International Museum Day: why are museums important?

Today is International Museum Day, which provides a nice opportunity to share some thoughts on why museums are important for society.

Museums are a source of knowledge, enjoyment and inspiration

The first point is that they contribute to the economy – in the UK tourism is a significant contributor to the economy, accounting for  9.0% of GDP, so tourism is big business. Why do tourists come to the UK? Because we have things they want to visit of course – things like museums. 32.8 million tourists came to the UK last year and they made 21 million visits to the 16 DCMS sponsored museums. It’s probably not unreasonable to say that an estimated 64% of tourists to the UK visit museums as part of their experience, bearing in mind that there are around 1,800 accredited museums in the UK, there’s a pretty good chance that the total number of tourist visits to museums in the UK is quite a bit greater than that 21 million.

recent report on tourism by Deloitte recognises this and explicitly states:

The supply side offer of tourist infrastructure also extends to attractions, and standards in this area can have a significant influence on the appeal of the overall tourism offer of the UK. Some of Britain’s most well-known attractions have long suffered from inadequate infrastructure, such as parking, visitor centres, and museums and educational facilities. It will be important for Britain to maintain and improve in this infrastructure as competitor destinations invest in infrastructure which may risk diverting visitors away from the UK.

In addition, museums generate revenue at a more local level, attracting visitors who need to eat and drink, or buy things from museum shops, like greetings cards, plastic dinosaurs and copies of brilliant books like Jake’s Bones.


Museums aren’t just scrounging from the government, they generate revenue and contribute to the local and national economy

Beyond the immediate economic argument, museum collections provide a physical record of the life and culture on our planet, both past and present. They provide the hard evidence to recognise and describe the different species on Earth and they provide a historical record of how things once were, for comparison against the present, helping us to better understand change and make better predictions for the future. So museums can help us shape a better future by understanding the past and present.

Museum collections document the amazing diversity of life and the diversity of human material culture

Part of this role is fulfilled by making collections accessible to the public for their information, education and entertainment (because entertainment helps us learn too – I’m a big proponent of informal learning). However, there is also a need for research that feeds into academia and the informing of local, national and international policy decisions.

Even research that doesn’t seem to have immediate practical application is useful for testing ideas, exploring human creativity and gaining a deeper insight into other people’s minds and cultures. This sort of work may not rock the world of politics or science, but it can be effective for engaging the public and encouraging a deeper interest in topics that have a benefit to society that, at least to my mind, stretches far beyond the outcome of the X-Factor finals or which minor celebrity is divorcing which other minor celebrity.

Museums are there to nurture, support and inspire a fascination with the wider world, and really that’s why I think they’re important.

Evolving Ideas and Intelligent Design

Well, it seems that my earlier post on Darwin has ruffled some feathers in the Intelligent Design (ID) camp, so they’ve been trolling the comments section on my personal blog. This post started out as a response, but I decided to expand it to include some of the context surrounding Darwin’s work.

A comment by VMartin

…One wonders why no one noticed “natural selection” before. And there were ingenous minds in the history! One answer might be this – it was never observed because it doesn’t exist. Darwin implanted this speculation there. And “On the origin of species” reads sometimes like comedy. One should try to count how many times Darwin used words like “which seems to me extremely perplexing” etc….

One reason why some scientific theories have been slow to come to light

One reason why some scientific theories may have been slow to come to light

It’s interesting how ‘simple’ natural mechanisms and systems can take longer to be acknowledged than one might have thought. Heliocentrism is another example of something that now seems very obvious, but was historically slow to be recognised (and is still not recognised or not known about by some). It’s easy to blame organised religion for the suppression of such observational truths about the universe, since challenges to traditional belief were seen as heresy and dealt with accordingly, but there’s far more to it than that.

