Montana Historian Warns About Packaging Of Science

February 16, 1998

By Annette Trinity-Stevens
Montana State University-Bozeman Research Editor
(406) 994-5607

Note: This article coincides with Robert Rydell's presentation, "Fair Science: Science Exhibits and World's Fairs," on Tuesday, Feb. 17, 1998, in the section titled Reaching Out: The History and Future of Public Outreach of Science (COM), 12:30-3:30 p.m., AAAS annual meeting, Philadelphia.

BOZEMAN, MT--When Bob Rydell finishes his presentation to the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science this month, his worst fear is that his audience will think he's antiscience.

"I am not, emphatically not, antiscience," the Montana State University Bozeman historian said in a recent interview.

Instead, he's critical of how science has been used to advance some less-than lofty ideals, such as imperialism, nationalism and racism. Using history as a guide, he hopes to show scientists how their work can be distorted when it's packaged for public consumption.

"I want scientists to become aware of the importance of having some measure of control over how their ideas are presented to the public," Rydell said.

He also wants to remind them that open discussions of their work have a legitimate place in a democratic culture.

"That's a dramatic issue," he concedes, "because the result could be the possible pulling back of federal funds if the public doesn't like the research."

Although thousands of scientists and several hundred journalists typically attend the annual AAAS meeting, Rydell doesn't expect a huge turnout for his talk on Feb. 17 in Philadelphia. Most of his audience, he suspects, may consist of other historians. He has just 20 minutes to summarize 20 years of research.

Some of that research has focused on how science was presented between 1851 and World War II at those grand exhibitions known as world's fairs.

The 1933 Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago, for example, featured a Hall of Science, initially called the Temple of Science. There, scientist-turned exhibitionist Henry Crew and others depicted "the centrality of science to continued national progress," Rydell wrote in a recent paper.

Crew was greatly influenced by British displays of empire at European fairs. He was instrumental in elevating science in a similar way at the 1933 Chicago fair, said Rydell.

"Crew thought of science as empire," he said.

Rydell turns to a photograph in his 1993 book "World of Fairs. " It shows a larger-than-life metal robot pushing forward a man and woman who have their arms thrust forward in resistance.

Titled "Science Advancing Mankind," the sculpture was among several exhibits in 1933 that emphasized technological progress.

"It's this wedding of science and industrialism that particularly interests me," Rydell said.

The millions of fair visitors during the Great Depression were expected to blindly accept a modern consumer culture built on scientific and technological innovation. The official fair motto in 1933, Rydell comments, was "Science Finds, Industry Applies, Mankind Conforms."

"The point is that how science is presented is immensely serious business and not necessarily to be entrusted to any one discipline," he said.

Although his studies extend only through World War II, Rydell continues to take an historian's view of current science exhibits.

"Of the ones I've seen lately, they're overwhelmingly geared toward entertainment," he said. "I'm not sure that bodes well for the survival of humanity. It doesn't ennoble science."

The controversy over the Smithsonian's proposed Enola Gay exhibit, which was to raise the question that maybe the U.S. shouldn't have used atomic weapons in World War II, told exhibit planners "you better be upbeat, you better be optimistic. Forget the idea that there might be debate," Rydell said.

But debate is precisely what's needed.

"We should look for dialogue in science exhibits," he concluded. "We should understand, not in simple-minded terms, what science is, and that's something scientists have to help with in this conflation of science with entertainment."

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