Tuesday, March 24, 2015

More Hot Air

In the New York Times this morning, John Schwartz reports that a group of prominent scientists are calling for museums of science and natural history to “cut all ties” with fossil fuel companies and philanthropists like the Koch brothers. He also quotes my opinion as to why this might be a bad thing, and very nicely refers to me as a "prominent" blogger. Since I've been a little quiet of late (grant proposals, editing a book, blah, blah, blah - all the usual excuses) I figured this might be a good time to provide a little background as to why I find myself in the unlikely position of defending David Koch.

Let's get the obvious stuff out of the way first. There's an overwhelming weight of evidence that supports the theory that global warming is real and that human activities are contributing significantly to this. This position is supported by the vast majority of the scientific community, and I agree with it too.

Obviously there are many people in politics and industry that don't agree with this. Because the weight of evidence is so conclusive, one of the few routes they have available to them is to challenge the integrity of the scientific process. This is what some people in Congress are trying to do at the moment, by critiquing the process of peer review.

Climate change deniers (for want of a better term) like to argue that the scientific community is not neutral - that it is an advocate for the theory of anthropogenic climate change and that scientists have slanted the peer review process to ensure that anyone who supports a different model for climate cannot get funded or published.

For anyone that knows scientists, or works in science, the idea that they could actually create and maintain a conspiracy of this sort is laughable - it's hard to find a more fractious, less-organized group of people. Nonetheless, the idea of a conspiracy has a lot of traction in the mind of the public.

Museums have many different roles in science - as research institutions in their own right; as sources of data for other people's research; and as vehicles for bringing science to the public. Museums play an important role in explaining the science of climate change and the implications of what we're discovering for people's life and well-being.

 All of the survey data that we have seems to show that the public really values museums as authoritative and accurate sources of information (see here for an example). They trust us in a way that they don't trust "scientists," even though many of us are scientists and our collections are one of the many resources used to model the effects of climate change.

If we shift our position from education to outright advocacy, then we risk damaging that trust. There is a world of difference between educating people about the effects of climate change versus telling them not to buy products from company X because it's causing climate change. Once we start doing that, we lay ourselves open to the charge that we are no better than the climate change deniers - that we are just pushing our own agenda.

 The mission statement of the Yale Peabody Museum is:

 "to serve Yale University by advancing our understanding of earth’s history through geological, biological, and anthropological research, and by communicating the results of this research to the widest possible audience through publication, exhibition, and educational programs."

And, just for kicks n' grins, the mission statement of the AMNH is: 

"To discover, interpret, and disseminate—through scientific research and education—knowledge about human cultures, the natural world, and the universe."

These are pretty typical mission statements for a natural history museum and you'll note that neither says anything about fighting to defend the natural world or campaigning against the fossil fuel industry. There are other organizations that do have that in their missions, but by and large museums do not.

Museums need money to perform their mission of research and education, and for that they need donors and investments. Board members are responsible for helping museums realize that mission, through advice on finance and investments, by soliciting support from donors, and by providing support themselves. If you, as a board member, were to do something that interfered with the museum's pursuit of that mission - such as actively lobbying for reductions in funding for science education, or for research in museums - then that would be a problem that would likely result in your being asked to leave the Board. So if anything, being a board member might actually tie your hands.

Ah, but what about "covert" influence, as Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University and signer of the letter calls it? Well, that can cut both ways. Consider a point made later in the NYT article. Referencing a 2010 New Yorker piece, it says:

"an underlying message of exhibits in the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History is that humans 'evolved in response to a changing world.' The article said that such language suggests that climate change has been a feature of the planet since prehistoric times, which plays down human contributions to climate change."

Outrageous. Except that climate change has been a feature of the planet for the last 4 billion- plus years, life on Earth has evolved (and continues to evolve) in response to the changing climate, and we use those historical data to model the impacts of the current, anthropogenic changes. Tricky, right? So perhaps the signatories of the letter think museums should be modifying their message to de-emphasize past climate change? You see where that might lead...

Faced with similar pressure from campaigners to disinvest from the fossil fuel industry, the President of Harvard, Drew Faust, provided a very clear statement of why Harvard was disinclined to do so. In essence, it boiled down to one main point:

"We should.... be very wary of steps intended to instrumentalize our endowment in ways that would appear to position the University as a political actor rather than an academic institution.  Conceiving of the endowment not as an economic resource, but as a tool to inject the University into the political process or as a lever to exert economic pressure for social purposes, can entail serious risks to the independence of the academic enterprise.  The endowment is a resource, not an instrument to impel social or political change."

From her lips to my blog. Museums are not responsible for campaigning to protect the natural world; they are responsible for generating and supporting the science that underpins those efforts and for educating the public about both the science and what it means for them, their communities, and the planet. When they shift into the role of advocacy - disinvesting from this industry, turning down that donation, or removing those board members - they risk damaging their ability to fulfill that mission and enabling others to argue that the information they provide is partisan and not to be trusted.