There’s an Anti-Science Conservative on Your Museum’s Board. So What?

The heated reactions to Rebekah Mercer’s seat on the board of the American Museum of Natural History are shortsighted and even absurd on many fronts.

There has been a ruckus of late around the hallowed halls of New York City’s American Museum of Natural History. An open letter from 450 scientists was published at the end of January calling on the museum to depose board member Rebekah Mercer; this following a private, but since leaked, letter from some curators calling for the same thing. The cause has been carried into the streets by protesters outside the museum who have called for Mercer’s ouster, and online through a slew of angry tweets and lambasting op-eds demanding the same.

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None of Mercer’s critics has presented any evidence of interference or influence from conservative donors or trustees over museum displays, programming, or research.

Mercer’s crime: She is a supporter of various institutions that deny climate change and oppose environmental efforts. She is also, as almost every article and op-ed feels the need to point out before even mentioning the climate change denialism, a Trump supporter. The concern seems to be that the public will lose trust in the museum as a bastion of knowledge if it associates with such conservatives, or that — through proximity or a sense of quid-pro-quo — they may corrupt the work done there.

The institution’s response to the campaign has been to release a statement noting that funders do not play a role in curatorial decision-making and that political views are explicitly not considered when making appointment decisions. Having spent time as a visiting scientist at the the museum myself, I can report that the staff who work there are brilliant and talented scientists and educators committed to teaching the world about science, including climate change. I would guess that most of the staff have never met, nor could even name, the 41 trustees, let alone experienced corrupting pressure from them. None of Mercer’s critics has presented any evidence of interference or influence from conservative donors or trustees — or liberal ones, for that matter — over museum displays, programming, or research.

It’s worrisome that appeals to reason and evidence must be made at all, given that the torch-and-pitchfork reaction to Mercer’s politics is ostensibly a defense against anti-science propagandists. But the heated reactions are problematic, perhaps even absurd, on many fronts. Beyond the lack of evidence, why be concerned with only conservative pressures, for example? Pseudoscience is not merely a habit of Republicans. The actress and comedian Tina Fey, another trustee and likely a more palatable one to most liberals, is also brilliant and talented — but she is not a scientist and we should not want her involved directly with museum decision-making either. More practically speaking, insofar as the rich are typically more conservative, it seems rather shortsighted to exclude the right from the museum’s donor base.


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Simply put, the qualifications for being a board member are being wealthy, having wealthy friends, and being generous to the institution with both. Mercer, whose foundation has given about $4 million to the AMNH since 2012, surely fits the bill — which is not to say that she should therefore be lauded for her politics or other philanthropic proclivities. But are her transgressions so dire that they warrant excommunication from a museum over which she had no measurable influence, beyond spending lavishly to help it continue its science-based mission? None of us are morally pristine, but our hypocrisies do tend to be less public and less expensive.

If the stated intent behind all the hullabaloo is to protect the reputation of the institution, garnering it a new one of being anti-conservative seems very dangerous indeed. We must not bar the doors of scientific institutions to anyone, whether it’s done explicitly, or by making them feel, as a class, unwelcome. Science cannot be known purely as a place for liberals. It has to be inclusive to be done right, for in trying to describe the world we must necessarily include all of it. Scientific institutions may feel more comfortable in the absence of dissenting voices, but by excluding people on the basis of their politics, those same institutions would sacrifice the opportunity to share science where it is most likely to win new converts to reason and empiricism.

The beauty of science is that, as an approach, it has the ability to transcend politics, and thereby help right some of the wrongs that politics can bring about.

The beauty of science is that, as an approach, it has the ability to transcend politics, and thereby help right some of the wrongs that politics can bring about. Climate change is real. Ditto evolution. Through more research we can find ways to control the former and direct the latter. If you want to help persuade people of this, people who aren’t already on your side, you need to invite them in.

