The Science Museum has not gone climate change “neutral”, whatever that means

The Times and the Daily Mail mangle the story, ignoring the obvious: that the Science Museum understands how to communicate science to a large and diverse audience.

“Global warming scepticism forces Science Museum to rename ‘climate change’ gallery” headlines the Daily Mail. Only slightly less sensationalist is the Times, with: “Public scepticism prompts Science Museum to rename climate exhibition”.

So does the Science Museum believe that the scientific consensus on climate change has diluted or weakened? Actually, no. But you wouldn’t know that from the headlines.

The Science Museum’s job is to educate the public about science. What’s actually going on here is that they’re doing their job by tackling the serious gap between the remarkable level of scientific agreement on the basics of climate science – (planet warming, human activity to blame) – and the increasingly obvious public confusion about the issue.

What’s actually going on here is that the Science Museum is doing its job by tackling the serious gap between the remarkable level of scientific agreement on basic climate science, and the increasingly obvious public confusion about the issue.

The Museum has obviously concluded that if your audience is ‘the public’, you can’t afford to put anyone off. So the press release says they’re aiming at:

“… satisfying the interests and needs of those who accept that human-induced climate change is real, those who are unsure, and those who do not.”

So far, so sensible. What the Museum no doubt thought they were press-releasing was that they were taking steps to make their work accessible to all, regardless of opinion – a distancing of their work from the highly charged climate debate, a return to the substance of the issue, an informative exhibition for the public aimed at education, not persuasion. They wanted to indicate that they were stepping back from the politically and socially charged implications of climate change, and choosing to concentrate on the question ‘What does the science actually tell you?’.

But the media mangle the story. The Times’ Ben Webster reports:

“The Science Museum is revising the contents of its new climate science gallery to reflect the wave of scepticism that has engulfed the issue in recent months … The museum is abandoning its previous practice of trying to persuade visitors of the dangers of global warming. It is instead adopting a neutral position, acknowledging that there are legitimate doubts about the impact of man-made emissions on the climate.

Even the title of the £4 million gallery has been changed to reflect the museum’s more circumspect approach. The museum had intended to call it the Climate Change Gallery, but has decided to change this to Climate Science Gallery to avoid being accused of presuming that emissions would change the temperature.”

The Daily Mail takes the same line, but with more forceful language:

“[The Science Museum] will refrain from scaring visitors with apocalyptic predictions of rising sea levels at its £4million gallery by adopting a less biased approach, acknowledging legitimate doubts about the impact to [sic] man-made emissions on the climate.”

Yes, that’s right, the reporting took the Science Museum’s acknowledgement of public uncertainty, and using broad brush strokes implied that they were referring to scientific uncertainty – a fundamental difference, and pretty problematic.

The reporting took the Science Museum’s acknowledgement of public uncertainty, and using broad brush strokes implied that they were referring to scientific uncertainty – a fundamental difference.

In fact, the Director of the Science Museum, Prof. Chris Rapley, comments:

“The scientific community has, with some exceptions, concluded that climate change is real, largely driven by humans and requires a response.”

And the Museum couldn’t be much clearer in the response to the reporting they felt they had to issue:

“After laying out our intentions for the new climate science gallery, the term ‘neutral’ has been adopted in some articles in the press, which is not an accurate description of our approach.”

“Our aim is to increase interest and deepen understanding. This will include the fact that majority of the climate science community has concluded that current climate change is real and mainly human-induced.  There are always areas of uncertainty in any scientific topic, and climate science is no exception. We respect people’s right to disagree, and we will address the issues raised, but we always return to the fact that the weight of evidence supports the anthropogenic conclusion.”

You would hope a well-designed exhibition of climate science aimed at the public would acknowledge public doubts about the impact of man-made emissions on climate. But this doesn’t equate to suggesting that there are widespread doubts expressed within the mainstream scientific community.

Chris Rapley obviously understands the difficult communications job the Museum has to do. At a recent Policy Network debate he said:

“There is a tyranny at work here. My impression is that where scientists know there are big uncertainties, they are afraid to emphasise them because people will misunderstand them. The evidence is that when they confess to them, they are exploited.”

It’s a bigger question to what extent the confusion about climate science that the museum is responding to is a product of inaccurate coverage by the media. But this kind of thing clearly doesn’t help.

Lucky we’ve got the Science Museum to educate people, eh?

One Response

  1. Kate

    Is this the same museum that some people thought had become “neutral” because of a massive donation from an oil company? I’m pretty sure it is…..and I’m breathing a huge sigh of relief now that I find out it’s not true.

    Reply

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