Tony Thomas

Wanted: Remedial education for museum curators

Tony Thomas entered this essay “Science museums hotbeds of climate activism” for the 2013 Matt Ridley Prize of £5000 for exposing environmental pseudoscience. It made the short-list of ten out of 86 entries worldwide. The organisers commented, “The standard of entries at the top was very high, and there was lively debate among the judges while selecting a winner . The prize was eventually awarded to Michael Ware, for an essay on electric cars.”

Brainwashing of school children about climate change normally goes on out of sight, in the school systems. But you can see it happening publicly by visiting science museums’ displays for students.

The Field Museum in Chicago, for example, is visited by 100,000 students on school tours each year. Other science museums  I’ve sampled in the past two years include Te Papa, New Zealand; The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, Washington; and the Vienna Museum of Natural History. Same story all over: activism targeted at vulnerable students.

I dropped in to NZ’s premier science museum, Te Papa, Wellington in November 2011. Its climate message was that dangerous global warming is upon us. The proof: a blow-up of Michael Mann’s long-discredited Hockey Stick graph, purporting to reveal millennially-unprecedented warming in the 20th Century.

The Hockey Stick was the poster-child of the 2001 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and of Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth movie. But the stick was “busted” in 2003 by the forensic analysis of the McIntyre and McKitrick skeptic duo. In its 2007 report, the IPCC  tagged the hockey stick with  “uncertainty”.[i]

My complaints to Te Papa got a response from scientist Dr Hamish Campbell, who doubled as a Te Papa geologist and curator:

You are perfectly correct: Mann’s ‘hockey stick’ has indeed been substantively discredited. 

I remember at the time [of helping to design the exhibit] that I was very uncomfortable with so-called predictions based on models of an inherently chaotic system that surely were a far cry from any representative simulation of nature.

However, part of Te Papa’s role/function is to provoke or stimulate thought. I let it go with the proviso that the graph was properly referenced…and it is. 

… We shall revisit this exhibit in the next few weeks and see what we can do.”

Lovely! But ten months later,  I   found the “Stick” was still up there. The museum’s PR lady wrote me:  

“Te Papa is currently planning a refreshment of it’s long-term exhibitions and the use of the Mann Hockey Stick Graph will be addressed as part of that process.

We appreciate you raising this issue with us as it will provide valuable insight on the future content for this exhibition.” 

I pestered Te Papa again in August, 2013, nearly another year later, to see if the Hockey Stick was still on display. It was. Museum assistant director Heather Church replied: 

“I can confirm that we have a Mann graph on display, that shows the past 1000 years of temperature variations and the dramatic increase in the surface temperature since the 1850s.

“There are plans to refresh the Awesome Forces display at Te Papa but no details of content have yet been decided.

“We would be happy to consider any information you can provide as part of our review.”

So Te Papa has been “educating” schoolchildren for well over two years with a graph that at least one of its experts knows to be a dud. A Hockey Stick review which was supposed to take two weeks (per Dr Campbell) has taken two years with still no end in sight. 

IN JUNE last year, I checked Washington DC’s Smithsonian Natural History Museum, so illustrious it gets 7m visitors a year. Its special climate-and-environment show involved errors, exaggerations, activism, and stuff that was just plain dumb.

I first realized something was amiss at the placard, “Changing the World – Great Moments in Food Technology.”

It read:

1928: Sliced bread.
1791: Artificial teeth.
63 BCE: Water-powered grist mill.
500 BCE: Iron plow.
9500 BCE: Grain storehouse.

Was this a joke? Was inventing sliced bread more noteworthy than, say,  Norm Borlaug’s work on high-yield wheat and rice in the 1950s, which has fed billions?

I stopped to play an environmental “simulation” game for kids:

“The small countries of ULandia and QLandia have developed their own nuclear bombs – and are threatening to use them on each other! You urge them to give up their weapons, but they both said they only would if everyone else does. What do you do?”

I chose option “b” and got this screen:

“It’s war! Disarmament talks between the nations fail when ZLandia and YLandia refuse to give up its (sic) nuclear weapons. Soon QLandia and ULandia get into a nuclear war! Fallout from the bombs spreads quickly, causing harm.”

Yes, I guess nuclear warfare  does cause “harm”. Nota bene, kids!

Numerous scenarios had ‘global warming’ as an equivalent threat, including “20ft” sea rises. 

Further along, a  caption to a warming graph read:

“Our Survival Challenge: During the period in which humans evolved, earth’s temperature and the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere fluctuated together. Higher CO2 levels are associated with a warmer planet …”

In fact, improved ice-core data by 2003 clarified that temperature, inconveniently,  led CO2 changes by 800 years or so.[ii]

Nearby is another placard saying:

Rising CO2 levels: The projected increase over the next century is more than twice that of any time in the past 6 million years and suggests a long term sea level rise of 6.4 meters (21 ft).

The mid-point of IPCC sea-rise projections for 2100 (itself a wild extrapolation), in the 2007 report is only about 60cm (2 ft).[iii] “Long term” at this museum must be very long term, though kids aren’t told that.

