In a small corner of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, past the dinosaur exhibit with its throngs of stroller-pushing tourists and beyond the Dinosaur Cafe that sells overpriced salads, lies an exhibit on ice ages that proclaims that the earth is not in fact warming due to human activities, which is the overwhelming consensus in the scientific community.
Instead, the exhibit contains the outdated and (so far) inaccurate prediction that the planet should have cooled throughout the 1980s, begun to warm up by 2015, and that it will cool again between 2030 and 2050. In contrast to these trends, the actual record of recent climate change is one of unequivocal warming.
It was only by chance that I stumbled upon this exhibit while searching for a men's room during a recent visit to the museum. (The men's room was in fact slightly harder to find than the exhibit, but not by much). The information presented in the exhibit stands in direct contrast not only to current climate science but also to other information that the museum has published.
The fact that the panels of inaccurate text are still on display at the Smithsonian raises questions of whether it's been too treacherous politically for the congressionally-funded museum system to display information that shows the climate is warming and points to the burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil as the chief culprit.
One of the panels of text in the ice ages exhibit is entitled "The Future" and states, "the minor global cooling trend of recent decades, with its attendant shifts in wind and rainfall patterns, is being carefully watched and studied. Already the effects on food production are severe in many parts of the world..."
Global cooling is typically something that climate change contrarians talk about, not the Smithsonian.
Other text nearby ties short-term climate changes to fluctuations in solar radiation, which the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has discounted as the primary driver of recent climate change. I did not notice any references to greenhouse gas emissions in the panels.
These errors were made more obvious by strolling upstairs in the museum to the beautiful Nature's Best Photography Exhibit, in which global warming is a running theme linking many of the striking images taken on different continents.
Why does the Smithsonian Institution, which is world-renowned for the authority of its research and the high quality of its frequented museums (23.2 million visitors system-wide in 2006), have on display information that plainly states that the earth is cooling, when in fact the opposite has been true?
The answer is not a tale of political interference with science, which might be the first conclusion to jump to on your "jump to conclusions mat." Rather, according to Bill Fitzhugh, an anthropologist and director of the Smithsonian's Arctic Studies Program, the panels have remained there for a simple and non-controversial reason: people forgot about them.
Fitzhugh was one of the designers of the ice age exhibit in 1975, and said he was reminded of the panels about a month ago when an employee in the exhibits department saw them while researching materials for a new exhibit on human origins. "None of us had actually gone back and read those labels that you saw in a long time," Fitzhugh told me.
"We don't have a lot of staff running around and checking on the old labels and this one just sort of went below the radar," Fitzhugh said. "It certainly shouldn't be looked at as the museum deliberately sending different signals." He added that the "scientific evidence is overwhelming" on global warming, and said the original exhibit was planned at a time when some data was coming out that pointed to the possibility of rapid climate shifts back into extremely cold conditions.
Fitzhugh said that now that they've been spotted, the panels will get a "To Be Renovated" label due to the fact that they directly contradict both mainstream climate science and other museum information, and have done so since the mid to late 1980s. According to Fiscal Year 2007 Natural History Museum attendance rates of 7 million visitors, that means that a total of 133 million people may have seen the faulty information since 1988, the year that NASA climatologist James Hansen testified on global warming on Capitol Hill. Of course that number is likely far lower than that, but it's hard to limit the figure to the number of people who get lost on their way to the bathroom while in the dinosaurs exhibit like I did.
The new text is being finalized and will be put in place within the next few weeks, although the ice ages exhibit may be eliminated as part of the restructuring around the new Human Origins exhibit scheduled to open in November, 2009.
"Since this is a confusing issue today we don't want to leave the misinformation up there," Fitzhugh said.
The Smithsonian has a history of controversial involvement with the climate change issue. A temporary exhibit entitled "The Arctic: A Friend Acting Strangely" generated press attention when allegations were made by some involved in the project that congressional pressure forced writers to edit the material presented to the public. That exhibit closed in November of 2006 but is still available online. It emphasized that warming, not cooling, has been taking place especially in the Arctic.
Both Fitzhugh and Randall Kremer, the museum's director of public affairs, said that contrary to what may be the public perception, the Smithsonian has never set out to create a physical science exhibit on climate change, but rather that most of its climate-related work is focused on showing how climate change affects people.
"We don't have the expertise to get involved in a lot of the climate change discussions that are being bandied about in the political and public arena," Kremer said. Instead the museum is contributing to the climate science knowledge base by conducting work on, as he put it, the "human dimension."
For the Smithsonian, part of its own "human dimension" evidently includes a touch of forgetfulness. It makes me wonder, what else in that museum is no longer accurate?