Science Wooseum update

I said watch this space so here’s some stuff to fill it!

What’s happening?

It’s been a pleasingly eventful week; recovering from QEDcon (see previous 2 posts and links therein) and watching this discourse with the Science Museum unfold.

Many thanks to everyone who’s been sharing the story, stating their views etc. and particularly to Martin for hosting our post on his Guardian science blog. It’s a reply to the Museum’s official statement that I linked to previously.

There are a lot of good comments on the post now; some of my favourites including:

the museum could have a permanent room for Homeopathy along with astrology, tarot card reading, crystal gazing, tea leaf reading, internet urban myths and radionic arse scratching. A sign saying ‘Welcome to the Wibble Room’ could be placed over the entrance.

No one “values” “alternative” medicine. Poor people will be stuck with it, and can’t get any proper medicine; while rich westerners use it as an extension to their cool lifestyle.

One might as well put flying carpets in the transportation section.

Science is science, irrespective of locale. The same as truth, and proof.

Alex’s original post has been linked to by Regan Forrest and I’ll put my comment here (and expand on it):

Why bring it up?

I hosted my colleague Alex’s post on my blog because I thought it was important to share with people who, like yourself, hadn’t had a chance to see the exhibit yet – but would be interested by its content.

My reply to the Museum’s official statement is now on the Guardian science blogs site.

We posted this on the same day as David Colquhoun’s research and criticisms: http://www.dcscience.net/?p=4066

I’d like to go through your points and share my views…

Does an audience’s expectation-arising-from-reputation mean that science museums are obliged to present only a scientific, empirical view of the world in their exhibitions?

When that museum is the Science Museum, I’d say the clue is in the name, so yes.

the writer seems to be just as vexed by the location of the exhibition (in a science museum) as he is about the exhibition’s content.

As was carefully pointed out in the original post, it is not that the Science Museum chooses to talk about alt med that is the problem. The problem is the way in which it is presented; in terms of the content. For more on this, I recommend DC’s post in particular. On why homeopathy is not medicine, jdc posts.

Of course ideas in medicine that don’t stand up to scrutiny, have fallen by the wayside over time etc., have their place. There are many practices that have been and gone.

Hopefully many things still popular today will dwindle into obscurity too – but just because they haven’t yet, does not mean we need to pretend they’re just as effective as validated medicine. To do so seems to me more like trying to avoid offending people instead of educating them (the latter being, in my view, what museums should be doing).

Implicit in his statement is the assumption that the science museum is vested with a sense of authority, and from this comes a responsibility to ensure only scientifically verifiable facts are presented.

Yes, I do believe the museum has a responsibility to be truthful and educational with its content. Otherwise the authority and respect it (rightly) commands would be somewhat without cause.

Mission Statement

From the Museum’s site:
“The Science Museum is the world’s pre-eminent science museum. It houses outstanding collections relating to science, technology and medicine, and is one of the most prestigious and respected organisations dedicated to the promotion of public science and technology.”

the problem seems to be that the exhibition is presented in the context of ‘science’, more than the fact that the story is being told at all.

Exactly. Because research, as the exhibit says, has been done into many alt med practices, and found them to be ineffective. There was and is good reason for the Evidence Check report and its results are why many are unhappy with the NHS’ spending on homeopathy and other complementary medicines (see many great posts on the EvCheck, listed by @xtaldave)

Again, it is the way the exhibit is presented, not the mere fact that it is about CTM, acupuncture etc.

the ’march of progress’ narrative which is often implicit in science and technology exhibitions makes some people feel a bit uncomfortable.

I don’t think the prospect of making people uncomfortable is good reason to shy away from facts, especially in this context. What if there were a holocaust denialism exhibit in a war museum?!  Quite a few high profile people subscribe to that ridiculous ‘theory’. I expect the WW2 atrocities make a lot of people uncomfortable, but that is no reason to twist and distort the truth – indeed, it is even more reason NOT to do so.
(Have I just Godwinned myself?! Crap.)

let’s bring it back to visitors. What do they expect from a science museum?

