The American Museum of Natural History Should Remove Has Removed

Misinformation on Climate Change from its Fossil Exhibit

Claims that "there is no reason to believe that another Ice Age won't come" and that human-made pollutants "may" affect Earth's climate are outdated at best and deceptive at worst. After 25 years it's time for them to go.

The American Museum of Natural History says it will review and update the misleading panel.

Success! The American Museum of Natural History has replaced the panel with a new, accurate description of climate change

Steps for further action:

 

Please contact the American Museum of Natural History via their Twitter handle (@amnh) or their online comment form. Thank the museum for listening to the many people who have expressed concern about the misleading text of the “Recent Climatic Changes and Extinctions” panel. Let the museum know you are encouraged that they say they will look into how to update the panel. Ask the museum to:

 

1. CLARIFY how the misleading text of the “Recent Climatic Changes and Extinctions” panel came to be; who funded the exhibit in which it appears; how it came to stay up for 25 years; what museum policy prevents exhibit content from being unduly influenced by donor funding; and how that policy was applied in this case.

 

2. UPDATE the “Recent Climatic Changes and Extinctions” panel quickly to reflect the best current scientific understanding of climate change and ice ages. 

 

3. REVIEW other panels related to climate change for scientific accuracy, starting with and paying special attention to exhibits sponsored by known promoters of doubt and denial of climate change, including Exxon Corporation, David M. Koch, and Mercer Foundation.

 

Let the museum know that you will be paying attention to this issue and look forward to seeing it resolved.

 

Please DO NOT:

 

Be rude. Cancel your membership. Boycott the museum. I believe that appeals by loyal members and enthusiastic visitors to uphold the world-class standards for which the American Museum of Natural History is known will be the most effective way to hasten the necessary change the museum has now said it will undertake.

 

Absolutely DO NOT:

 

Deface the museum in any way. It saddens me that this even needs to be said but based on a small handful of Twitter comments it seems that it does.

 

Good luck!

January 8, 2018. The visit. Last month my sister gave me and my wife a wonderful holiday present—a membership to the American Museum of Natural History. We were delighted because we’d just moved to New York City and couldn’t wait to return to visit the museum that was the center of so many wonderful childhood memories. That whale, those fish, the gems. Most of all, the dinosaurs.

 

On Saturday, January 6, my wife and I braved the snow and rode the subway up to the museum on New York's Upper West Side. We enjoyed cool temporary exhibits on butterflies and mummies, along with a trip to the beautifully renovated Hall of Ocean Life. But what really struck me was a panel in what I thought at the time was the David M. Koch Dinosaur Wing (and later learned is actually part of the adjoining Lila Acheson Wallace Wing of Mammals and Their Extinct Relatives).

 

In spite of signs throughout the fossil floor advertising the unsavory sponsorship of prominent funders of climate change doubt and denial (Exxon Corporation, David M. Koch, Mercer Foundation), everything looked fine at first. The fossilized feather prints of an archaeopteryx. Figuring out how fast dinosaurs ran by measuring the distance between their footprints. Then I saw a panel that left me dumbstruck and livid:

I decided to post a few of my thoughts about this panel on Twitter:

April 28, 2018. 

Success!

January 9, 2018. 

Response from the American Museum of Natural History:

Going Viral. After writing those seven tweets I closed my laptop and went to dinner. And then this happened:

It seems that a lot of other people are as troubled as I am by the presence of misinformation about climate change in the American Natural History Museum and the perception that the text may have been motivated by a wealthy climate change-denying donor. As of noon on Monday, the tweet had been retweeted more than 1,500 times and counting. A number of “power tweeters” helped spread the word, including Michael Mann (@MichaelEMann), Laurie Garrett (@Laurie_Garrett), Jeffrey Ventre (@Jeffrey_Ventre), Karen James (@kejames), Chris Blattman (@cblatts), and the Union of Concerned Scientists (@UCSUCA), among others.

