The Smithsonian makes an exhibition of itself
by Tony Thomas
July 30, 2012
One of my motives for a fortnight’s stay in Washington DC was to check out the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (MNH). I was one of the museum’s 7 million annual visitors.
Little did I expect to find there errors, exaggerations, green propaganda, apparent lame comedy and games for kids that include nuclear warfare between hypothetical countries. All that, and more, has seeped into an otherwise brilliant exhibition of hominim evolution in the Hall of Human Origins.
The main display is a $US20m blockbuster on the rise and decline of many human species. This was opened in March 2010 “as one of the most significant public and scientific achievements in the 100-year history of the museum”, according to museum director Cristian Samper.
From the fossil skulls of eight extinct species, paleo-artist John Gurche spent two years re-creating their faces, ranging from near-ape-like Paranthropus boisei to our closer cousins the Neanderthals and (probably) the Flores Island ‘hobbits’. The display also argues for the curator of anthropology Dr Rick Potts’ new hypothesis that highly-variable climate change over the past few million years favored the survival of the more adaptable human types.
According to the museum, “This exhibition is based on decades of cutting-edge research by Smithsonian scientists, and is the result of an international collaboration with over 60 research and educational organizations and over 100 researchers from around the world.” So far, so good.
Evolution is hyper-sensitive to religious Americans, some polls showing 53% of US adults don’t believe in it. Potts therefore liaised with a 15-member “Broader Social Impacts Committee”, which comprised a Unitarian Universalist, a Mennonite Brethren, at least two and half Presbyterians, a Buddhist, a Muslim, a Conservative Judaist, a Hindu, a Humanist, a Dutch Reformed Churchperson (Presbyterian), a Joe Watkins Ph.D., a United Methodist, a Roman Catholic, an African Methodist (Episcopal) and a Protestant Evangelican.
Such are the sensitivities of “evolution”, though the dangerous global warming hypothesis is treated in the displays as certain and uncontroversial. This warmist theme seems to be tacked on as an afterthought by someone unfamiliar with the issues – not one aspect is sourced to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) though factoids are recycled from green activist sources.
There is also an overlay of greenist pessimism about human progress, as if civilisation may be struck down at any moment by a pandemic, over-population and/or neglect of wild nature, assuming we are not drowned first by 20ft sea rises.
As one reviewer put it, “A closing portion of the exhibition, with displays about population growth and contemporary climate change, suggests that Homo sapiens’ skills are being challenged yet again.”
I first realized something was amiss at the placard, “Changing the World – Great Moments in Food Technology.”
It reads, and I’m not making this up:
1928: Sliced bread. 1791: Artificial teeth. 63 BCE: Water-powered grist mill. 500 BCE: Iron plow. 9500 BCE: Grain storehouse.
Is this a joke? Everywhere, parents, teachers and kids are taking earnest notes from these placards. (And the false-teeth bit is not even correct. Alexis Duchâteau invented porcelain teeth in 1770). Apparently, inventing sliced bread is more noteworthy than inventing dwarfed high-yield wheat and rice in the 1950s, which have fed billions, thanks to Norm Borlaug’s work.
Before I went down to the warmist section, I stopped to play an environmental “simulation” game that the museum had put together for kids. It involves countries including XLandia, YLandia and ZLandia. This kids’ game led me to nuclear war-gaming and nuking exchanges.
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?
The computer choices are, in a screen labeled
a. Agree to give up your nuclear weapons, as long as everyone else does.
b. Don’t trust them! You need to keep your weapons for defence.
I chose “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, nuclear warfare, fall-out included, does “cause harm”: ask anyone in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Right now, a third of US nuclear forces are still on launch-ready alert. Should these issues be trivialized for kids?
The game was full of other curiosities. Kids are asked to choose between spending on the environment or spending to reform the banking system. If they choose to reform the banks (tut, tut!), the next screen tells them that “health decreases” and “social instability increases”. The designers clearly learnt nothing from the bank-induced Great Financial Crisis.
I lacked time to check the decision-trees exhaustively, but numerous scenarios had ‘global warming’ as the big threat, including the “20ft” sea rises.
“To fight climate change, several companies have invented new plants that suck up CO2 to be turned into gasoline after harvesting…” If you give these plants the thumbs down, “Climate change continues to get worse…”
“The bees in your country are in trouble: diseases introduced accidentally from overseas, along with climate change, are killing them in droves…”
“With climate changing and cities needing more water, farmers don’t always have enough for their own crops…”
Somehow, the game never gives you an option to be skeptical about the science-authorities’ advice, even when they are recommending a poultice of extra research funding for themselves.
At the back corner of the display one gets to the dangerous-global-warming hypothesis per se.
There are two graphics asserting the warmist case.
