The Natural History Museum – fantastic, if not a little misleading!

Last weekend I took a trip down to London to visit a friend. As I haven’t been to the capital in around 10 years this was an ideal opportunity for me to “do the museums”. By that I mean the Natural History Museum (NHM) and the Science Museum. In particular, I found the NHM was excellent. Not only did the exhibits cater to the interests of me, a humble Zoology student, but also to the needs of young children and adults. There was a life size (and moving!) Tyrannosaur Rex, a huge collection of mammals and a detailed human evolution section.

I found it commendable that despite some of their taxidermy becoming discoloured, they had no intentions to replace it – to prevent more animals from being killed. The whole museum was alive with children running around fascinated by what they were seeing. Don’t forget, these children are the future of science, potentially discovering things in the future that we can’t even begin to imagine!

HOWEVER, I was a little disappointed when I saw a sign stating that the reason Stegosaurus’ had plates on their back was to regulate body heat.  It is true that some scientists believe this, but there are many other potential explanations for the characteristic plates (such as armour, strengthening of the back for locomotion, or a source of calcium for egg shells and many more). While each of these explanations has evidence to support it, there is no majority consensus. As a result I found it bizarre that the NHM would make such a statement, which was completely misleading to the general public.

But it is not the first time the general public have been mislead or misinformed by the scientific community. I have recently read “The Discovery of Global Warming” by Spencer Weart, and I found the book to be riddled with examples which mislead or confuse the public. It seems to me, the problem is the very fundamental principle of science – debate, and criticism. Theories are constantly being disproved, or rather improved, as our understanding grows. This is how science works. But how are the public meant to have confidence in scientists when they are always changing their mind?

The situation is not helped by the media. A good story is something dramatic and striking, such as a huge volcanic eruption, a 20°C temperature crash/rise, or a 5m rise in sea levels. When the IPCC released their “Hockey Stick Graph” (see below) in 2001, showing there had been a warming of the northern hemisphere of a couple of degrees at the very most, journalists were not particularly inspired to cover the front pages. They found more time for the controversial scientists who predicted extreme changes in weather in the very near future.

The Hockey Stick Graph - Millennial Northern Hemisphere (NH) temperature reconstruction (blue - tree rings, corals, ice cores, and historical records) and instrumental data (red) from AD 1000 to 1999. Smoother version of NH series (black), and two standard error limits (gray shaded) are shown". Adapted from the MBH99 graph which Jerry Mahlman nicknamed the "hockey stick".

So what does this all mean for the relationship between science and the public? The way science works is not going to change. The way the public trust what the media is telling them is also unlikely to change. And the majority of members of the public are not going to pay to access papers from the experts that their colleagues can scarcely understand. So what would solve this problem? I think the journalists reporting on science should be educated, or at least have a background in science. They would therefore be able to give a reasonable version of events and current thinking in the science community. It may not make the front pages, but surely that is better than the public losing all confidence in science.



Further reading

Internal vascularity of the dermal plates of Stegosaurus by Farlow et al (2010).

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