Tag Archives: scientific literacy

Phylogenetics is Moon Man Talk

Phylogenetics is the study of the evolutionary history and relationships among extant and extinct organisms. More than any other organizational scheme, this is the way biologists think about the living world. In vertebrate paleontology in particular, an understanding of the evolutionary relationships of animals as identified via minute anatomical details is absolutely fundamental to our science. One might even argue that most new discoveries and inferences in this field are meaningless without some knowledge of the basic shape of the tree of life.

I’ve spent about eight years so far teaching science in museums, parks, and classrooms. And based on my anecdotal experience, most discussion of phylogeny comes across as incomprehensible babble to a plurality of people. For instance, one of the most commonly used definitions of “dinosaur” among paleontologists is “the most recent common ancestor of Triceratops and modern birds, and all it’s descendants” (there’s also the similar “most recent common ancestor of Megalosaurus and Iguanodon, and all it’s descendants”). This definition is not meaningful to most people. As evidence, I submit the following set of questions, all of which I have been asked by intelligent and well-meaning adults:

  • Did whales and dolphins evolve from marine reptiles?
  • Did giraffes evolve from sauropods?
  • Are [dromaeosaurs] related to cats?
  • Are dinosaurs related to sharks?
  • How can birds be dinosaurs if dinosaurs are reptiles?
  • Did the plant-eating dinosaurs evolve into mammals?
  • Are bats a kind of bird?
  • Are pterodactyls a kind of bird?

I don’t mean to ridicule or disparage people for asking these questions. Again, these all come from educated adults – museum and park visitors, undergraduate students, T.A.s, and at least one veterinarian! While these questions clearly show unfamiliarity with evolutionary relationships and how evolution works in general, they also show an effort to build a logical framework when none is available. For example, when a person asks if whales are descended from marine reptiles, he or she is hypothesizing that all large marine animals are related. This is incorrect, but it’s a sensible connection to make (and one that past naturalists have certainly explored).

For science communicators, this deficit of phylogenetic understanding is a serious problem which continuously undermines attempts to interpret zoology and paleontology. For example, think about how little meaning a statement like “Dimetrodon isn’t a dinosaur” has to somebody who can’t articulate what a mammal is or what a dinosaur is, much less the evolutionary distance between both groups. This is what we should expect from most of our audience, which means there is always a lot of catch-up work to do when explaining something as simple as the basic identity of a given organism. By the time you’ve satisfactorily defined “dinosaur” (good luck with that), explained the synapsid-diapsid split, discussed the tree of extinct stem-mammals, and positioned each of these things in deep time, you’re five minutes deep into a lecture when all you were asked was “what is it?”

USNM 8635, a handsome non-dinosaur. Photo by the author.

USNM 8635, a handsome non-dinosaur. Photo by the author.

How can we solve this conundrum? The first step is to divide the issue into a number of smaller problems:

  • People don’t understand the fundamentals of how evolution works
  • People are unfamiliar with basic vertebrate classification
  • People lack knowledge of key evolutionary events through deep time
  • People don’t understand what traits are significant when assessing evolutionary relationships

The first problem is well known and has been discussed in-depth elsewhere (e.g. MacFadden et al. 2007, Spiegel et al. 2006, Spiegel et al. 2012), so I’m going to breeze over it and focus on the other three.

Basic Vertebrate Classification

It’s easy to toss out words like “mammal”, “reptile”, and “amphibian”, and take for granted that your audience will know what they mean. But even the most basic elements of vertebrate classification are specialized knowledge, and science communicators would do well to remember it. When I was teaching an undergraduate human anatomy course, I found that most of the class was familiar with the word “mammal”, and could name some examples. However, the students couldn’t articulate what sets mammals apart from other animals, and the relationship of mammals to other vertebrates within the tree of life was all new to them.

I think this is fairly typical, even among individuals with a background in biology. People are introduced to these categories in grade school, and you’d be hard-pressed to find somebody who couldn’t tell you whether (say) a cat is a mammal or a reptile. What is missing is what that actually means. We can’t assume that just because somebody knows a cat is a mammal, they know that fur and milk glands (much less auditory ossicles, a solid mandible, and heteromorphic teeth) are things to look for when categorizing mammals. They also may not know that “mammal” is an evolutionary group – that all the animals that fall under this banner are more closely related to each other than they are to anything else. No mammal is going to spontaneously become a bird or a fish. This is obvious to specialists, but not to most of our audience.

Evolutionary History Through Deep Time

The situation is further complicated by the element of time. Somebody may know that a modern cat and lizard differ in several fundamental ways, but do they know that both groups still evolved from a common ancestor? Or that said ancestor lived more than 300 million years ago? Unfortunately, much of the public would appear to lack any knowledge of how the past is related to the present. I’ve had visitors insist on calling fossil turtles “dinosaur turtles” and Teleoceras a “rhino-saur.” For them, extinct animals (all labeled “dinosaurs”) are a category all their own, wholly independent from the categories that describe modern animals.

For specialists, it’s obvious that modern animals exist within a continuum that extends into the deep past. It’s also obvious that groups like “mammals” and “reptiles” had starting points, and are embedded within larger, more ancient groups. None of this can be considered common knowledge, but it’s critical to any discussion about the identity or categorization of a given taxon.

better than a tree

Box diagrams are a simple and intuitive way to ground students’ understanding of the diversity of life.