But for the most part the tweets appeared to speed across the Twitterverse organically. Reactions in the tweets ranged from the cynical (“Why are you surprised? Money always wins.”) to the action-oriented (“Raise hell. Tweet your outrage @amnh”). 

A quarter-century old panel. Many tweeters wondered when the panel went up. I didn’t know at first. Robert Rohde (@rarohde) turned up photo evidence going back at least as far as 2006:

It appears from the blog link that at least that visitor took the authority of the museum display over that of scientists. I wonder how many other visitors over the years may have done the same.

 

Ben Miller (@Bhmllr) thought the copy was written in 1995, perhaps earlier.

I couldn't believe that a world-class science museum could let inaccurate material about climate change linger on its walls for decades, but it turns out that is exactly what the museum says happened. Earlier today the American Museum of Natural History tweeted that the panel was written and installed in 1993:

So first off, an apology: I was wrong in my tweets about the location of the panel. It is indeed in the mammal section of the fossil floor.  There are many David M. Koch Dinosaur Wing signs prominently displayed throughout the fossil floor; I didn't realize that the room in which the erroneous panel appears isn't also part of that wing.

However, if the panel was written and installed in 1993, that raises a question about the involvement of a different notorious promoter of doubt and denial of climate change. A plaque in the exhibit dated May, 1994 thanks Exxon Corporation for making possible the renovation of the museum's Fossil Halls. Exxon has been as big a funder of climate change denial over the years as the Kochs, if not more so. I hope that the museum can clarify whether Exxon was the financial patron of the exhibit when the panel was written.

Deceptive, or just outdated? The text on the panel regarding ice ages is less egregiously wrong relative to scientific understanding in 1993 than it is compared to what we know today. The science of ice ages has advanced considerably in the last quarter-century. In addition to the 2016 article in Nature Climate Change that I mentioned in my tweets, Bryan Lougheed (@bryanlougheed) pointed out a review article in Science in 2002 questioning whether an ice age would come within the next 50,000 years. So while these articles, which contradict the panel's “no reason to think...” phrasing, have been around for a while, they are still newer than the installation of the panel.


However, the assertion that “human pollutants *may* affect Earth’s climate” would have been a misleading understatement of the scientific understanding of climate change even in 1993.  Here’s the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its first Assessment Report in 1990:

Today, of course, there is near-universal agreement among climate scientists that humans’ greenhouse gas emissions are warming the planet.

It’d be nice to believe that the American Museum of Natural History wouldn’t have posted misleading information on climate change deliberately, but merely posted something that became wrong with the passage of time and was never updated. But the names “Exxon”, “Koch”, and “Mercer” on the fossil floor make it harder than it should be to give the museum the benefit of the doubt.

 

No matter the panel's origins, its text is clearly wrong today. It needs to be fixed.

 

Reaction from the Museum. Within hours of the initial tweet, American Museum of Natural History curator Susan Perkins (@NYCuratrix) responded:

This is very encouraging. Then on Monday the American Museum of Natural History responded:

Thanks to the American Natural History Museum for responding quickly and constructively. It’s great news to hear them say they will look into updating this panel after 25 years. I look forward to visiting again to see the good changes that they make, and tweeting an update. 

Thanks also to everyone who contacted the American Museum of Natural History about this issue. Our voices were heard.  I believe that continued public attention can help ensure that the necessary changes that the museum has promised to make can come more quickly. For anyone wishing to contact the museum, I suggest at the top of this page three things to ask the museum to do.

A final thought. When I visited the dinosaur exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History as a child, the dinosaurs were portrayed with heads high aloft and tails dragging. As archaeological knowledge advanced, the dinosaurs’ skeletons were reconfigured horizontally to match how we now know they stood in life. If the American Museum of Natural History can reorient 70-million-year-old fossil skeletons, it shouldn’t take too long to update 25-year-old signage as well.

© 2018 by Jonah Busch, Ph.D.

Photo credit: Shutterstock/khlongwangchao

  • Google Scholar
  • LinkedIn
  • Twitter Clean Grey