Let’s set the scene – Darwin’s formative years were tumultuous with regard to sociopolitical events. The Napoleonic wars drew to an end with the Battle of Waterloo when Darwin was six years old, the Peterloo Massacre occurred and the Six Acts were drawn up by the Tories to suppress radical reformers when he was ten – reflecting the ongoing social division between the establishment and the public. When Darwin was in his twenties the power of the strongly traditional British establishment finally began to wane, when the Whigs came to government allowing the 1832 Reform Act and the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act to be passed. There was also the devastating Great Famine in Ireland when Darwin was in his thirties and all of this was set against a background of the Industrial Revolution, which was providing the impetus for science to play an increasingly important role in society.

Peterloo Massacre

This meant that Darwin’s work was by no means formulated in intellectual isolation. Theories of evolution had been proposed 2,400 years previously, but they were poorly developed. Natural philosophers like Darwin’s own grandfather Erasmus and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck raised the issue of evolution at around the time of Darwin’s birth, but the mechanisms for evolution were either ignored or flawed. Evolution was an established topic of discussion and publication by the time Charles Darwin came onto the scene, with people like Robert Grant being more radical on the subject than Darwin found palatable in his early manhood. Despite this interest, the mechanism of evolution remained elusive – perhaps unsurprisingly, since the academic community addressing natural sciences was largely composed of members of the clergy and the natural theology of the time was seen as being mechanism enough.

But a literature base that was to inspire non-traditional hypotheses was also developing at the time – Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation in particular offered an alternative view that was seen as too radical by many – clearing a path for subsequent works that challenged orthodox views.  Given this context, it is perhaps unsurprising that Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace converged on the same premise at the same time. In short, the ideas evolved to fit the intellectual and social environment. The same has been true of other discoveries and inventions where there was a requirement for the right intellectual groundwork to be laid in advance. This groundwork is required before a robust theory can take root – and Natural Selection is a component of the robust theory of Descent with modification.

Intelligent Design

The Intelligent Design agenda

The critiques I have seen of evolutionary theory  have come from people who quite clearly don’t understand it – and such critiques tend to rely on statements of incredulity rather than a strong factual base. No well-supported alternative hypotheses have been constructed or presented and a lack of understanding hardly counts as a robust refutation of a well supported theory.

An accusation by IDers is that ‘Darwinists’ (N.B. I don’t know anyone who would call themselves a Darwinists following the New Synthesis) stick with Natural Selection because they are atheist. I think I see the real agenda emerging here, particularly when you see evolution as a theory being conflated with just one of the mechanisms involved. After all, Natural Selection is not the only mechanism involved in evolutionary adaptation and speciation – there are also other factors like hybridisation, horizontal gene transfergenetic drift, perhaps some epigenetic influences and artefacts of EvoDevo processes. But these factors are still constrained by the simple fact that if they are selected against, they will not be perpetuated.

John A. Davison left this comment on a previous post:

Natural selection is a powerful force in nature. It has but one function which is to prevent change. That is why every chickadee looks like every other chickadee and sounds like every other chickadee – chickadee-dee- dee, chickadee-dee-dee. Sooner or later natural selection has always failed leading to the extinction of nearly all early forms of life. They were replaced by other more prefected forms over the millions of years that creative evolution ws in progress…

Salamander ring species (picture from Thelander, 1994)

Salamander ring species

First and foremost, the suggestion that Natural Selection prevents change is erroneous – change will occur if there is a change in the environment and/or if beneficial mutations arise in a population (tell me that mutations don’t happen – I dare you…). The obvious response to the next statement is that I can think of six different ‘chickadee’ species, with an additional three subspecies (and this is ignoring numerous other very similar members of the Paridae), all are similar, but all are different – so the statement makes no sense as it stands. Getting to the meat of what is being implied about the Creationist interpretation of species, another bird provides a good example to the contrary. The Greenish Warbler shows a distinct pattern of hybridising subspecies across their vast range, until they form reproductively isolated species at the extreme ends of their range, where they happen to overlap yet not hybridise (a classic ring species [pdf of Greenish Warbler paper]). This is a well-known example of how genetic variation can accrue and give rise to new species without any supernatural intercession.

Another comment by VMartin

…But no wonder that Darwin considered “natural selection” for such a complicated force. Even nowadays Dawkins speculates that NS operates on genes, whereas E.O.Wilson has brushed up “group selection” recently (citing of course Darwin as debeatur est .