One graph plots, on a 400,000 year time scale, atmospheric CO2 against temperature and sea level rises. This has a strong resemblance to the notorious ‘up on the cherry picker’ graph in Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth movie. It has the same vertical rocketing of the CO2 line in the past half-century, although we are actually just viewing a rise from 0.00028 to 0.00039 in atmospheric CO2 content.
The caption reads:
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 …
The graph’s source is undoubtedly the seminal paper by Petit et al in Nature in 1999, but with sea level changes added. However, new data by 2003 clarified that temperature lagged CO2 changes by 800 years or so.
It is therefore accepted by warmists and sceptics alike that CO2 and temperatures did not “fluctuate together”; temperatures rose and probably caused the later rise in CO2. We even have a UK High Court Judge, Justice Burton, ruling:
Mr Gore shows two graphs relating to a period of 650,000 years, one showing rise in CO2 and one showing rise in temperature, and asserts (by ridiculing the opposite view) that they show an exact fit. Although there is general scientific agreement that there is a connection, the two graphs do not establish what Mr Gore asserts.
Dr Potts’ graph time-scale is too long to show the lagged relationship, but coupled with the caption, the graph is misleading.
Nearby is another placard saying:
Rising CO2 levels
The level of CO2 today is the highest since our species evolved. 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 placard does not mention that the mid-point of IPCC sea rise projections for 2100 (itself a wild extrapolation), is only about 60cm (2 ft).
From where does Dr Potts get the alarming 6.4m rise? Oceanographers talk in terms of several centuries for a 7m rise, and that’s assuming the Greenland ice sheet melts away entirely.  The great-grandchildren of the primary schoolers in the museum now being scared by talk of 21ft sea rises, will be buried long before any problem arises.
The other key graph in the display does what warmists normally run a mile to avoid. It plots CO2 rises over just the past 140 years against temperature rises. Normally, such a graph will show good correlation only for the 1970-1995 quarter-century. The other periods show an ugly lack of correlation.
Dr Potts’ treatment avoids discomfiture by showing a smoothed rising line for CO2 levels but a confusing forest of annual bars for actual temperatures (rather than the normal plotting of temperature variations against a long-term average). The non-correlation is hard to perceive, especially behind glass and two paces away. The graph also halts at the year 2000, ignoring the lack of statistically-significant warming from about 1997 to 2012. Given that the display was launched in 2010, nearly a decade’s worth of inconvenient data was omitted.
The display includes the claim:
How do we know the ocean is changing?
Data collected by underwater robots and floating buoys show that the ocean’s surface layers are warming. The more information scientists gather, the better they can predict weather and future climate patterns.
The “robots” are clearly the Argo robot buoy program from 2003 in which 3500 buoys distributed through the world’s oceans drift and dive to 2000m taking progressive data readings. They then surface and transmit the data by satellite. Previous ocean samplings – including ship-based samplings – were crude, partial and unreliable.
The results of the Argo program today are probably the most important controversy in climate science, as absence of ocean warming has the potential to falsify the IPCC hypothesis. Douglass & Knox, writing on Argo data, said four out of five studies for 2003-2008 showed ocean cooling, not warming. Argo results to late 2011 show a slight warming trend but far insufficient to match the heat predicted by modelling.
A bald statement by the museum that “the ocean’s surface layers are warming” does a dis-service to the spirit of scientific inquiry, muffling the excitement and uncertainty of research critical to the warming hypothesis.
It is part of the green mindset that civilization is a problem. One placard actually sets out the benefits and costs of civilization, not a question often asked by civilisation’s beneficiaries.
By settling down and producing our own food, we created
# enough food to feed billions of people and respond to catastrophes
# buildings that protect us from extreme weather
# Technologies that enables (sic) us to extend our lives, communicate worldwide, and venture into space
# Time to think, create, play, socialize, and much more.
# Piles of waste that formed natural breeding grounds for contagious diseases [hardly today’s big issue?]
# Large concentrations of people, enabling diseases to spread and become epidemics [more about this shortly];
# Domesticated landscapes that displaced wild habitats;
# Loss of wild species that depend on natural habitats.”
Civilization’s cost/benefits thus hang in the balance.
Other elements of Green-mindedness are evident. Another placard:
In 2004, the International Union for Conservation of Nature [IUCN] reported that amphibian, bird, and mammal extinction rates were at least 48 times greater than natural extinction rates – possibly 1024 times greater.
The much-touted reference in the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concerning risk of extinction of 20-30% of species has since been exposed as rubbish.
Dr Potts isn’t relying on the IPCC anyway, but the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a green lobbyist organization. Its membership includes literally scores of activist groups. In Australia, for example, members include the Wilderness Society, WWF and Australian Conservation Foundation.
The IUCN was a major lobbyist for CO2 limits at the Rio +20 conference last June, demanding atonements for the West’s crimes against nature. In the IUCN’s own words, “With tentacles at all levels from the highest policy arena to the ground level and experts on all aspects of sustainability, IUCN is well placed to translate policy into concrete action.” Why in the Smithsonian does a top scientist need to quote IUCN reports? I looked up the IUCN study and it is speculation piled on hypothesis, extrapolated.