I’m glad to know that Rebekah Mercer spends time at the American Museum of Natural History. I like to imagine she’ll learn something while there — something about the beauty of the natural world and the importance of protecting it; about the wonder you feel when confronted with a universe much bigger and much older than you can truly conceive; about how reason may sometimes give you uncomfortable answers but knowledge is always better than ignorance in the long run. She’ll certainly find more evidence of this at the museum than in the other crowds she likely frequents. Isn’t this what her critics should want? To help her change her mind?

You don’t win the culture war by taking territory — Cambridge, Massachusetts or the 20 acres immediately west of Central Park between 77th and 81st or even the White House. You win the war by winning your opponents’ hearts and minds. Kicking out conservatives gets you the former but loses you the latter. (And with them their millions of dollars that pay for research and new signage and for someone to hopefully, finally take down the very questionable statue of Teddy Roosevelt on Central Park West.)

At stake here is not just a board seat and some reputation management. It is, at the end of the day, a fight for our whole planet. We should be fighting to win — and that means figuring out how to fight together.


Aspen Reese is a Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows, where she studies microbial ecology. She has previously worked as a visiting scientist at the American Natural History Museum.

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20 comments / Join the Discussion

    Some of the same old tired “reasoning” from the members of the (very predictable) conservative echo chamber. Perhaps an easier, and more graphic, way into this is to consider IQ:
    The average “collective” IQ of America is (only) 97. This makes us 17th in the world, by country.
    Now, studies have abounded regarding one’s political perspective, and their IQ. The bottom line is this:
    The majority of Americans whose IQ is LESS than 97, are conservatives. This clearly explains their relative lack of education, as well as a whole lot of other things-such as how they seem to love Trump.
    Keeping this little “inconvenient Truth” in mind. is very useful when one hears the brain-dead science related nonsense that this bunch continues to spread around.
    I have adopted a little routine that I use whenever one on these “know-nothings” prattles away with their anti-science dribble: Oh !, and what college did you receive your degree in climate science from?”
    This generally shuts them up, and they slink away.

    Reply

    Failing to cite studies which do not prove your thesis isn’t helping your non-case. When speaking of relative education, do you consider that Education colleges and humanities degrees generally attract the academic bottom feeders and are also overwhelmingly left-liberal? I’m guessing “no” would be your answer. And when you consider that the least educated people in the U.S. are overwhelmingly clustered in blue counties around the US., your silly little narrative falls apart.

    Bonus points if you can count and name the logical fallacy in your second-to-last sentence. Though I must admit that it will be refreshing to see someone who unfailingly restricts his so-called arguments strictly to the field in which he is presumably educated.

    Reply

    Isn’t saying “I believe in climate change but not the idea that humans have any impact on either its cause or its resolution” a little like saying “We send the people of Parkland Florida our thoughts and prayers but we’re still not gonna ban automatic weapons”?
    Y’know what I mean, someone starts a sentence on one side of their mouth and ends it on the other.

    Reply

    You might try for an honest depiction of a viewpoint with which you disagree, or you could just mangle it in such a way so that it fits a tortured analogy.

    Reply

    I don’t really care for John Owen’s views on evolution or religion, but he did great work in establishing the Natural History Museum in London.

    Personally my politics are republican, e.g. i think that royal privilege should be removed, but the Natural History Museum still maintains royal patronage. I would hope that many scientists or otherwise who are associated with the museum would accept that there is no place for royalty in the modern world.

    However, there are no calls for this museum to modernise.

    Back to Owen – the debate at the time over evolution was significantly more vicious and challenging to people’s fundamental beliefs than the current debate on anthropogenic climate change.

    Nevertheless, the institution was able to cope, and did eventually end up supporting Darwin’s theory. Back then museums did real science, nowadays I’m not so sure.

    Reply

    I’ve been curious since my geology undergrad days about man’s impact on the environment via CO2 emissions. Since .004% of our atmosphere is comprised of carbon dioxide and rising levels intuitively have an impact, been waiting for a comprehensive study showing that man’s emissions contributed 5-10 or whatever percent to warming.