How can educators hope to cover so much ground without confusing, distracting, or alienating their audiences? One option is to use a cladogram, or evolutionary tree. Trees are absolutely the most precise and accurate way to portray relationships over time, but as Torrens and Barahona demonstrate, they are regularly misinterpreted by the public. When I’m dealing with a general audience, I prefer box diagrams like the one above. Boxes within boxes show tiers of relatedness in a way that is more intuitive and easily understood than a tree. Box diagrams allow educators to cover a lot of unfamiliar ground quickly, and it’s easy to test visitors’ comprehension by asking them to point to where an example taxon should be placed. While this visualization of vertebrate relationships lacks a time axis, people can at least grasp the relative order in which each group evolved (fish before amphibians, amphibians before reptiles and mammals, etc).

How Scientists Discover Evolutionary Relationships

Going back to the list of misguided questions at the top of this post, we can generally surmise the thought process that led to each inquiry. The person who asked if whales and marine reptiles are related was classifying based on shared habitat. The person who asked if giraffes evolved from sauropods was classifying based on similar body shape. We can also see classifications based on diet, and based on shared activities, like flight or attacking prey with clawed feet. All these questions reflect a misunderstanding of what kinds of traits researchers look for when working out evolutionary relationships. So how do we quickly and clearly explain which traits are relevant, and which ones are not?

This is a tricky problem, and one I have not found a perfect solution to. The most important distinction is between plesiomorphic and apomorphic traits: plesiomorphic traits are inherited from an ancestral form, while apomorphic traits are novel developments. Put simply, working out a phylogenetic tree is all about grouping organisms based on shared apomorphies. The more apomorphic traits between two species, the more closely related they are. Once introduced, this is a fairly intuitive distinction. You don’t even need to use the jargon – “old traits” and “new traits” will often suffice. Going back to our  problem of defining Dimetrodon, we can clarify that the lizardy shape and general toothiness are “old traits” – so they don’t tell us much about what the animal actually is. Instead, scientists look at “new traits”, like the number of postorbital fenestrae, to work out Dimetrodon‘s evolutionary affinities.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that relating phylogeny to the public is challenging, but very important. Too often, science educators assume visitors have more background than they do, and the discussion comes across as so much moon man talk. Alternatively, educators push past complicated parts too quickly, which leads to confusion or misunderstanding. Ultimately, being a good educator comes down to two things: knowing your content and knowing your audience. Both are equally important, and both need to be practiced and refined in equal measure to ensure successful communication.


Macfadden, B.J., Dunckel, B.A., Ellis, S., Dierking, L.D., Abraham-Silver, L., Kisiel, J., and Koke, J. 2007. BioScience 57:10:875-882.

Spiegal, A.N., Evans, E.M., Gram, W., and Diamond, J. 2006. Museums and Social Issues 1:1:69-86.

Spiegel, A.N., Evans, E.M., Frazier, B., Hazel, A., Tare, M., Gram, W., and Diamond, J. 2012. Changing Museum Visitors’ Conceptions of Evolution. Evolution: Education and Outreach 5:1:43-61.

Torrens, E. and Barahona, A. 2012. Why are Some Evolutionary Trees in Natural History Museums Prone to Being Misinterpreted?” Evolution: Education and Outreach 1-25.


Filed under education, opinion, science communication, systematics

Framing Fossil Exhibits: Environmental Change

Over the past few months, I’ve been writing about the strengths and weaknesses of various large-scale paleontology exhibits from an educational standpoint. Check out the Introduction, Walk Through Time, Phylogeny, and Habitat Immersion posts if you’d like to catch up. I’ll wrap up this series for the time being with a look at two upcoming renovations of classic fossil displays, which appear to have converged on similar aesthetic, organizational, and interpretive approaches.

First up is the Peabody Museum of Natural History, where the Great Hall of Dinosaurs and adjacent Hall of Mammal Evolution have seen little modification since the 1950s. While the PMNH fossil galleries are fascinating as a time capsule of mid-century exhibit design, much of the content is rather dated and a thorough overhaul is sorely needed. PMNH staff started planning for the renovation in 2010, and I highly recommend Collections Manager Chris Norris’s blog posts on the process. Once the basic layout and concepts were in order, the museum hired the architectural firm Studio Joseph to prepare the images being used to promote the project. Fundraising is now underway, but an estimated completion date has yet to be announced.

Great hall

Conceptual render of the Great Hall of Dinosaurs by Studio Joseph. Source

The big idea behind the new exhibit is the dynamic relationship between the biosphere and the Earth’s various other spheres (atmosphere, geosphere, hydrosphere, etc). The evolution of life on Earth did not occur in a vacuum, but as part of a continuously changing global system. This narrative does have a time axis – visitors will travel from the Permian at one end of the exhibit to the Quaternary at the other – but the precise divisions of geologic time are de-emphasized in favor of the broad environmental transitions that triggered evolutionary innovations. Examples might include the separation of continents during the Mesozoic, the diversification of flowering plants in the Cretaceous, or the massive climatic shift at the end of the Eocene. In this context, it’s more important that visitors understand (for example) that the Cenozoic was generally a transition from hot and wet to cold and dry (and the implications on mammalian evolution) than that they know the names and time spans of each epoch.

