In a short article, Bruce MacFadden of the Florida Museum of Natural History suggests that museums can effectively increase public understanding of evolution. Taken at face value, this objective is shared by ID scientists - the main issue relates to content. What is meant by increasing public understanding of evolution? What messages will be communicated to the public? It is clear from MacFadden's article that Darwinism is perceived as capturing the essence of evolution - and this is where the problems start.
Without the connecting lines, would people discern evolutionary links? (Source here)
Apparently, visitors to museums are more likely to "accept evolution" than the general public. Whereas 33% of the US population "rejects the tenets of evolution" but the figure is only 10% for museum visitors. The fuzzy meanings attributed to the word "evolution" make these figures difficult to interpret. For example, ID scientists have no problem accepting that Darwinian mechanisms exist in nature, but typically deny that these mechanisms have anything to do with the origin of phyla, classes, orders and families. Furthermore, there are at least two possible reasons for the survey findings: museums may be doing an effective job of communicating Darwinism already; and, people may be voting with their feet and sceptics may not enjoy visiting museums where an evolutionary story intrudes on the pleasure of seeing the collections.
The understanding of museum visitors was probed in one survey: 95% understood the concept of superposition in geology, 80% were able to recognise that the geological column represents a time line, but only 33% gave the "correct" answer to a question about natural selection.
"[W]ith regard to understanding mechanisms of evolution within a species, a scenario was presented in which successive generations of cheetahs are able to run faster; only one-third of respondents correctly attributed this to natural selection."The problem with this example is that the natural selection explanation has not emerged from observation but it is inferred from theory: it is another of the "just-so stories" proposed by Darwinists. Cheetah design affects many different aspects of the animal and some of these are likely to be affected by natural selection. However, whether this is the complete story remains an open question. The "natural selection" answer may be the right one, but any confidence in its correctness comes from dogma, not empirical science.
We are given an insight into the thinking of exhibit designers when we read: "The challenge, however, is to find novel interpretive strategies that will attract the public to learn about more challenging concepts such as natural selection". Clearly, the emphasis is not on the collection, but the accompanying message. And in the case of evolution, the public need more exposure to natural selection as a creative force.
ID scientists have their own take on this. We need more and better teaching about evolution. We need to help students recognise what natural selection can and cannot do. This means that empirical studies of natural selection in action are valuable. Visitors to exhibits should be encouraged to develop a critical mind, and to ground thinking on hard data rather than on ideology.
I bounced these ideas off a friend whose career has been in musuem practice. He thought it was worth emphasising the importance of both context and evidence:
"While art and aesthetics are generally regarded as largely self-interpreting, this is not so with natural and human history. The evidence is the same. There may be selectivity in displaying it. But a very high proportion of the message is communicated by a different medium and the effectiveness of that medium is all important. Consider also the implications of displaying a homological series (as with MacFadden's horses) or a comparison of genomes without supplementary interpretation. In exercising their imagination, visitors may be influenced by their particular world-view but without the associated evidence, are unlikely to come to well-founded conclusions."
How should publicly-funded museums construct their exhibits? There is a strong case for requiring the self-appointed Darwinian guardians of science to engage in constructive dialogue with other scholars who do not share their confidence in the conceptual model provided by Darwin. There are some important issues to consider, including:
* Encourage critical thinking vs Provide packaged answers
* Reflect controversies in science vs Promote "consensus" science
* Major on displaying collection vs Major on communicating a story
Many scientists today are honest about the way secularisation has influenced the science community. They regard secularisation as an essential characteristic of science, whereas others of us regard secularisation as an unwelcome intrusion that is ultimately destructive of science. Since public money funds many research programmes and also many museums, and since a large proportion of the public have a theistic worldview, there is an urgent need for a broader-ranging debate over these issues. At present, it looks very much like a one-sided discourse about how the 'public understanding of science' can be aligned closer to that of the secularisers. Is it really the task of museum staff to put visitors right when they point out that the exhibited materials do not justify the accompanying commentary?
"Realizing that evolution is potentially a controversial topic, some institutions such as the Australian Museum communicate an explicit policy statement about the role of evolution as part of their mission. Other institutions, such as the Museum of the Earth in Ithaca, New York, provide training to communicate a consistent policy and content about evolution, as well as prepare docents and staff 'on the floor' on how to respond to controversial questions from visitors."
Evolution, museums and society
Bruce J. MacFadden
Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 23(11), November 2008, 589-591
Abstract: Visitors to natural history museums have an incomplete understanding of evolution. Although they are relatively knowledgeable about fossils and geological time, they have a poor understanding of natural selection. Museums in the 21st century can effectively increase public understanding of evolution through interactive displays, novel content (e.g. genomics), engaging videos and cyberexhibits that communicate to a broad spectrum of society, both within the exhibit halls as well as outside the museum.
Quote from Michael Lynch:
"It has long been clear that much of what we see in biology cannot be explained in terms of natural selection alone, yet we continue to witness an unwarranted proliferation of adaptive stories, in some cases extremely bizarre ones, to explain every aspect of existing and extinct biodiversity. What needs to be accomplished will take more than 12 months. More realistically, it will require the education of a new generation of scientists in the basic principles of evolutionary theory that have emerged since Darwin."
Source: Darwin 200: Great expectations, Nature, 456, 317-318 (20 November 2008) | doi:10.1038/456317a
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