May 30, 2010

Science museums and environmental action: Learning only goes so far

Zoos, aquariums, and science museums are no longer content to describe the world; they’re trying to improve the world by changing visitors’ attitudes and behaviors. But many are operating under the mistaken assumption that the way to do it is to present the facts.

You could always go to a natural history museum, science center, zoo, or aquarium to learn things about the natural world. These days, part of what you learn is how the natural world is changing due to human activity: biodiversity loss, deforestation, climate change, and so on. These things, as museum exhibits and programs often remind us, are scientific, objective facts.

Granted. But the museums don’t just want to educate us; they want to inspire us to action, or at least to new levels of caring about nature. In the words of the typical NSF grant, they hope the exhibit or program will lead to cognitive, affective, and behavioral change.

Yet most of them make a big, unexamined assumption, which is that knowing the facts will change people’s minds (and eventually their actions).

From Knowledge to Attitude Change—Wishful Thinking?

The literature on social change begs to differ, as my colleagues and I learned while conducting a literature review for the Shedd Aquarium’s Great Lakes conservation initiative a few years ago. There isn’t a simple, causal relationship between knowing that, say, the water in Lake Michigan is polluted and believing that you and your neighbors should be more careful about using herbicides on the lawn or disposing of toxic chemicals.

And the relationship between knowing that fact and actually changing your behavior is even (pardon the watery pun) murkier.

I’ve tried to explain this to museum professionals in various contexts, with only mixed success. Ours is still a profession of, by, and for rationally-minded people, and from within the field it’s hard to imagine that there could be a fundamental gap between knowing a truth and drawing the obvious conclusions about what that truth means for us as a society.

To understand why that gap might exist, notice the verbs in my sentences about water pollution, above: knowing and believing. Two very different mental states, activated in different areas of the brain. One refers outward: it’s about the world. The other points inward: it’s about ourselves.

A brief detour through Copenhagen

I recently stumbled across a brilliant analysis of the difference by the 19th-century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. (Don’t hit that “back” button yet — this will be painless.) For Kierkegaard, it’s about the distinction between “objective thought” and “subjective thought.”

In objective thought, what matters is whether the “object” of your thought (the thing you’re thinking about) is true or not, as measured by external, universal standards. The truth (or falsehood) is out there, apart from you. (See first diagram.) Scientific assertions — “Force equals mass times acceleration,” for example, or “Whales form social units” — are obvious examples of objective thought.


But this kind of truth doesn’t make claims on us, says Kierkegaard. It’s indifferent to whether we believe it or not. And believing it isn’t really a choice you make (you’re compelled to believe it, given the overwhelming evidence of how the world works), so this kind of truth doesn’t tell you anything about yourself or how you should live.

In subjective thought, by contrast, what matters is the relationship between you and the object of your thought. (See second diagram.) The emphasis is less on what you believe and more on how you believe it. “It’s wrong to hunt whales” is this kind of truth: it tells us at least as much about you as it does about whales. You make a choice to believe it. (These aren’t Kierkegaard’s examples; I’m just illustrating his point.)

How do you come to know these subjective truths? Not through scientific inquiry and testing, but through introspection: you need to learn something about your own values, about the kind of person you want to be and the kind of world you want to live in. A subjective truth is a value statement. It embodies — and requires — a commitment.

Back to science museums

You can see the implications for science museums and zoos. Learning an objective truth, like “Species are disappearing at an unprecedented rate,” is all well and good, but on its own it won’t change a visitor’s attitudes or behavior. What’s necessary is a subjective truth, something experienced inwardly and personally, like “The loss of biodiversity on this planet is a disaster.”

How to instill or inspire that kind of subjective truth is a tough question. But it’s a much better question than the one most science museums and zoos are asking, which is essentially, “What information about the natural world do visitors need in order to begin to care about it more?

That question confuses the two different kinds of truth. If Kierkegaard is right that how something is communicated is more important than what is communicated, then maybe the “information” people need most isn’t about the natural world at all, but about the museum and its people: their values, their passions, their subjective, human commitment to protecting the planet we share.

Instead, of course, most science museums stick to the objective mode, presenting a series of facts in as compelling a form as possible and hoping that the cumulative effect will be persuasive.

Now, no one’s arguing that we should do away with objective, scientific facts. Kierkegaard was acutely aware that subjective truth detached from objective external reality can only lead to comedy or “madness.” (And he hadn’t seen Fox News.)