This approach contrasts sharply with traditional chronological exhibits, such as the Field Museum of Natural History’s “Evolving Planet.” The FMNH fossil galleries are extremely linear, and each geologic period is introduced with a set of easily-digested bullet points summarizing what happened during that time. Relatively tight spaces prevent visitors from seeing specimens from other time periods prematurely, and the galleries devoted to each period are color-coded to make them immediately distinct. According to Norris, this segmented presentation of the history of life obscures the large-scale transitions which transcend the somewhat arbitrary divisions of geologic time. As such, the new PMNH fossil halls will present the narrative holistically, encouraging visitors to track the underlying environmental trends that precipitated evolutionary change over time.

mammal hall concept art by Studio Joseph

Conceptual render of the Hall of Mammals by Studio Joseph. Source

As is immediately clear from the promotional images, the new exhibit will juxtapose a modern, wide-open aesthetic with elements of the museum’s past – specifically, the outdated but gorgeous Rudolph Zallinger murals. Both of these design elements tie directly to exhibit’s narrative themes. By breaking up the central dinosaur pedestal and eliminating the unsightly glass cases in the Mammal Hall, the exhibit designers have dramatically increased the available floor space and opened up new lines of sight. This should allow visitors to view each of the galleries comprehensively, rather than as a series of discreet segments. Meanwhile, the Zallinger murals will remain a celebrated part of the exhibits. These magnificent frescoes were painted between 1942 and 1967, and are among the most iconic images of prehistoric life ever created. Although the physiology of some of the animals is outdated, Zallinger was in other ways ahead of his time. Rather than giving the geologic periods hard borders, Zallinger artfully wove the sections together so that each one fades imperceptibly into the next. The viewer can see that the flora, fauna, and climate are changing over time, but it’s a gradient, not a ladder, which perfectly reflects the narrative of the new exhibit.

deinonychus close up by Studio Joseph

A conceptual render of Deinonychus and other Cretaceous fossils. Source

About 300 miles south of PMNH, the re-imagining of the fossil halls at the National Museum of Natural History is well underway. This building’s east wing has been home to paleontology displays since it opened in 1910 and has been updated several times, but this is the first time it has undergone a complete, wall-to-wall modernization. The old exhibits were formally closed on April 28th, 2014, and NMNH staff spent the following year removing thousands of specimens from the halls. With the fossils out of the way, the next step will be to restore the historic space to its original neoclassical glory. After that, the new exhibits and updated fossil mounts can be assembled in time for a 2019 re-opening.

Intriguingly, the planned design of the new National Fossil Hall is both thematically and aesthetically similar to the PMNH renovation, albeit on a grander scale. The National Fossil Hall’s narrative focus will be on large-scale environmental transitions over time, and how these changes drove the evolution of plants and animals. Like at PMNH, this will be accentuated by an open layout: false walls and barriers that have divided the space since the early 1960s will come down, allowing visitors to see clear across the spacious three-story hall. This airy aesthetic hearkens back to the Hall of Extinct Monsters, and like the restoration of the Zallinger murals at PMNH it represents an admirable celebration of the institution’s history.

concept art

Early conceptual render of the National Fossil Hall by Reich + Petch Source

One interpretive choice that will set the National Fossil Hall apart is the clustering of specimens on islands, or “pork chops”, as the were called early in development. Each pork chop represents North America at a particular period in time. While anchored by a few charismatic mounts, the pork chops will also include all manner of small animals, invertebrates, and plants that were part of that environment. In this way, the islands are self-contained mini exhibits, each one showing a complete ecosystem that existed at a particular time. Moving among the these displays, visitors should get a sense of how climate change and faunal interchange (among other phenomena) can completely transform an ecosystem over millions of years. They’ll also learn how certain organisms, like sauropods in the Jurassic or grass in the Neogene, can change landscapes and influence the evolution of contemporary plants and animals.

The emphasis on open spaces and freedom of movement is notable, because this is quite different from the linear exhibits of the late 20th century. In recent decades, exhibits have become increasingly structured, with specific learning goals and physical spaces designed to corral visitors through a carefully orchestrated narrative journey. Again, Evolving Planet at FMNH is an excellent example of this philosophy. The new National Fossil Hall is in some ways a push in the opposite direction – although it has a clear narrative and overarching message, visitors can roam through the exhibit as they please. I see the pork chop system as a way to have it both ways. Whether visitors work through the exhibit front to back or run straight to the T. rex in the center of the hall, then wander around at random, they’ll still be able to compare and contrast the different ecosystems and learn what the designers want them to learn.

A pork chop

Early concept art of the Jurassic “pork chop.” Image from The Last American Dinosaurs, NMNH.

More than anything else, what I expect to set the National Fossil Hall apart from peer exhibits will be its explicit connections to modern-day environmental crises. It’s worth quoting the Department of Paleobiology’s summary in full:

Visitors to the Museum will be able to explore how life, environments, and ecosystems have interacted to form and change our planet over billions of years. By discovering and harnessing the tools and methods paleobiologists use to study fossils, visitors will gain a deeper understanding of how the world works.

The distant past affects all of us today and will continue to do so in the future. How will climate change impact the natural world and our daily lives? How can we make informed choices about our ecosystems as individuals and as a species? How can we all become informed citizens of a changing planet?

