Say Hello to the Nation’s T-rex

“Anyone here doesn’t like T-rex?”

No hands were raised, but the packed auditorium welcomed Jack Horner with laughter and enthusiasm. The paleontologist climbed into the Smithsonian stage, and with flailing arms declared: “I’m going to talk about a very special T-rex”.

A replica of a T-rex skull with human size comparison.

The special Tyrannosaurus traveled via Fedex truck.

It was packed inside wood crates.

This famous dinosaur has a stage name: Wankel T-rex. An arm fossil bone was first uncovered by Kathy Wankel (pronounced WON-kal) in 1988, and later rescued by Horner’s team of paleontologists and graduate students.

Jack Horner. Photo by the author.

The Wankel T-rex was the largest and most complete specimen found at the time (and still stands as one of the most complete ever found, right after Sue). Last week, the dinosaur made it’s trip to Washington DC, to reside at the Natural History museum. It was received by director Kirk Johnson and the press with great fanfare. Photographers fought to get a close-up shot of the locked crates. One box, of a size that could house a widescreen TV, was labeled “WOW”. It contained a piece of the T-rex mandible, cheekbones, and banana-sized teeth.

A few days later, the community got a chance to to get involved. I joined in as the crowd filled the Smithsonian auditorium to hear from Horner, Johnson, and curator Matt Carrano. We were even introduced to Ms. Wankel, who recounted her discovery tale.

“Wait a minute, I found something out here”, said Ms. Wankel’s husband Tom. “I think I found something bigger out here”, said Ms. Wankel referring to an old and porous dinosaur arm bone.

Kirk Johnson. Photo by the author.

“I wonder if it’s real.”

I’d risk saying that’s the most frequent question museum visitors ask. They have to hear from the museum staff, that yes – those bones belonged to a tyrant dinosaur over 60 million years ago.

Visitors to the Smithsonian will get an affirmative answer to that question, and hopefully marvel at that titanic creature. Hopefully that celebrity T-rex will attract many new people to the science museum.

After all, there’s not a person who dislikes T-rex.

Creation vs Evolution: Why science communication is doomed

Last Tuesday night, Bill Nye the Science Guy had a debate with Ken Ham over creationism vs evolution. I watched part of the debate, and have conflicted feelings on it. I’m going to start by saying I think it was a brilliant marketing move. For one, it suddenly brought the Creation Museum into the forefront of society for next to nothing. While before only a handful had heard of it, now it has risen to national prominence, and I’m sure the number of visits they have will reflect that in the near future.

As for the substance itself, I don’t think this is a very good topic for a debate. Any time you bring religion into a discussion, it turns into an “us vs them” argument where neither party is willing to change their view. Even the advertising and marketing billed it as a debate of “creationism vs evolution” – effectively presupposing the view that one can believe in both (which I’ll come back to). At best, it’s snarky and offhanded, and at worst, antagonistic and ad hominem. I should point out though that this is on both sides – neither side is willing to reconcile.

And why should they? Both view their side as being right, and weigh the information they have differently. So all that this accomplishes is that both sides become further polarized and further entrenched, and any chance of meaningful dialogue between both sides becomes less and less likely with every angry jab back and forth. It turns into a 21st century war of angry op-eds, vindictive tweets and increasingly hostile and belligerent Facebook posts shared back and forth. This isn’t just limited to religion though – many discussions end this way with people being forced to take sides in an issue that is more complicated than simply being black/white. Rather than discuss the details and come to an understanding of what we agree and disagree on, we’re immediately placed into teams that are at loggerheads with each other.

What is most interesting is what happens to extreme viewpoints when they are criticized. Rather than taking in new information and evaluating it based on its merits, criticism actually results in the consolidation of those perspectives. In lay language, if you have an extreme viewpoint, you dig in your heels, build a trench and get ready to defend yourself against all attackers. This isn’t entirely surprising – when someone attacks you, and in particular attacks you *personally*, why wouldn’t you get defensive. Studies of this have look at this from a political perspective, comparing extreme conservatives to extreme liberals. To quote Psychology Today:

Extreme conservatives believed that their views about three topics were more superior: (1) the need to require voters to show identification when voting; (2) taxes, and (3) and affirmative action. Extreme liberals, on the other hand, believed that their views were superior on (1) government aid for the needy; (2) the use of torture on terrorists, and (3) not basing laws on religion.

But wait! Aren’t these just fringe opinions being heard in the media? The good news is yes. The bad news is that the extremes are what people hear. If you imagine everyone existing on a normal distribution – with extreme opinions on the edges – then the vast majority of the people exist in the gulf between those people. However, those extremes are what people hear. In fact, this is what led to Popular Science shutting down their comments, based on findings by Brossard and Scheufele. What they did was ask people to read a study, and while the article remained the same, one group was exposed to civil comments, and the other to uncivil comments. What they found was striking:

In the civil group, those who initially did or did not support the technology — whom we identified with preliminary survey questions — continued to feel the same way after reading the comments. Those exposed to rude comments, however, ended up with a much more polarized understanding of the risks connected with the technology.

