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Tuesday, May 03, 2005 | There has been an interesting national debate raised by the recent publicity afforded the Imax film, “Volcanoes of the Deep Sea.” It is a fine science documentary about the discovery of a heretofore-unknown ecosystem that thrives in the vicinity of deep-sea vents, which are openings in the earth’s crust where the sea floor is spreading. It is this spreading that moves the tectonic plates on the earth’s outermost surface, causing earthquakes (and sometimes tsunamis). Toxic plumes of superheated water mixed with magmatic material from hot spots in the earth’s mantle erupt from the vents. The plumes are devoid of free oxygen and are seemingly capable of sterilizing large swaths of the ocean’s floor. But, amazingly, some life forms have managed to prosper in this hellish environment. Given that the current model for the pre-biotic earth did not have oxygen available, the film poses the question, might not this be how life began on earth?
Even though we may never know the answer to such questions, they are the propulsive force to the scientific enterprise. Scientists parse the unanswerable into something they can answer through experiment, reasoning, or observational discovery. And, in general, the new “answers” lead to other questions that provide the basis for future studies and (you guessed it) future questions. Seen this way, science is a seemingly never-ending human quest to understand how living and non-living things work. It is quintessentially open-ended, and curiosity is the universal prerequisite for a working scientist.
But what happens if one does not believe in the open-endedness of the scientific method? Scientific curiosity may be well and good in its place, but throughout the centuries humankind has made it subject to societal limits and open to public debate. In some cases these are ethical debates, but in others it boils down to religious beliefs, pure and simple. For example, those who accept the story of Creation in the Bible as being literally true, believe that conjecture about the origins of life on earth is uncalled for, because the answer has been revealed to us. And there are other Creation stories from other religions and cultures around the globe. Such belief-based explanations have one aspect in common; they cannot be tested the way a scientific model can be. The scientific understanding of biological development on earth, usually referred to as evolution, is derived from the search for natural explanations for phenomena such as the fossil record, the geological record and our planet’s biosphere. And these explanations must be tested again and again until they become generally accepted or changed to fit the facts. So, when an institution uses the word “science” in its name, or euphemisms such as “discovery,” “natural history,” etc., it is understood by all to be concerned with natural and verifiable explanations for the way things work.
In the case of “Volcanoes of the Deep Sea,” the film was produced for a science museum audience. In addition to San Diego, it has been screened in three-dozen (or so) Imax theaters located in other science centers around the world, most of which are in the United States. But as pointed out in a New York Times article last month, a number of theaters in southern states chose not to play the film, and one of the reasons cited was its evolutionary bias that some in their test audiences saw as “blasphemous.” There is nothing new in this type of response. Based on my 22 years of experience, I would expect some similar responses from a few members of test audiences at science museum Imax theaters around the United States. We certainly get them in San Diego.
But as theater managers at a number of science museum theaters in the Bible Belt put it, many in their audience believe in the factuality of biblical Creation, and they are sensitive to these views when they select films. Being sensitive and censoring, however, are two different things. It became a public relations quagmire for a few of my science museum colleagues when it appeared their theater managers were using the same criteria as their counterparts in a number of commercial IMAX theaters in the South. The latter put it simply, we won’t play it if the majority of their viewers would not want to see it, and “we have definitely a lot more creation public than evolution public.”
Scientists and some other science museum directors, myself included, came to the fore in asking the science museums cited to reconsider their refusal to play the film. Thankfully, two of the institutions in question reconsidered their positions, and to their credit, reversed themselves. They have scheduled an exhibition of the film and in so doing put themselves squarely in the company of other curiosity-based science institutions, such as the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, who require that scientists be the public’s tour guides to the universe. In a sense, you could say that science museums are faith-based institutions, but it is a faith in the power of human curiosity, the rigor of scientific debate and the intelligence of the audience to reach their own conclusions.
Jeffrey Kirsch is executive director of the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park.