We are in the midst of an extinction event of our own making. Anthropogenic climate change, habitat destruction, and invasive species are as dangerous as any asteroid, and will likely have profound effects on our own lives and livelihoods in the coming century. But while humans are undeniably the cause of the latest round of global changes, we also have the power to mitigate and manage their consequences. The study of fossils provides important contextual information – we can place modern organisms in an evolutionary context and understand their role in shaping the world as we know it, and we can see how organisms have responded to significant environmental overhauls in the distant past. The fossil record is in fact the only way to directly observe these things (as opposed to relying on models or actualistic experiments). As such, the new National Fossil Hall will make it clear that paleontology isn’t just about historical curiosity. The study of past life gives us a long view of the Earth’s biotic and abiotic systems, and helps us predict how they will respond to today’s environmental changes.

looking west

Concept drawing of the National Fossil Hall’s Cretaceous zone. In the old hall, the viewer would be standing at the base of the mezzanine stairs facing the rotunda. Source

With the modern climate crisis front and center, the new National Fossil Hall has the potential to be one of the most immediately relevant and important paleontology exhibits ever assembled*. This is significant, because as I lamented when I started this series, immediacy and relevance are not things that most museum visitors expect from fossil displays. While fossils, particularly the mounted skeletons of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals, have been central to the identity of natural history museums since the late 19th century, most visitors don’t regard these exhibits as anything more than prehistoric pageantry. Visitor surveys consistently reveal that dinosaurs are seen as eye candy – monsters that might as well be from another planet. This is a shame, because dinosaurs and other prehistoric organisms were real parts of our own world, and we can learn much from them.


The new National Fossil Hall will be arranged in reverse chronological order – as visitors move accross the gallery, familiar elements of modern environments will be stripped away and the world will become an increasingly alien place. Source

And so we come full circle. What is the point of a museum exhibit**? Is it enough to provide visitors an opportunity to see cool objects and specimens? When we ask museumgoers what they want to see, they tell us “dinosaurs” or “fossils.” They don’t ask for compelling narratives or connections to big contemporary issues, and they don’t see their museum visit as an important way to bridge gaps in scientific literacy.

Still, it is of critical importance that we provide these narratives and connections. Even if we accept the fact that the very existence of a museum and the chance to see real specimens is a Good Thing, museums are still accountable to the public. Virtually all museums cite education as the primary purpose of their institution, and it’s imperative to live up to that. A museum should have a learning goal in mind, it should be able to prove that this message is coming across, and it should be able to articulate why its audience is better off for it. This is not necessarily easy – exhibits need to be relevant without being condescending or preachy. Exhibit designers need to understand their visitors as much as their content. They need to find a balance between feeding visitors information and providing a customizable experience for diverse audiences. As we have seen, not every exhibit succeeds, but my impression is that we’re getting better at it.

*It’s also notable that this climate change-focused exhibit will be on the national mall, given the ongoing politically-motivated opposition to climate science.

**Note that I’m referring specifically to public-facing exhibits. There are many good reasons why the ongoing maintenance of natural history collections is intrinsically valuable.


Marsh, D.E. (2014). From Extinct Monsters to Deep Time: An ethnography of fossil exhibits production at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. http://circle.ubc.ca/handle/2429/50177

Weil, S.E. (2002). Making Musueums Matter. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books.

Werning, S. (2013). Why Paleontology Is Relevant. The Integrative Paleontologists. http://blogs.plos.org/paleo/2013/02/19/why-paleontology-is-relevant


Filed under dinosaurs, education, exhibits, FMNH, museums, NMNH, opinion, PMNH, science communication

National Fossil Day 2014

Happy National Fossil Day! This will just be a quick photo post covering the events at the National Museum of Natural History today. The National Park Service started the day with a junior paleontologist swearing-in ceremony, where students from a dozen area schools learned about the importance of protecting and preserving public lands and natural resources.

Photo by

Photo by the National Park Service.

The main show was in the Q?rius education center, where museum staff and volunteers showed off their latest work and discoveries. Visitors could see tiny mammal bones and teeth plucked from matrix collected in Haitian caves, and work through a particularly inspired activity demonstrating how geologists correlate layers in different parts of the world.


Photo by the author.

Photo by

Photo by the National Park Service.

Resident scientific illustrator Mary Parrish had a particularly fascinating display, showcasing the methods and materials she uses to create accurate paintings of prehistoric environments. Note the aluminum foil leaves used as models to paint from, as well as the hand-made macquettes used to block out scenes and experiment with poses. Also on view was a draft of the giant Hell Creek mural that will be on display in The Last American Dinosaurs, opening in November.


Photo by the author.

Out in the lower level lobby, the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, US Forest Service, National Science Foundation, Calvert Marine Museum, and Maryland Dinosaur Park had activities and displays. Here’s our display of recently discovered fossils from Cretaceous Maryland, slightly overshadowed by the Nation’s T. rex. We talked with visitors about Maryland’s role in the history of dinosaur science, the importance of the early Cretaceous as the origin of the world we know today, and our citizen science programs at the Park in Laurel.


Photo by the author.

Photo by the author.

Our Deinonychus replica looks a little small next to the Nation’s T. rex. Photo by the author.

