Kick the Kochs off the Board

A group of scientists have published an open letter to the Smithsonian, the American Museum of Natural History, and others to cut all ties with the fossil fuel industry, including removing David Koch from the boards of those two museums.

As James Powell, one of the signatories, put it on Democracy Now!,

And when you have on your board someone who has gotten the science wrong and who is a billionaire and is sitting at the table when trustee decisions are made, you at least give the appearance that your exhibit might be tainted and might not be giving the best science. And, in fact, with the Smithsonian exhibit that you talked about, I think that’s not just an appearance, but it’s actually the reality—the notion that we can evolve our way out of global warming. I like to say my grandchildren are already here; they’re present on the planet. They’re not going to evolve by the time they’re my age. What is going to happen is that the world is going to be a much more dangerous place.

Powell is referring to this comment by Amy Goodman:

One of the most controversial exhibits is a Koch-backed installation at the Smithsonian that promotes the theory that humankind evolved in response to climate change.

It’s unfortunate phrasing by Goodman, since it suggests that there is something nefarious in the theory itself, as opposed to Koch’s use of the Smithsonian name to buy himself some much-needed scientific credibility. In fact, one proponent of the theory, (full text of his book on the subject is here but the formatting is a mess) William Calvin at the University of Washington, is quite outspoken on the problem of anthropogenic climate change. Have a look at this scary-ass post from September 2014. So you can agree with the theory about climate as an influence on human evolution while disagreeing sharply with Koch’s, and the Smithsonian’s, egregious non-ideas about our current crisis.

The exhibit sounds like a real piece of work—and I don’t mean that in a complimentary way. Check out this dissection by physicist and Climate Progress founder Joe Romm. There’s also a discussion in this 2010 article from the New Yorker by Jane Mayer. (There’s one egregious goof in this discussion, when Mayer writes that “levels of carbon dioxide are higher now than they have ever been.” That’s so obviously wrong I have to suspect an editor’s error, cutting out an essential qualifying phrase—perhaps, “since humans existed” or words to that effect.) According to Romm’s piece,

… the most embarrassing and scientifically misleading display the Smithsonian designed — which directly suggests that humans can simply evolve to deal with global warming — is still in the exhibit [5 years after it was first mounted and the problems pointed out]. The final section about the present and future has a nonsensical interactive video that lets visitors create a “future human” who evolves over a long period of time to a variety of changing conditions. These conditions include a new ice age or even — I kid you not — a future Earth that “smells.”

He goes on to observe,

And of all the proposed science-based approaches for dealing with the multiple, irreversible catastrophes that such global warming entails, waiting for Homo Sapiens to evolve ain’t one of ‘em. As long as this anti-scientific video is part of the Koch exhibit, visitors will have every right to assume the museum is intentionally misleading the public on the gravity of the climate situation.

So, to add insult to injury, while undermining public confidence in the Smithsonian and trying to diminish the urgency and severity of human-caused climate change, the exhibit also throws undeserved doubt on an interesting theory about human evolution, one that should be examined and critiqued on its merits, not through guilt by association with Koch.

I was also struck by this comment from Beka Economopolous (what a great name), co-founder and director of the new mobile Natural History Museum, which “[u]nlike traditional natural history museums, … makes a point to include and highlight the socio-political forces that shape nature”:

[T]here are more museums in the United States than Starbucks and McDonald’s combined. The museum sector represents vital societal infrastructure. They are so relevant for conveying information, for educating the youth and the public. And people have a tremendous amount of faith in the validity of these institutions. And when museums accept these contributions, it undermines the trust that the public place in them. And that, in turn, undermines a trust and faith in science, in general.

More museums than Starbucks and McDonald’s combined! That’s amazing! Of course, you have to wonder about what, exactly, qualifies as a “museum.” But still, it’s an eye-catching statistic, if true. According to the American Alliance of Museums, museums also attract more visitors annually than “all major sporting events and theme parks combined.” There’s quite a bit of food for thought here about the social construction of knowledge.

But the main point is, the Smithsonian and the American Museum of Natural History should not have Kochs or other anti-science donors on their board or in their funding mix. No museum should.

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