Can we (not just yourself, a lot of people are doing it) stop trying to insert a crowbar between ‘scientists’ and the rest of the population? 1) It’s not only scientists that are annoyed by this exhibition 2) we’re just people too, you know!!

The scientific method is not the sole domain of scientists; it’s used in many fields (including history). It’s a philosophy. An aim of skepticism is to promote critical thinking and the scientific method not just among the scientific community but in the wider sense – to arm people with the tools to… well, detect BS.

Anyone can comment on this and many are. See also the comments on the official statement (e.g. Chris Richards) – many visitors are unhappy about this, for the reasons I’ve outlined and more. People do expect the Science Museum to show science, and where they’re showing things that are unscientific, to make that very clear.

display does not necessarily mean endorsement, but visitors may take what they see at face value unless authorship is made extremely clear.

Indeed, and again referring to DC’s post and the guardiansciblogs piece, I do not think it is clear at all and would leave many visitors with a sense that Alt Med is pretty good stuff – precisely the kind of misinformation that campaigns like 10:23 etc. have been working hard to correct.

To expand on the point made in the Guardian piece, legitimisation of ineffective medical ideas can do a lot of harm; such as in this case, in which parents wish to treat their paralysed child with non-medicine, because one of them has some kind of ‘qualification’ in it. The courts are having to step in. Unfortunately that does not always happen in time.

DC wrote of the power of blogs – the internet has changed the way we do things. Those with the power to make changes will listen if enough people are talking. If you’ve seen something that really should be addressed, don’t just talk about it – get it out there!

Further to that point, Mark Henderson (science editor at the Times) and Dr Evan Harris were at Westminster Skeptics this week – Mark’s writing a book called the Geek Manifesto about the ‘rise of the geeks’, if you will. The biggest achievements to date (such as the libel reform campaign), its potential  as a political force and changes that might be  facilitated, the ethos behind the ‘movement’ and so on. It’s interesting stuff and I look forward to reading it, but for now Mark’s still scouting for ideas about what to include (it’s a fairly expansive topic!).

Someone’s written a nice little post on the event and stated how they feel the skeptical movement isn’t just beneficial to Science but also to the Arts, which I’m inclined to agree with.

Links:

Alex enjoying the power of blogs.

Maria Wolters writes her thoughts very coherently, going into some more detail on the potential problems of claiming such approaches as the museum has and the difficulty we have reconciling that with what is actually on show.

Criticism of the criticisms at http://whewellsghost.wordpress.com/2011/02/11/what-are-science-museums-for/

My reconnaissance assistant, @anandamide with his views.

A contribution from a Finn (sorry, poor Google translation!)

11 Responses to “Science Wooseum update”

  1. Tweets that mention Science Wooseum update « Purely a figment of your imagination -- Topsy.com Says:

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Kash Farooq, Marianne. Marianne said: BLOG! Update on Sci museum http://bit.ly/g34s28 inc @david_colquhoun's post, @guardianscience piece and #WestSkep w @DrEvanHarris & @markgfh [...]

  2. Alex Says:

    Marianne, I couldn’t Agree with everything you said more and I would like to thank you for tackling this with me!

    You are brilliant!

  3. Regan Forrest Says:

    Hi,

    Sorry if it appeared I was ignoring your comment – tyranny of timezones! (I’m in Australia).

    Even though I think we mostly agree with each other, for the record I feel I should clarify where I’m coming from and why I wrote the blog post. Part of it was me playing Devil’s Advocate; part was me trying to think through some issues.

    I’ve been thinking for a while about the relationship between exhibitions and different kinds of museums, and this seemed like a nice example to explore the boundaries of what is and isn’t sufficiently ‘scientific’ to include in a science museum. As I said I haven’t seen this exhibition so I’ve had to extrapolate from the comments (and if I’ve misinterpreted or misattributed anything in the process I apologise).