So seeing negative comments not only made people more skeptical of the article, it made them more skeptical of the science itself! That’s a huge concern for us, and how science is written about and discussed. Seeing negative comments, no matter how poorly written or ill-informed they are, makes people fundamentally view the science as being of lower quality. And that resulted in Popular Science closing their commenting section.

So to bring it all full circle, the “debate” was a microcosm of science and the public. Scientists sit back, do their work, and then turn around and say “Hey! You should do this” and then wonder why no one listens to them and why people fight them. We saw this with the New York soda ban, we’re seeing this in other spheres as well, and unless we change how we approach these hot button issues, we’ll lose the support of the fringe opinions (which we have already lost), but also the support of the moderates (which we can still get). I was having this discussion with my friend Steve Mann, who is one of the smartest men I know, and he sums it up best:

“It’s easier to poke fun at people with whom you disagree, particularly if you can imply that they are childish, old-fashioned, religious, or uneducated, than to honestly examine whether there is any merit to what they’re saying, and I think that’s a shame.”

I’m not taking sides – that wasn’t the aim of this piece. The aim of this piece is to tell you to listen with a open mind, discuss issues with others, and at all costs avoid ad hominem and personal attacks. If we want to bring people together, we have to avoid using language that drives us apart. If we want to promote science, we have to discourage hate. And if we want to educate others, we first have to start by understanding others.

K. Toner, M. R. Leary, M. W. Asher, K. P. Jongman-Sereno. Feeling Superior Is a Bipartisan Issue: Extremity (Not Direction) of Political Views Predicts Perceived Belief Superiority. Psychological Science, 2013; DOI: 10.1177/0956797613494848

Teaching entomology in a world afraid of bugs

Perched on a cantaloupe slice, the palm-sized animal – with its glossy chitinous surface and half dozen legs – sat motionless. The black-green bug looked more like a statuesque chess piece and less like a creepy insect. It was probably the reason why Dan Babbit chose the Atlas Beetle as his companion and ice breaker. Babbit is the manager of Smithsonian’s Insect zoo, and that day he was addressing a new group of museum volunteers and he started with the blunt question: “Is anyone afraid of bugs?”

Never before had I’d seen a science discussion start with a disclaimer.

Dan was being careful before bringing the live specimen for the volunteer’s closer inspection. Who can blame him – in the US alone there are 19 million entomophobes. How can we teach entomology to such a crowd? Can we break the bug phobia stereotype?

Here at Sci-Ed we started investigating reasons that may explain the fear of bugs. We mentioned repulsion, disease-carrying potential, cultural aversion, and even deeper philosophical issues. Now, we list suggestions to encourage the general public to value insects:

  1. Changing our perception of the bug. Phillip Weinstein recommends we “put insects in a more positive light, and to remove such fears as may be passed on from parents, zoos and museums can play an integral educational role.” At the Smithsonian’s Insect Zoo, Dan Babbit creates a safe and fun environment for visitors to learn more about insects and arachnids. Which brings me to the next topic…

    Students and volunteers prep butterflies at Florida Museum of Natural History. The lab is open to visitors during special events. Photo by the author.
    Students and volunteers prep butterflies at Florida Museum of Natural History. The lab is open to visitors during special events. Photo by the author.
  2. Creating mesmerizing museum exhibits.  At the Smithsonian’s insect zoo, visitors can face their fears by watching the daily tarantula feedings. Children sit on the floor in expectation, and adults toughen up to touch a cockroach atop a researcher’s hand. At the Florida Museum of Natural History, visitors can watch students and volunteers pin butterflies for the museum’s lepidoptera collection. (An epic collection, housed in a three story building, library-style: each book-sized spot contains one box of butterflies or moths). If you catch curator Andy Warren, you may even get a behind the scenes tour of oddities in the moth and butterfly world.

    Lepidoptera curator Andy Warren gives visitors a backstage look at the butterfly collection. Florida Museum of Natural History. Photo by the author.
    Lepidoptera curator Andy Warren gives visitors a backstage look at the butterfly collection. Florida Museum of Natural History. Photo by the author.
  3. Fostering cool class projects, like spidernauts. Babbitt, who keeps a space spider in his freezer, has talked to Sci-Ed earlier about engaging the public and raising their interest in arthropods. Stories like the space spiders brought a lot of attention to those invertebrates. Jumping spiders were sent to the space station and broadcast to thousands of classrooms on Earth. Kids accompanied the arachnid’s journey by observing their own hand-caught spiders. After the experiment was over, one of the spiders, Nefertiti, was flown back to Earth and housed in the Insect Zoo. Visitors who may walk right past a spider exhibit felt compelled to stop and ask about the space spider.

