Part of our mission is doing science. At the Chicago Academy of Sciences / Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum (Nature Museum, CAS/PNNM), we conduct and disseminate scientific research. We do this through hypothesis formulation and evidence-based testing, by curating and making accessible the museum’s extensive collections, by applying what we learn to the conservation and restoration of species and ecosystems, and through exhibits, education, and outreach.
The need and the opportunity for science is great. The United States and other countries are experiencing an uptick in social and political polarization. This leads to contentious assertations often purported to arise out of science. Rejection of science has become strident and science itself politicized. Adding to the confusion is the proliferation of pseudoscience in which explanations carry the appearance being scientific but tend to be developed in opposition to rather than in collaboration with science. Pseudoscience can be recognized by ideas remaining static rather than incorporating new knowledge, and by the absence of evidence or validation through the precision of the scientific
method. Collectively, rejecting science, politicizing science, and the proliferation of pseudoscience results in poorly informed responses to threats affecting humans and nature at both local and global scales.
Fortunately, museums continue be viewed as trustworthy sources of information.
Museums consistently rank among the most trusted institutions in the US. Research commissioned by AAM in 2001 found almost 9 out of 10 Americans find museums to be trustworthy—and no other institution rated a similar level of trust. Subsequent research, including reports issued by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (2008), Reach Advisors (2015), IMPACTS Research (2017), Wilkening Consulting (2018), and IMPACTS Research (2020) tracked sustained high levels of public trust in museums throughout the beginning of the 21st century.
As a scientific and educational institution, the Chicago Academy of Sciences / Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum is well positioned to be a thoughtful and impactful voice in such conversations.
What is science? What is scientific research?
The term science can and should be applied to the idea of a canonical body of information, the process of discovery through observation, the development of theories and ideas as logical constructs, or the application of the scientific method to formulate and test ideas and hypotheses. The kind and quality of scientific information that results can differ, depending on which of these aspects of science apply to the research question and circumstances.
In order to create clarity and minimize confusion, it is incumbent on organizations such as ours to be consistently clear in our presentations, exhibits, education and outreach what aspects of science of are being addressed.
The term research also merits clarity and can be a source of confusion. People are admonished to “do their research.” Yet, the admonition often means just looking online. The quality of online science information varies widely, and the evaluation of such information can suffer from the common tendency to seek confirmation rather than challenge one’s existing beliefs. CAS/PNNM can minimize confusion regarding our own scientific activities and offerings by clarifying and restricting the use of the term research. At the CAS/PNNM, research applies to rigorous scholarship aimed at discovering facts, creating and applying ideas, testing for patterns in data, and applying the scientific method.
Being a Credible Voice for Science
In order to credibly and effectively communicate our mission, content for all of our exhibits and programs should adhere to standards of factual correctness. The information presented should be:
- Scientifically accurate and up to date
- Accurate in representing the state of debate on the topic
- Developed with appropriate content expertise. We don’t always have a particular expertise in-house and may need to develop content through partnership (e.g. Weather to Climate: Our Changing World exhibit)
- Developed from information that is sourced appropriately, with sources correctly acknowledged
- Provided in the proper context. Such context does not require promoting positions held by small minorities of researchers, nor does it mean granting equal time to all opposing views. We anticipate that there will always be areas of tension regarding the point at which multiple viewpoints are held by sufficient numbers of informed people that opposing views should be presented. At what level does a minority viewpoint become sufficiently small as to not require attention in our exhibits? For example, the realities of evolution and of human-caused climate change are both accepted by the vast majority of practitioners in those fields, however it is still possible to find scientists who reject one or both of these ideas.
Our content should represent diverse viewpoints and voices and therefore should:
- Be developed with appropriate cultural expertise. Information that is about or presented in the context of a particular culture should not merely be vetted by members of that cultural group. Members of that group should play an active role in the development of the content
- Present diverse voices
Our content will sometimes require that we endorse a particular position or advocate for a certain set of actions.
- We should not shy away from making recommendations for courses of action in our offerings, however it is essential that we remain very aware, and clear, of when we are being prescriptive and when we are being descriptive.
- We should provide impact hypotheses that provide both known and theorized causal links between human actions and their impacts on nature and natural phenomenon. Our position may be the need to verify or learn more about consequential impact hypotheses.
- We should guide consumers of our content in distinguishing science from pseudoscience.
Unanimously approved by the Board of Trustees on June 23, 2022
 American Alliance of Museums, 2021 (https://www.aam-us.org/2021/09/30/museums-and-trust-2021/)