National Fossil Day is all about generating awareness and enthusiasm for fossils and the study of the Earth’s natural history. In that, I think the event was quite successful. We talked to nearly 400 people, all of them enthusiastic and eager to learn about local prehistory and the process of discovering the ancient past. It was also a fun opportunity to catch up with people – the Washington area paleontology scene isn’t very big!

Thank you to the National Park Service for coordinating this event, and to the Smithsonian for hosting it!


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Filed under citizen science, Dinosaur Park, dinosaurs, exhibits, museums, NMNH, paleoart, science communication

Part 3: In Which Ben Gets to the Point

I’ve spent a couple posts raining hate on the media’s portrayal of science and  exuberantly praising science bloggers. I’d like to wrap this series up with a few suggestions for how the excellent science communication in blogs might be applied to other media, specifically museums. Science blogs currently reach a relatively small audience, but the strategies for science communication employed by bloggers can be utilized by media forms that attract far more people.

Museums occupy the lower middle range of visibility among science communication venues. America’s most-visited natural history museum, the National Museum of Natural History, had seven million visitors in 2009, a number which pales in comparison to the 431 million homes reached by the Discovery Channel, but which is considerably higher than the 500,000 2011 subscribers to Scientific American magazine. Nevertheless, museums require special recognition in that they are among the most trusted of media forms. 86% of Americans view museums as a trustworthy source of information, substantially higher than the number of Americans that trust books (61%), television (49%) or newspapers (41%). Since museums are blessed with such high public trust, the stakes are higher for museums to report information accurately.

The New Museums

The museum field has undergone a significant revolution since the 1970s, trading its traditionally academic leadership for an audience-focused and education-based model. This change is beneficial because museums are now beholden to serving the needs of the public, and are trying (and occasionally succeeding) to serve increasingly diverse audiences. Visitors are now seen as active participants in the learning process, rather than passive spectators. This new paradigm has, however, made museums vulnerable to the same pitfalls that plague other media forms. Some in the museum field have noted that concern for public interests has been in some cases led astray by devotion to entertainment. Many newer exhibits sacrifice scholarship and educational value for gimmicks and sensationalism, not unlike the practices in science journalism.

An additional hurdle facing museums is the difficulty of communicating science through objects. Museums are based around objects, but science is based on ideas and concepts. Traditionally, science exhibits would place a spotlight on spectacular objects, but would communicate very little information about why those objects are important and what scientists can learn from them. For example, a paleontology exhibit is typically centered on the enormous mounted skeletons of dinosaurs, but visitors can only learn so much from this kind of display. The audience will surely be impressed by the size of the skeletons, but will leave without understanding what those skeletons tell us about the age of the earth, the evolution and diversity of life, and the place of humans in the natural world. The lack of science in science museums is an oversight that has unfortunately stood the test of time, and museums would do well to reconsider their approach to science communication.

New Strategies

Museum workers are moving toward an audience-centered institutional mission, but have struggled to do so without resorting to the same non-educational sensationalism seen in attempts at science communication in other media. Science blogs, however, are achieving this goal right now: they foster dialogue between scientists and laypeople, without sacrificing intellectual substance.
One of the most important aspects of science blogs is that they introduce audiences to real people doing real science. Firstly, the public gains direct access to the scientific process, which instills appreciation in the reliability of scientific conclusions. Additionally, communicating with working scientists and seeing the work they do demythologizes the process of making knowledge. Science is shown as a tangible process that anybody can become involved with or contribute to. Putting a human face on the scientific process is a powerful tool for engaging the public, and one that some museums have already started using. For instance, as part of the “The Scientist is In” program at the National Museum of Natural History, staff curators set up shop in the exhibit halls, where they answer visitor questions and discuss their current research. This program has proved popular both among visitors and the scientists, who appreciate the opportunity to find out what their audiences are interested in. The implication from “The Scientist is In” and from science blogs is that the idea that scientists are universally poor communicators is false. Public education need not be the exclusive domain of education specialists, and many scientists are eager and willing to take part. Indeed, it is good practice to limit the number of layers of interpretation, as this often contributes to distortion of facts.

Another strong practice of science blogs is encouraging interaction from readers. Blog audiences enter gainful conversations with bloggers, and both parties benefit from this process. Museums can mimic this by inviting visitors to form and share their own conclusions. Process-focused science exhibits can show visitors what kinds of information scientists use to make interpretations, and then invite visitors to try it for themselves. For instance, an exhibit could use a variety of animal skeletons to demonstrate how scientists use indicators like gait and posture to determine how extinct animals may have behaved. The goal is to make the museum exhibit an interactive and intellectually involving experience. Involvement nurtures passion for content, which encourages repeat visits and deeper engagement. This is a new concept for museums, which have traditionally positioned themselves as institutions of intellectual authority. Unfortunately, there is little data on how to successfully integrate web-style discourse into a physical exhibit, because very few museums have tried it. Museums will have to be proactive in order to encourage substantive interaction with the exhibit content, or even among visitors. Some museums have successfully integrated user-generated content into exhibit spaces. For example, the “Playing with Science” exhibit at the London Science Museum invited visitors to place photographs of their own objects into the exhibit, alongside brief statements of the objects’ importance. However, something as simple as a comment board can also encourage visitors to respond intelligently to exhibit content.