    Unfortunately, starting with Mr. Gore’s pursuit of wealth post vice-Presidency, the conversation has been reduced to tribal-like arguments. If you doubt that humanity’s emissions are destroying the planet, you are a “denier” vs. someone seeking truth via scientific fact.

    Perhaps one day we can look at a solid piece of science and have an answer. In the meantime, I tell my friends who believe in imminent catastrophe that if they had been around 16,000 years ago, they would have written about God’s wrath on the planet via sea level rise of 150 feet plus in the space of a few generations.

    Reply

    There are extremists on both sides of the global warming issue. Those who believe that greenhouse gasses are the sole cause of global warming and those who believe green house gasses play no role in global warming. Between these groups the real argument involves how many times the atmospheric CO2 will double in concentration in the coming years and what the climate sensitivity is. Until all sides of this issue can work together in a truly free work environment we will never know the answers.

    Reply

    By and large, we conservatives are not climate change deniers. Changes in climate can be noted in the historical record well before the advent of humanity. However, we remain largely unconvinced human beings are the primary cause of climate change. Some of us think climate change may have something to do with that large yellow ball that rises in the East every morning. Most of us also believe drastic redistribution of wealth on a global scale is neither desired or necessary. Almost to a man (or woman), we do believe Al Gore is a charlatan and virtually all of those most heavily promoting AGW are acting out of ideology and/or self-interest, not as a result of scientific empiricism or the good of humanity–or Gaia, if you’re one of those people-hating fringe environmentalists who view humanity as a blight or a scourge.

    As an aside, Al Gore is a billionaire largely as a result of his promotion of the climate change agenda. One of his many mansions is a beach house. When he sells his beach house and moves to a mountaintop to escape the rising waters he predicted, then maybe we’ll take this business seriously.

    Reply

    The thought police are alive and well. Is there a requirement out there for all museum board members to think alike in all facets of their lives, maybe the equivalent of Mao’s Little Red Book specifying what they ought to think? The Left’s idea of diversity is that it’s only skin deep.

    Reply

    Funny, but the Universe itself, from its genesis in the Big Bang to the inflation epoch to the Earth’s Natural History, including the Cambrian Explosion, all jive with and inform my conservative beliefs, including my belief of a Creator.

    I don’t see a conflict.

    Reply

    It’s unfortunate to see the use of the term “climate change denialism” from someone who is ostensibly educated at a minimal level in science, history, and rhetoric.

    No one has denied or is denying that “Climate change is real”, and there mere suggestion – through this shabby rhetorical gambit – results from the same intellectual dishonesty that drives the premise of the author’s otherwise excellent article. Before railing against strawman anti-science propagandists, it’s best to clear your own eye of any motes.

    Reply

    Such an anti-science argument, to say that someone is a “Trump supporter”, so they must be anti-science. How completely ridiculous. This is the greatest evidence of the failure of American higher education.

    Reply

    This boils down to disciples of the anti science religion of Socialism are upset because Mercer isn’t a socialist.

    Reply

    You’re not going to “fight together”. When people actually work together, each side learns things from the other. You’re obviously incapable of learning anything except your own bizarre delusions that echo in all the chambers of the elite. You have never bothered to read or listen to FACTS.

    Reply

    “Climate change is real.” – Congratulations for your death grip on the blindingly obvious. Here’s another straightforward truth – computer models are not Science. Here’s another – we can’t find even 5% of reality.
    Those who would predict Earth’s climate a century from now might consider a little humility before they turn the world on it’s head.

    Reply

    I agree with Aspen’s perspective, yet would make an additional query which has not been explored—do the conservatives who fund museums of natural history never influence the displays at those museums? Boards influence displays of art, culture and history, and have influenced science curriculum in schools. Why would they not influence the contents of natural history museums as well?

    Reply

    Thank you Aspen. As a conservative who doesn’t necessarily agree with all of your views (or anyone else’s, for that matter), I appreciate your well-reasoned response to this issue. I hope it will resonate with others on both sides of politics who seem to want to do their best to exclude the other.

    Reply
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