censorship in scienceAccording to a New York Times editorial today, science museums are self-censoring themselves in order to temper religious controversy. Apparently, a dozen IMAX theaters -- including some in museums -- have been "shying away from science documentaries that might offend Christian fundamentalists." Examples include "Cosmic Voyage", "Galapagos", and "Volcanoes of the Deep Sea" -- all which ostensibly (and arguably) work against creationism. (The last posits the notion that life originated in undersea vents.)
Personally, I have no problem with independent IMAX theaters chosing their films based on commercial considerations. If the owners don't think that they will get the audience they need, or want, or if they want to spread a certain message, surely they have that right.
However there is something fundamentally wrong with a science museum afforded the same luxury. (I'm not sure if my position would change if the museum were not funded by the federal or state government...) The NYT concludes:
"The danger in self-censorship by museums is that it will reduce the already tiny world of Imax theaters available for big-screen science documentaries. Producers have a hard time making money as it is. It would be unfortunate if censorship by science museums helped drive them away from topics that might offend religious fundamentalists."
But this sort of self-censorship goes beyond changing the direction of what films can and cannot be made. It begs the larger issue of if the practice of science should be governed -- legislated -- by religious agendas. I find the most recent editorial from Scientific American to be apt:
"In retrospect, this magazine's coverage of socalled evolution has been hideously one-sided. For decades, we published articles in every issue that endorsed the ideas of Charles Darwin and his cronies. True, the theory of common descent through natural selection has been called the unifying concept for all of biology and one of the greatest scientific ideas of all time, but that was no excuse to be fanatics about it.
Where were the answering articles presenting the powerful case for scientific creationism? Why were we so unwilling to suggest that dinosaurs lived 6,000 years ago or that a cataclysmic flood carved the Grand Canyon? Blame the scientists. They dazzled us with their fancy fossils, their radiocarbon dating and their tens of thousands of peer-reviewed journal articles. As editors, we had no business being persuaded by mountains of evidence."
Kudos! Kudos! This frankness is refreshing. If an organization purporting to educate the public about science cannot endorse -- or even weaker, present -- evolution or the Big Bang, then the true state of affairs is rather sad.
This self-censorship occurs not only in science museums, but also in historical exhibits. One paragon is the Enola Gay-Smithsonian controversy (see The Journal of American History, Vol. 82, No. 3, Dec., 1995 for the contours of the debate). A sorry state for history when power politics mutate an exhibition.