Finally, museums should refocus content interpretation away from objects for their own sake and toward ideas. As stated previously, the public’s understanding of science is hindered by the media’s focus on encapsulated facts and discoveries, rather than broad, unifying concepts. Most scientific concepts are inherently logical and do not require specialized knowledge to understand if communicated properly. Evolution via natural selection is a good example. The concept that genetic variations within a population of organisms succeed or fail based on suitability to the present environment is easy to grasp, but a troublingly small percentage of the population is familiar with it. Even among visitors to natural history museums, who are more likely to accept evolution as true than the general population, less than a third are familiar with how natural selection works. Evolution is most important concept in biology and unifies the field. Therefore, it would not be difficult to integrate evolutionary concepts into virtually any exhibit on natural sciences. Communication of scientific concepts like evolution is more important for building science literacy than sharing scattered facts and impressive objects. Objects are excellent teaching tools, but are better when used as examples of underlying ideas.

Science communication in the media is at a tipping point. As the media has edged away from education and toward lowest-common-denominator entertaining, the public need for distinguishing reliable and unreliable information has increased. The misleading and inaccurate presentation of science in the media is woefully unhelpful for supporting an active and informed citizenry. Museums, with their high visibility and public trust, are well positioned to take steps toward reversing this trend. However, museum workers must first strike a balance between the sometimes conflicting goals of public appeal and accuracy. Science blogs are an excellent model for reliable, involving and applicable science communication, but they operate on a much smaller scale than museums. The challenge for museums, and any other media forms up to the challenge, will be to translate the strategies employed by blogs at the micro scale to large institutions.

Selected References

Diamond, Judy, and Margaret Evans. “Museums Teach Evolution.” Evolution. 61.6 (2007): 1500-1506.

Gregory, Jane, and Steve Miller. Science in Public: Communication, Culture and Credibility. New York: Plenum Press, 1998.

MacFadden, Bruce J., Betty A. Dunckel, Shari Ellis, Lynn D. Dierking, Linda Abraham-Silver, Jim Kisiel and Judy Koke. “Natural History Museum Visitors’ Understanding of Evolution.” Bioscience. 57.10 (2007): 875-882.

McLean, Kathleen. “Museum Exhibitions and the Dynamics of Dialogue.” Reinventing the Museum: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on the Paradigm Shift. Ed. Gail Anderson. Lanham: Altamira, 2004. 193-211.

Simon, Nina. “Discourse in the Blogosphere: What Museums Can Learn from Web 2.0.” Museums and Social Issues. 2.2 (2007): 257-274.

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Filed under dinosaurs, museums, NMNH, science communication

Part II: Why Science Blogs are Neat

Returning to the shameless term paper recycling extravaganza, this post will cover the recent success of science bloggers. This discussion is based pretty much entirely on the blogs I read, which are mostly vert paleo-related. I can only assume that molecular biologists, physicists and those poor, brave souls in paleobotany have similar online communities. Once again, thanks to Matt Wedel and Brian Switek for their thoughts, experience and quotability.

Of the 112 million blogs on the internet, science blogs represent a small but growing subset of some 1,200 active contributors. Describing his reasons for co-founding the paleontology blog Sauropod Vertebrae Picture of the Week, Mathew Wedel admits, “if we had a goal at first, it was just to talk about how cool sauropod vertebrae are” (Wedel 2011). However, science blogs have since evolved into a valuable resource for both scientists and laypeople. First, science blogs have the advantage of being written by practicing scientists and other experts in their fields, and therefore remove the distortive barrier typically imposed by the media. As such, they provide a unique opportunity for scientists to communicate directly to interested lay people, and to hear what their audience has to say. Blogs can create public awareness of research or scientific concepts deemed irrelevant by the media, and can rapidly provide commentary or corrections to more widely dispersed reports. Science blogs have also proved invaluable for fostering networks of academic peers, but my concern here is with popularization.

Science blogs also embrace a pluralistic conception of academia that is typically obscured by mainstream media. Whereas the media presents scientists as an invariably unified professional entity, blogs reveal the specific positions and interests of individual scientists, humanizing the discipline in the process. SV-POW is once again a prime example. Posts like this one  reveal the little-publicized controversy over for-profit versus open-access academic journals. The comments generated indicate disagreement, or at least varying levels of apathy, within the scientific community. Similarly, Brian Switek’s recent post on Hell Creek ceratopsian diversity emphasizes the normalcy of scientific debate, combating the widespread assumption that any published paper is definitive truth. The public benefits from these conversations because it provides exposure to important issues in knowledge making that are normally not accessible.

Most importantly, by providing audiences with a direct link to working scientists and accounts of their everyday activities, science blogs demythologize the process of creating knowledge. As Wedel explains, blogs are well positioned to integrate the public into the scientific process:

“If we have one overriding goal now, it’s to break down the artificial walls between interested people, regardless of training or background. And by that I mean the scientific process, what we call making science, and the communication of science in both academic and popular settings. A century ago most science was citizen science. The rise of national funding agencies like NSF and NIH has allowed a lot more professional scientists to do science, but along the way we lost something, which is the idea that any curious, disciplined person can contribute to human knowledge. We firmly believe in that, and we’re doing what we can to bring it back.” (Wedel 2011)

This is a critical point because, as discussed in the previous post, the current standards for science communication do not encourage public participation. Information about science is fed to audiences in a one-way exchange. Science blogs break this mold by encouraging a productive dialogue between scientists and laypeople. They encourage the public to actively contribute to the scientific process, and provide a forum for this knowledge to be shared.