But he also made the opposite, and for me far-more-important point: that objective truth detached from subjective reality can be equally pathetic or ridiculous. Just as I can have a passionate, powerful relationship to something that’s objectively untrue (think of astrology), I can also have a false or empty relationship to something that’s true and vitally important (like climate change). Or worse yet, no relationship at all.

Too often, that’s the sense I get at science museums and zoos. Objectivity rules, but somehow it’s not enough. Ironically, these science-oriented museums are increasingly interested in providing “affective,” emotional learning experiences for their visitors. To do that, they may first need to uncover their own affects, the gut-level feelings and values that animate their choices every day.

Eric Stassen — June 01, 2010

This hearkens back to Dale Carnegie's observations about the near-impossibility of changing another's opinion by appealing to facts and logic. ("The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it.")

I wonder if in our day, the Internet's flood of information has diluted the power factual statements once held. It's so easy to get basic information now, it's no longer terribly impressive to be presented with it. If every fact on a museum's collection of wall plaques could be found in a few seconds online, what is that museum really adding to a visitor's experience? Instead, the layperson has an ever greater need for the subjective, personalized opinions of an expert guide to make sense of the world.

Peter Linett — June 03, 2010

Nice quote from Carnegie, Eric, thanks. I'm sure you're right about what's changing in the culture. The internet gets a bad rap for being unreliable and too partisan to be trusted, but in truth (as you say) factual information is still readily, even overwhelmingly available online. But it's generic information, valuable (or not) independently of its source. What subjectivity can offer is plain old differentiation -- something that would let us get to know our cultural institutions more personally and meaningfully. Because only then will we trust them to help us make sense of our worlds.

Thanks for commenting, always glad to hear from you.

Deb Kerr — June 08, 2010

Peter, your argument brings to mind evolution--and that some believe otherwise, despite the scientific facts--and, particularly for zoos and aquariums, the captivity debate. Zoos and aquariums have begun to recognize that they must, indeed, personalize the experience with the animals--make it subjective--in order to capture the guest's heart. For so many years the community carefully avoided any hint of anthropomorphism, so the audience wouldn't assign human emotions to the animals. But the personalizing of animals was exactly what the extremist community used against zoos and aquariums. Now those up-close experiences are an essential tool in the zoo toolbox to get the audience to believe they have a role in saving animals.

Phil Katz — June 18, 2010

This is closely related, I think, to the well-documented fact that people are more willing to contribute to charities when motivated by a single, compelling instance ("Help this starving young girl from Rwanda") then when they are presented with "objective truths" on a larger scale ("Africa is suffering through a continuous drought that has left millions undernourished"). What can zoos, etc. learn from this? And is there a way to apply such insights without falling back on heart-warming (or tear-jerking) just-so stories?

Note that Kierkegaard wrote extensively about animals and their relationship with humans, so he would have appreciated your post!

Dan Spock — July 02, 2010

People are stubbornly resistant to modifying their impression of things particularly when they perceive their own stake in the matter acutely, when it becomes deeply personal. I have several friends who simply cannot accept impending global climate change, even when presented with evidence. To accept the facts would require a wholesale re-evaluation of their belief systems and the security they derive from them. In essence, it's too terrifying for some people to contend with the facts, and with what the facts are telling us: our entire way of life is unsustainable. The response is denial.

I just read a study done at the MN Zoo which showed that people entering their new exhibit already had a high level of awareness of matters such as the impact of human populations on animal populations, extinction, etc. So what is anybody armed with this knowledge prepared to do about it? Most either haven't the slightest idea, or aren't prepared to sacrifice to the collective degree necessary--stop driving to the zoo? Think of the contradictory howl coming from the Gulf right now: Stop this mess! But don't stop drilling!

Of all the places out there, the Monterey Bay Aquarium at least does you the favor of telling you what positive choices you can personally make; buy this kind of seafood and stay away from this other kind.

I think wrapped up in this interpretive dilemma is the fact that we museums still tend to think in informational transfer terms. We already know that museums are rather clumsy devices for conveying textual information. If the big message is left in the label, chances are that it won't penetrate very far. This puts the onus on design to convey a compelling impression. Did anyone see the interesting news item about the aquarium/museum in Dubuque that is making a Gulf Coast aquarium tank into a spill-damaged display?

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