  4. Exploring resources. Websites have resources for kids, such as a bug identification chart (pdf) and “mini-beast” mansion tutorial.   Bloggers such as Alex Wilde and Bug Girl are popularizing the insect topic.

  5. Taking advantage of outreach programs. According to entomologist turned psychologist Jeffrey Lockwood, “About 20 percent of children fearful of spider and insects report learning their aversion from parents”. Kids are not innately afraid. During a visit to the University of Florida Entomology Department, I asked resident expert Stephanie Stocks if she observes the parent effect during school visits. Much like Dan Babbit, Stocks brings zoo bugs in tow. She reported that, up to second grade, children are unanimously curious. Some older kids, however, learned from their parents that they should step back. Arachnologist Chris Buddle visits kids in their classrooms and describes the experience in his blog – along with a powerful call to arms. Buddle states that spending time teaching kids about entomology is always worth it.

    Entomologist Stephanie Stocks shows visitors a live vinegaroon in a University of Florida classroom.
    Entomologist Stephanie Stocks shows visitors a live vinegaroon in a University of Florida classroom.
  6. Participating in pop culture.  Like we said before in Sci-Ed, using storytelling and heroes to teach science won’t hurt. One study (pdf) found, unsurprisingly, that children did much better at identifying Pokémon types as opposed to animal or bug species. Films such as A Bug’s Life and Antz took the anthropomorphic route. In the words of Lockwood, “If turning humans into insects countenances hate, then turning insects into humans has the opposite effect. Artists humanize insect heroes by transforming their alien features into eyes, mouths, heads, and appendages more like our own.”

    A Bug's Life. Photo credit:  Walt Disney Pictures.
    Anthropomorphized insects in A Bug’s Life. Photo credit: Walt Disney Pictures.
  7. Keeping a pet bug.  Curator Andy Warren told me he was once afraid of spiders, which sounds like a peculiar setback for an entomologist. Warren conquered his fear after caring for a pet tarantula. One study tracks thousands of children to look into the effects of  keeping an invertebrate pet. The authors observed several benefits from keeping a pet insect that go way beyond loosing fear of bugs and contribute to an expanded view of ecology and science.

I might get a pet beetle myself. And hope that one day we won’t need to start classes by asking if anyone’s afraid of bugs.

Owl butterfly at Florida Museum of Natural History. Photo by the author.
Owl butterfly at Florida Museum of Natural History. Photo by the author.

References and further reading

  • Balmford et al. Why conservationists should heed Pokemon. Science 295 (5564): 2367b, 2002.

  • Prokop et al. Effects of keeping animals as pets on children’s concepts of vertebrates and invertebrates. International Journal of Science Education, Vol 30, No 4, 431-449, 2008.

  • Snaddon et al. Children’s Perceptions of Rainforest Biodiversity: Which Animals Have the Lion’s Share of Environmental Awareness? PLOS One DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0002579 , 2008.

Can a museum object be more like a dog?

About a month ago I visited the Adam Lister art gallery. In one art exhibit, an artist had placed a gumball machine filled with what he called “tiny art”. The machine had a sign that encouraged people to play, by inputting one dollar and turning the knob. Puzzled, I scrambled for quarters to feed that gumball machine and find my prize. In return, I received a small plastic shelled ball – similar to the toy-filled shells in arcade gumball machines. Instead of a toy, the plastic ball held a piece of tiny art, created by one of the local artists in the community.  An art gallery has a different goal than a museum, but still, I thought we could re-use that idea. Can an exhibit encourage participation? From that moment on, I decided to learn more about the concept of a participatory exhibit or museum.

A piece of tiny art is hidden inside its receptacle. Photo by the author.

Participatory museum

The participatory museum is a concept advocated by Nina Simon. At the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, she designs interactive exhibits that offer visitors a chance to create art. For example, the museum houses a table display with empty mason jars, paper, and pen, which invites visitors to share a memory. This idea is analogous to a “message in a bottle”. So far, visitors have already shared thousands of memories in jars, which go on display in a museum wall, side by side with the museum’s art collection. Some powerful, emotional memories have been stored (such as a mother’s note to her deceased son in Iraq). One take home message here is: art is no longer something you simply stare at.

I interviewed museum specialist Laura DiSciullo, who offered one such example of participation: “interaction may involve strangers interacting, or visitors interacting with past and future visitors by leaving a comment. There were times when I was the only visitor in an exhibit, but the experience was still interactive in that I could see what previous visitors had contributed, and leave my own contribution.”