Science blogs are still a young media form, and their potential for communication remains largely untested. Nevertheless, the field is growing rapidly, and scientists who blog are gaining much more respect in the academic community (Switek 2011). While there was once skepticism about quality control in the blog medium, increasing numbers of scientists are entering the fray, and it is now reasonable to foresee most labs including somebody blogging about their work by default. Currently, the majority of the public, even those with strong interest in science, are unaware that this forum exists. Science bloggers, however, are encouraged by their increasing visibility, and some are optimistic that blogs will change the way science is communicated to the public.

Selected References

Batts, Shelly A., Nicholas J. Anthis and Tara C. Smith. “Advancing Science through Conversations: Bridging the Gap between Blogs and the Academy.” PLoS Biology. 6.9 (2008): 1837-1841.

Switek, Brian. Email Interview. 19 Oct 2011.

Wilkins, John S. “The Roles, Reasons and Restrictions of Science Blogs.” Trends in Ecology and Evolution. 23.8 (2008): 411-413.

Wedel, Mathew. Email Interview. 24 Oct 2011.

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Scientific Literacy: They’re Doing It Wrong

It’s that time of year when student bloggers start recycling term papers and calling them new blog posts. To jump squarely on that bandwagon, please find enclosed in the next few posts an abridged and modified version of some of my museum studies work. The short version is that science communication in the media, including museum exhibits, has been hijacked in the name of substance-free entertainment in the interest of attracting as many eyeballs as possible. However, the rising popularity of science blogs over the past few years presents an encouraging model for presenting science in an approachable and engaging manner without sacrificing veracity. After some background on why and how the media has been systematically ineffectual at communicating science, I’ll point out some things science bloggers are doing right and what museums and other media forms can learn from them.

One more thing: A huge thank you to Matt Wedel and Brian Switek, who answered my questions about their blogs and their thoughts on science communication. Since they’re more articulate than I am, I’ve included some quotes below.

Why Should We Care About Scientific Literacy?

NSF defines scientific literacy as knowing basic facts and concepts about science and, most importantly, understanding how science works. NSF has been running nationwide surveys on science literacy since 1972, and the results are not encouraging. The majority of the general public knows only a few scattered facts about science, but few can articulate important concepts, such as now evolution works. More critically, only 3% of those surveyed could answer “what does it mean to study something scientifically?”. Most Americans are unfamiliar with the scientific process, or how scientists actually find out the things they know.

An appreciation of the scientific process is extremely important. Scientifically literate individuals can recognize when ideas have been tested in an unbiased manner, and can critically evaluate information for themselves. This is a valuable skill not only in keeping up with important science news, but also in assessing the validity of any type of information. For instance, valuing fairly evaluated information is crucial for meaningful participation in elections and the legal system.

The need for a scientifically literate citizenry is arguably at an all-time high. Americans are bombarded with ever-increasing amounts of information, and require the intellectual tools to separate what is reliable from what is not. In particular, people need to be able to recognize unsupported claims by politicians, such as Michelle Bachmann’s assertions that global warming is not supported by science and that vaccines cause autism. Authoritative statements are meaningless without knowledge of where the information came from and why it is believable. Furthermore, scientific research is often relevant to people’s lives, especially work concerning climate change and alternative energy.

Science in the Media

The mass media is the primary venue for communicating science to the public. As discussed here, “media” refers to the broad and amorphous spectrum of books, television, newspapers, museum exhibits and virtually all other platforms intended to convey information to a wide audience. Science undoubtedly has a strong presence in the media: most media outlets dedicate at least some resources to science coverage, and magazines, cable networks and museums dedicated entirely to science communication are plentiful and easily accessible. Unfortunately, the manner in which science is portrayed and discussed in the media is highly counterproductive. Inaccuracy, misleading emphasis and sensationalism are rampant, and the very structure of how science is communicated is flawed.

Earlier this year, several large and small media outlets, including Fox, CBS, the Huffington Post and Science Daily focused their coverage of the annual conference of the Geological Society of America on a talk that purported that a highly intelligent and self-aware “kraken” was responsible for an interesting arrangement of prehistoric fossils. Despite the fact that this story was unsubstantiated by evidence and clearly absurd, the press passed it along to their audience without any further research or commentary. Had any of the reporters taken a moment to verify the story with experts, they would have been told in no uncertain terms that the “kraken” had no scientific merit. Unfortunately, this incident highlights the reality that the editorial process often favors sensationalist stories that will attract a larger audience over an accurate presentation of information.

The “kraken” story may have been trivial, but the practice of favoring sensationalism over veracity has much more serious implications when journalists pass on bogus claims for miracle cures, or push the myth that vaccines cause autism. While there has been no thorough investigation of whether science communication in the media is more or less accurate than any other topics, it is clear that the media is not as concerned as it should be with communicating reliable science information to the public.