    So let’s start of with the statement I tentatively put forward: that a science museum should only include scientifically verifiable ‘facts’ in its exhibitions, and that’s what makes it a science museum. OK . . . but is there a firm boundary where facts stop and political or social factors come in? For some topics, I’d argue not.

    Consider a common exhibit in science and technology museums: military hardware (war planes, etc.) Now you can stick to the science: engineering specs and who invented them, when, etc, etc, . . . in the process neatly sidestepping the fact that these bits of technology were designed and built to KILL PEOPLE. (A fact my pacifist mother never let me forget!) What did the people who made the hardware feel about this? What about the ‘victims?’ None of this is in the realm of scientific ‘facts’, so therefore you might say has no business being in a science exhibition. Fine, but then by omission even if not by design, your ‘technology only’ exhibition will come across as very hawkish and pro-military, which is a political statement in itself (this is where I was going with the ‘technology trumps all triumphalism’ statement).

    Another example would be the Apollo missions, which is a scientific story intertwined with the political story of the Cold War. The science is only part of the story. (But you can still show proof why the moon landing conspiracy theorists are a bunch of dumb-arses!)

    I feel I should also clarify what I mean by asking visitors – I can’t speak for others and their ‘crowbar’, but I have a very specific reason for bringing it back to this point. I’m doing a PhD in museum visitor research, and I’m interested in how exhibition design decisions affect the way visitors experience exhibitions and what interpretations they consequently get out of them. I don’t see scientists and visitors as different populations; I see the former as a subset of the latter.

    You have asserted that the exhibition could leave visitors with a sense that alt med is a good thing (which it may well do), and my research interests are all about testing hypotheses such as this.
    But in this case the only data I had were the responses of a self-selected population (the people who have felt sufficient ire to blog and comment on it). I’m sure you would agree that it would not be very scientific of me to reach conclusions based on these data alone. So the researcher in me is curious about the general visitor response, whether research has been done in this area, and in testing what message the visitor population in general is getting from this exhibition. That is all I meant.

    As an aside – I have a science degree (and science communication qualification), but I never feel comfortable calling myself a ‘scientist’ as that term seems to be reserved for people actively pursuing research in the physical or biological sciences.

    Cheers,

    Regan

    • noodlemaz Says:

      Hi Regan,

      Thanks again for your post and your reply here – sorry if I seemed a bit uppity with my post, it wasn’t that – it was just convenient timing for me to have an update and your post prompted some more thoughts I’d been having to be put down in words!

      I’m also interested in the issues you raise and will muse on them for a bit longer :)

  4. Mike B Says:

    We in the UK may have a problem here. It’s not only the Science Museum, and it’s not just the exhibits. The Natural History museum has a large bookshop. The ideal place to find the latest book from… Jerry Coyne, Neil Shubin, Carl Zimmer, Richard Dawkins, maybe? No – the last time I looked, in pride of place (ie a headheight shelf) you’ll find the latest tome by Rupert Sheldrake.

  5. What are science museums for? | Whewell's Ghost Says:

    [...] Many have claimed that ”the clue is in the name”: it should teach science and be “obliged to present only a scientific, empirical view of the world”. Here. [...]

  6. Paul Says:

    This Science Museum has a complaints link here:

    http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/about_us/contact_us.aspx

    I suggest we use it.

  7. Wooseum to Museum « Purely a figment of your imagination Says:

    [...] on the Guardian website and David Colquhoun published his own material on the exhibit. I wrote one quick update and a longer one going over the ‘Living Medical Traditions‘ exhibit in a bit more [...]

  8. Science Wooseum Revisited « Purely a figment of your imagination Says:

    [...] you’re not familiar with the backstory, do check out these posts or listen to my report in the Pod Delusion live 2nd birthday episode – go, make [...]

  9. The Treatment of Alternatives at the Science Museum « captain [...] elaboration Says:

    [...] credit, the Science Museum did listen to some of the complaints. You can read more about this here, here, here, here and here. Overall, though, it is a bit disappointing to see this kind of thing from a [...]


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