In addition, she mentions exhibits that  “have elements geared toward intergenerational learning, esp. a family of visitors interacting. Not only are the adults helping the children learn (and perhaps vise versa), but it is also a social, bonding experience for the family.”

Social Objects

In her TED talk last November, Nina Simon states that “museum objects should be more like dogs”. Dog owners out there might understand what she means: you are outside walking your dog and are approached by friendly strangers who ask to pet him. Nina Simon sees museum artifacts as social objects. Like a dog, a museum object offers an excuse for strangers to have a conversation. Specifically, they are a “safe social object that mediates an encounter that otherwise wouldn’t have happened”. Dogs and social museum objects are opportunities for conversation; they mediate conversation between strangers.

Teens discuss the stacks of money demonstrating income disparities among different races. Photo by Terry Gydesen at The Participatory Museum.

In her book, Nina Simon invites us to “imagine looking at an object not for its artistic or historical significance but for its ability to spark conversation”. This is how she defines the concept of social object. One social object example comes from a Santa Cruz museum exhibit that shows the income disparities between white and black populations in the exhibit Race: Are We So Different? A group of teenagers stares in shock at two piles of dollar bills, with wildly different heights. For Ms. Simon, the exhibit is mediating a serious conversation (income disparity) between a group of strangers (teenagers and other museum visitors), that might not have happened otherwise. Another powerful example of social objects is the wrecked car displayed at the Jeremy Deller: It is what it is: Conversations about Iraq exhibit, which prompts visitors and an invited expert (a veteran, journalist, or scholar) to debate.

A wrecked car after an explosion in Baghdad. This social object sparks conversation at Jeremy Deller: It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Photography © Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago by photographer, Analu Maria Lopez.

Bringing social objects to science museums

Science museums already offer opportunities for visitors to participate, mostly via interactive exhibits. But how do we bring debate, especially one that continues after a visitor leaves the museum?

Many science topics would benefit from serious discussion. Evolution, climate change, human origins, or vaccination (considering the current “antivax” climate) are a few that come to mind. How can science museums use social objects to help foster debate?

The Hall of Human Origins, at the National Museum of Natural History, emphasizes the evolutionary relationships between early humans and anatomically modern human. The hall welcomes visitors with a provocative message: “what does it mean to be human?”. It lines up reconstructions of early humans (such as Australopithecine and Neanderthals) that culminate with an impressive wall of skulls. Standing in front of that wall, one can join conversation that is invariably going on: some children are terrified, other are curious. I saw it for the first time when I was there with my sister, who is an MD. She unconsciously switched to doctor mode and starting point out to causes of death based on what she saw on skulls. “Here’s a brow fracture; this guy suffered a blow to the head”, or “that poor guy must have had a massive toothache.”

The hall also offers a lecture series called HOT – short for Human Origin Topics – that focus on controversial science and philosophical questions (e.g., evolution or religion). But perhaps the most popular object in the hall – and a great example of a social object – is the MEanderthal photo booth. Visitors line up to take their photo, which will be morphed into a Neanderthal version of themselves. Long lines form in this particular object, and people interact while waiting in line.  Laura DiSciullo told me that MEanderthal is “a fun conversation piece for friends and families, or perhaps strangers waiting in what can be a long line for this popular feature.”

Giant drill at the Perot Museum of Science and Nature. Photo by Lara Solt at Dallas News.

Other science-based institutions offer social objetcs and exhibits. The National Zoo has a pizza playground, with the goal of teaching children where their food comes from (pepperoni does not sprout from the ground). The Perot Museum of Nature and Science displays a giant drill in their energy hall that – and if this seems controversial it’s because it is – that illustrates hydro fracking. DiSciullo also reminds me of “the world population counter [at the Hall of Human Origins] that continually increases, and the large display saying how much of our DNA we share with other species (including bananas).”

How can science museums become more social?

The process starts during exhibit design. DiSciullo explains that, during design, educators advocate for learning outcomes. One example, used by some museums, is the GLO, or Generic Learning Outcomes: “ [GLO] describe all the types of learning that can take place – learning facts is one possible goal for visitors, but not the only one.” In addition to learning, museum educators also encourage other outcomes, such as “helping visitors make connections between things they already know, or express themselves creatively, or make a positive behavior change based on what they’ve learned.” We’ve all seen programs like the one at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, where visitors receive card to instruct them on sustainable and health decisions.

Nina Simon urges museums to answer the following questions: “how do you want visitors to learn from or interact with each other? Do you want to promote dialogue…? Do you want to promote group collaboration? Do you want visitors to respond to each other, to help each other, to create things together?” With those goals in mind, museums aim for a learning outcome of social interaction.  As museum consultant Darcie Fohrman reports to Simon, “In the museum field, we know that learning happens when there is discussion and conversation. We want people to ask strange questions and say, ‘I don’t get this.”