Even when the media manages to communicate science information accurately, its emphasis is not conducive to generating long-term public interest or to fairly representing the scientific community. Few news outlets venture beyond reporting the latest publications in Science and Nature, limiting audiences to only a small sample of the wide variety of research being published on a daily basis. Additionally, the media tends to overdramatize and exaggerate science stories, making “every incremental advance sound like a huge revolution” (Wedel 2011). As a result, the public is quick to conclude that no science stories are as monumental as they are made out to be, or worse, that scientists themselves are prone to jumping to conclusions. This situation thoroughly misrepresents the scientific process, as publication is just the beginning of scientific deliberation and debate (Switek 2011). Furthermore, every discovery is not a revolution, nor should it be: scientific progress is based on generations of incremental additions to our body of knowledge.

Unfortunately, the working practices of scientists and media workers vary considerably. Media methodologies have developed out of a contest for attention, and therefore media professionals typically rely on practices that will gain the largest audience. Sensationalism and fabricated controversy are the objectionable results of this system. Media also favors active and highly visual content, which does not mesh well with much of the work done by scientists. Science occurs mostly in people’s heads, and discoveries are often drawn out over months or years. As such, media presentations of science are often padded with misleading theatrics, such as animated fighting dinosaurs or researchers walking down hallways for no reason. Simply put, the modern media system favors spectacle over education, and is ill-suited to communicating science in an accurate or reliable way.

What about Academia?

Scientists are the best informed about their research and its ramifications, and therefore are arguably the best people to share that information. But although much of the criticism of the media’s portrayal of science has come from the academic community, scientists themselves are not always skilled communicators (but many are!). Although it is now expected that scientists engage the public regarding the content and impact of their research, this is a relatively recent phenomenon. Unfortunately, there is still little institutionalized support for scientists who endeavor to communicate to the public. Public lectures and popular articles are not counted by tenure committees or academic auditors as publications, and scientists that frequently reach out to wider audiences, such as Stephen Hawking, Jane Goodall or Robert Bakker, are unduly criticized by their peers.

At a philosophic level, the dissemination of scientific information to the masses has followed the “deficit model”, in which scientists are assumed to have privileged access to truth and the public is considered to have nothing to contribute. This perspective is not only condescending, it is counterproductive to generating public interest in science. If the public is told that it is irrelevant to the process of knowledge-making, there is no reason to expect people to be enthusiastic about the scientific process. Furthermore, laypeople can and have made enormous contributions to science, and can bring new perspectives and ideas that scientists may not have considered. For their part, scientists are not infallible, and it is unrealistic to assume that they always have the best answers. Complaints about public misconceptions are common among academics, but if scientists are unwilling to engage in dialogue with their audiences, these misconceptions will continue.

What Should the Public Know?

There is strong agreement among science communication specialists (e.g. Brok, Diamond and Evans, Gregory and Miller, Nuijens) that the key to understanding science is understanding how scientific knowledge is actually produced. Knowledge of specific facts and discoveries can be interesting and worthwhile, but this information is meaningless without context. Information gains significance only when its relevance, implications and place among current research trends is understood. Additionally, the media’s focus on new discoveries can potentially harm the public’s view of science. New ideas in science are typically contested, and may hold up or be discarded after intensive scrutiny. This is part of the scientific method and is the normal state of affairs. Unfortunately, when the public only sees new ideas, as well as different scientists reaching different conclusions from the same supposed facts, it is inevitable that doubts will arise regarding the integrity of scientists in general.

Ideally, if the public understands anything about science, it should be the nature of the scientific research process. The public ought to know how the scientific method works, and why it is a powerful tool. If the media communicates anything about science, it should be the integrity of the scientific method, from testable and verifiable hypotheses to repeated, objective observation. With this information, the public will appreciate the high standard to which scientific conclusions are held, and the value and trustworthiness of continuously-verified theories, such as evolution. Likewise, the public will understand that any disagreement among scientists is an important part of the process of creating knowledge.

To accomplish this, the media should focus on the ongoing process of scientific research, rather than milestone discoveries. Not only will exposure to the practices of training, peer-review and continuous peer scrutiny support the reliability of the scientific process, but the portrayal of what scientists do on a day-to-day basis will put a much-needed human face on the field. Besides creating a more accurate portrayal of science as a discipline, a focus on the scientific process will provide the public with the tools to evaluate the reliability of any new information, from the realm of science or elsewhere.

Next time, I’ll get to the point: science blogs, and their applications for museums.

Selected References

Batts, Shelly A., Nicholas J. Anthis and Tara C. Smith. “Advancing Science through Conversations: Bridging the Gap between Blogs and the Academy.” PLoS Biology. 6.9 (2008): 1837-1841.

Broks, Peter. Understanding Popular Science. Berkshire: Open University Press, 2006.

Diamond, Judy, and Margaret Evans. “Museums Teach Evolution.” Evolution. 61.6 (2007): 1500-1506.

Enseki, Carol. “Public Trust and Accountability.” New Standard. 2006: 1-2, 8.

Gregory, Jane, and Steve Miller. Science in Public: Communication, Culture and Credibility. New York: Plenum Press, 1998.

Nuijens, Frank. “Why the World Needs Better Science Journalism.” MediaShift. 29 Nov 2011. Web.

Rothschild, David. “Bad Journalism Promotes Bad Science.” Plagiarism Detection and Prevention Blog. 11 Oct 2011. Web.

Switek, Brian. Email Interview. 19 Oct 2011.

Wedel, Mathew. Email Interview. 24 Oct 2011.

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