Dr Potts seems pre-occupied about “pandemics”. Instead of inviting museum clients to celebrate the massive advances in human health in the past half-century, he intimates that we are in some sort of global health crisis.
His gloom is brought on by population explosion and is in line with the (discredited) warnings of Malthus (1798) and the Club of Rome’s greenist “Limits to Growth” (1972).
In reality, most epidemics and pandemics are in Africa, an outcome of kleptocratic governments and ensuing poverty, not population growth and side-effects of economic progress. One placard reads:
FACT: A cholera pandemic that began in 1961 as still on-going in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. The number of cases reported in 2006 was 79% more than in 2005.
[Global reported cases of cholera (a treatable disease) in 2006 were in fact a mere 6311, according to the World Health Organisation. The 79% increase over 2005 was just a blip. Reported cholera cases (which greatly under-estimate total cases) increased 24% for 2004-08 compared with 2000-04. Cholera-prone countries include Sudan, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, Iraq, Haiti and the Congo, all special cases.]
FACT: Every year between 3 and 5 million people get “the flu” and between 250,000 and 500,000 people die from it.
[Flu is fatal mostly for the very young, very old, and very sick. Flu rates and mortalities, far from being a “FACT”, are problematic, even in the US.]
FACT: A child dies of malaria every 30 seconds. About 40pc of the world’s population is at risk of malaria.”
[Malaria is another disease of poverty, not a side effect of prosperity. The billions now funding “climate science” could instead be saving kids from malaria and cholera. Incidentally the greens-inspired bans on DDT from 1972, which were reversed in 2006, probably caused millions of children to die needlessly of malaria.]
FACT: Every second someone in the world is infected with tuberculosis. One third of the world’s population is infected.
[TB is yet another disease of poverty. In line with growing world prosperity, WHO reports that TB mortality has fallen by a third since 1990, and the world (outside Africa) is on track to its goal of halving the 1990 TB mortality rate by 2015, notwithstanding the AIDS/TB linkages. It is true that a third of the world is “infected” with TB but these are not ill with it and can’t transmit it. Those “infected” have a 10% lifetime risk of falling ill.]
Why frighten kids and adults with pandemics? There have been recent “scare pandemics” such as ebola viruses (2001-03, 254 deaths), bird flu (around 2003-06, 154 deaths worldwide), and swine flu (2009 – official deaths 18,500, possibly more 250,000; but even then comparable with normal flu’s toll).   Those scares have all subsided, but maybe the museum was infected by them, so to speak. We also learn in the display about ancient smallpox and bubonic plagues, and the 1919 flu, with no context about medical triumphs since then.
Surprisingly, Dr Potts’ display ignores today’s genuine pandemic, HIV/AIDS (1.8m deaths in 2010), which doesn’t fit into any green agenda. Yet in the museum’s own territory Washington DC, more than 3% of residents aged over 12 have HIV or AIDS, a rate as bad as in Uganda.
Another slide says: “As of 2005 humans had built so many dams that nearly six times as much water was held in storage as flowed freely in rivers.” Dams are presumably bad; rivers going to the sea are good. Why dams for irrigation, flood control, hydro power and city water are bad, isn’t spelt out.
Although it is unsourced, the museum’s claim can be tracked down to the Millennium Assessment Report (2005), which actually refers to three to six times as much water in dams as rivers, not ‘nearly six times’. Moreover, the data is not for 2005 but as at 2000.
Who wrote this Millenium report? A confabulation of countries, scientists, UN agencies, civil society representatives including indigenous peoples, “the private sector” and 1300 authors and 600 reviewers selected with a close eye to geographic and gender balance. All this under the expensive supervision of the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP). A scientific publication? Hardly (although it does cite science papers from 1997 and 2003 for its claim about dams).
Incidentally, the museum’s director Samper leaves in August 2012 to become CEO for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). While doing good works in fields such as tiger and gorilla preservation, the WCS believes that “Climate change is arguably the most significant conservation challenge we face today.”
The WCS must mean “anticipated” climate change as the estimated 0.7deg temperature rise in the past 100 years (possibly merely 0.4deg) is hardly a big deal, whether for tigers, gorillas or ourselves.
The museum’s press office was asked to comment on the criticisms in this article. It did not respond.
Tony Thomas is a retired journalist.
 “Unchecked global warming is likely to raise sea level by several metres in coming centuries, leading to the loss of many coastal cities and entire island states.” http://www.wcrp-climate.org/documents/sea_level_4page_web_EN-1.pdf
 see for example http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8511670.stm, to 2010
 For medical progress see http://globalhealthcenter.umn.edu/pdf/global%20public%20health%20a%20scorecard.pdf