Another chart  graphs CO2 against temperature, getting the “right” result by a style that muddies the 1940-70 cooling, and cutting off the chart at 2000, so the current flattening of temperature is not apparent. 

One placard, pushing the Green shtick, actually sets out the benefits and costs of civilization. Benefits, we learn, are food, shelter, science and leisure, but costs are that we get waste, epidemics, and loss of nature and wild species. Civilization’s cost/benefit ratio thus hangs in the balance.

Displays tout messages from ginger groups, like the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), warning about amphibian-, bird- and mammal-species extinction rates up to 1000 times greater this century than normal. I looked up the IUCN study and it is speculation piled on hypothesis, extrapolated.[iv] (The IPCC’s 2007 take, that 20-30% of species are at risk of extinction, has been well fisked).v]

The IUCN includes scores of activist bodies as members.  Australian members include the Wilderness Society, WWF and Australian Conservation]

The display was pre-occupied with over-population (as per Malthus and the Club of Rome) and “pandemics” creating health crises. Pandemics outside the African dictatorships are in fact rare and minor, apart from AIDS (1.7m deaths in 2011) which   failed to get a mention here, although adult AIDS rates in Washington DC are as bad as Rwanda’s.[vii] 

The Vienna Museum of Natural History, which I visited in June 2013, has a display headed (in both German and English),  “Climate models show the expected global warming for the next decades.” The illustration, titled “The world 4degC warmer”, is a color-coded map of the continents. 

I paused. Four degrees warmer within decades? Like, 2030, 2050? I thought there’d been no statistically significant warming for 17 years? The display seemed already a decade old, referring to incidents in 2002. That could bring the heat apocalypse forward to, say, 2029, when I’m settling into my high-care retirement home. 

In this imminent hot world, the illustrated continents are shaded green for habitable areas, fawn for “Uninhabitable – Deserts”, grey for “Uninhabitable – flood, droughts and extreme weather”, and red for “Land loss, 2m sea level rise.”

What? Two metres? Within decades?

Poor Perth, my temperate birthplace in Western Australia! Our whole fertile south-west is shown as fawn, “Uninhabitable – Deserts”. My daughter has just bought a Perth house. Should I buy her a camel for Christmas?

Look further north to South-East Asia,  and  the whole of Indonesia – oh no! – is flooded and/or uninhabitable, except for Borneo which has turned into desert. Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Myanmar, Philippines, forget them all, uninhabitable!

A cursory look at Africa, uh oh! All uninhabitable except for a mysterious green swath from about Senegal/Mauritania east to Niger-Chad.

South America:  a wasteland of deserts and cyclonic storms, apart from the deep south of Argentina and Chile (or what’s left of Chile after two metre high coastal flooding).

Farewell to India south of Mumbai, with India’s lowest 200km flooded and the rest uninhabitable, along with Sri Lanka.

You might as well kiss the southern hemisphere goodbye. It’s sad… although when temperatures 150m years ago really were four degrees hotter, the dinosaurs were contentedly nibbling palms, ferns and each other in the rainforests. 

I LIMPED from the Vienna Museum feeling sad for Austria’s distinguished traditions of science; Mach, Doppler, Pauli, Schroedinger — that lot. 

In Chicago’s Field Museum, which I visited in July 2013, the Restoring Earth display was headed by a quote from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring: “Spring now comes unheralded … the early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of bird song.” Ominous. The display says nothing about the dubious science cited in Carson’s book nor how the consequent  ban on DDT in aid programs killed countless children, mainly African, via malarial mosquitos and typhus lice.   The World Health Organisation and malaria-wracked countries like Tanzania lifted bans from 2006, ending a tragic episode in health science.

The Field Museum is thrilled with Ms Carson because its historic collection of peregrine falcon eggs was used to measure a thinning of eggs in modern times, attributed to DDT. The falcon thrived after the ban. Deeper research has found that only limited classes of birds, mainly raptors, suffered from the DDT effect. Nothing of the DDT/malaria controversy gets a mention at the Field Museum.[viii]

The kids’ displays show the customary activism: CO2 is causing storms and floods; ditch petrol lawnmowers and push a manual one; global warming is forcing the Koopman’s Mouse to higher cooler elevations “as climate change worsens” (but little warming for 17 years?).   Dramatic artworks show kids that global warming has “acidified” oceans, killing pretty coral.

There is even an “Extinction Clock” ticking over, with a red digital counter showing how many species have died out since 8am that morning – “22”, the clock told me.

That’s spin. The clock is based on claims by Harvard professor and environmental activist Dr E.O Wilson 25 years ago that 30,000 species were going extinct per year. That was just his mathematical modeling. As paleontologist Niles Eldridge of the American Museum of Natural History put it, “I’m going to more or less assume that Ed Wilson is largely accurate — how accurate I really couldn’t say.”[ix]

Pick a number, any number. The normally-wrong Paul Ehrlich put the extinction rate at up to 130,000.[x]  A Harvard website about Wilson says there are anywhere from 10m to 100m species, so keep it all in perspective.[xi]

I wish these museums would give kids a break: more science, less activism please. Corrupting the young used to be a crime, as Socrates discovered.

Tony Thomas blogs at








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