell those stories, Mathis says. But stories should be presented as cultural ties to the Grand Canyon, not as a “choose whichever one you like” explanation for how the landscape came to exist, she says.

The problem is confounded by interpreters, who themselves struggle with the line between culture and geology that stems from an incomplete understanding of both fields, Mathis says. “Things get muddled when you don’t understand them.” And if interpreters cannot differentiate between culture and science, “then it makes it really hard to clarify [the difference] in the minds of the public,” she says.

Further blurring that line, visitors can take creationist tours of the Grand Canyon from Tom Vail, author of the controversial Grand Canyon book. For two years, Vail has been operating with the required business permit to run Canyon Ministries — now a nonprofit corporation “dedicated to upholding the authority of Scripture from the very first verse and presenting the evidence seen in the Grand Canyon, which supports a young Earth,” according to the group’s Web site. Vail leads visitors on motorized rafting trips down the canyon where they learn that “Noah’s flood, not millions of years of erosion, carved the Canyon,” according to the site’s description of the trip.

Parks, however, are not alone: Some creationist groups make their way to the National Museum of Natural History, particularly to the Hall of Geology, Gems and Minerals, according to Sorena Sorensen, a geochemist at the museum. That’s where they look for “errors” in exhibits that explain how Earth is 4.56 billion years old, Sorensen says. “It is a challenge in museums,” she says, which is one reason why communicating earth science to the public “has never been more important than it is now.”

In a June 2005 letter to Eos, Sorensen acknowledged that scientists need to pay close attention to their choice of words, and recognize that the general public often attaches a vague meaning to “theory” and religious connotations to “believe.” That’s why scientists need to write, speak and “most urgently,” Sorensen wrote, “explain why intelligent design is not science — and do so in clearly defined terms.”

Mathis says that in parks, visitors occasionally voice objections to the age of Earth. The public is confused by “passionately opposed talking heads” seen on TV, “and it comes out as a dichotomy that if you accept Earth as old, you’re violating your religion,” Mathis says. “My advice is to try and deconstruct that dichotomy.”

One way to do so is by directly talking about geologic time. Mathis authored Grand Canyon: Yardstick of Geologic Time as a potential tool in that discussion. The pamphlet unfolds into a yardstick, on which one inch equals about 125 million years, which helps people put the mind-boggling concept of geologic time into context. For example, the carving of the Grand Canyon represents inch 0 to 0.05 on the yardstick (the last 6 million years) followed by the start of the age of the dinosaurs at inch 2 (about 250 million years ago) and Earth’s formation at 1 yard (about 4.5 billion years ago).

While Grand Canyon National Park has not gone as far as posting written disclaimers like that at the zoo, some park interpreters give verbal disclaimers before their talks. Mathis advises against that: Disclaimers and apologies “invite an issue where there really isn’t an issue,” she says.

Kathryn Hansen

"Tackling evolution challenges at museums and parks," Geotimes, December 2005
"Review of creationist book shelved," Geotimes, December 2004

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