So may we “uncredulous” ask on which level “natural selection” operates?

As to this question about the level on which Natural Selection operates, I thought the answer was pretty obvious – it operates at every level. Change the focus of Natural Selection from passing on genes to the only alternative outcome – the inability to pass on genes. It doesn’t really matter which level this occurs at or why – be it a reduction in reproductive success when not in a group, or a deleterious single point mutation – if it happens then Natural Selection can be said to have occurred. Being ‘fit’ simply means that an organism has not been selected against.

There’s a lot more to modern evolutionary thought than Darwin’s key early contribution, but Darwin is still respected because he was the first to provide a viable mechanism by which evolution is driven. This mechanism has helped make sense of an awful lot of observations that were previously unaccounted for and, moreover, evolution has been observed and documented on numerous occasions [here’s a pdf summary of some good examples].

I fail to see why Intelligent Design has been taken seriously by some people – it relies on huge assumptions about supernatural interference (so it fails to be a science) and I have as yet never seen a single piece of evidence that actually supports ID claims. The only research I have seen mentioned by proponents of ID are old, cherry-picked studies that report a null result from an evolutionary study – this is not the same thing as support for ID, as anyone who can spot the logical fallacies of false dichotomy and Non sequitur (in particular the fallacy of denying a conjunct) will tell you.

Intelligent design as a scientific idea

Intelligent design as a scientific idea

I like to keep an open mind, but as soon as I see logical fallacies being wheeled out I lose interest in getting involved in the discussion. This may be a failing on my part, because I should probably challenge misinformation, but quite frankly I don’t have the time or the patience – much as I hate to stoop to an ad hominem, my feelings on this are best summed up by the paraphrase:

when you argue with the ID lot, the best outcome you can hope for is to win an argument with the ID lot

and my time is far too precious to waste arguing with people who ignore the arguments of others and construct Straw man arguments based on cherry-picked and deliberately misrepresented information. I have no problem with other people believing in a god, but please don’t try to bring any god into science (and heaven-forbid the classroom) – since it is neither necessary nor appropriate.

Spin the bottle…

Shocking news about Scotland’s drinking on the BBC today, in their words:

Scots ‘drink 46 bottles of vodka’

Of course there are caveats on that statement – Scots don’t actually drink 46 bottles of vodka, they drink the equivalent of that amount of alcohol. Not all Scots do the drinking either – after all there are five-year-olds who might have difficulty putting away that much booze, no the people who are being considered responsible for drinking all that alcohol are all over 18.

I must admit that this seems like an oversight by the NHS Scotland, since they are clearly aware that underage drinking (from the age of 13) not only happens, but is a common and regular occurrence, one that has been the focus of campaigns by NHS Scotland in the past.

Back to the vodka. I’m surprised that the BBC didn’t use tequila or sambuca as the equivalent amount of alcohol – after all, we can all recoil in horror at the thought of drinking that much of the patently nasty stuff. But to be fair the BBC do give other equivalents:

537 pints or 130 bottles of wine per person

But hang on – 130 bottles of wine per person equates to 1 large glass a day. Suddenly it doesn’t sound quite so bad. However, the situation with regard to drinking in Scotland is bad, costing around 2.25 billion per year.

And we know why. People don’t drink one large glass of wine a day any more that they drink 46 bottles of vodka in a year. People drink vast quantities on a Friday and Saturday night because it has become synonymous with having a good time. But at least there are indications that the culture of binge drinking might be starting to change, which can’t be a bad thing. Let’s see how economic recession will influence the situation – it may be a case that people can’t afford to binge as often or as hard, or maybe people will just turn to cheaper alternatives for their booze kick – Tennents Super anyone?

Fighting juice

[Edit: perhaps Buckfast should more rightly claim the title of “fighting juice”]

Failings of ‘parental intuition’

I am concerned by all the irresponsible, selfish and stupid parents of the world. The ones that upon reading this would be moved to comment along the lines of “you’re not a parent, so you don’t know anything” – because that is how arrogant and self-righteous the sort of parents I am thinking of are.


Being a parent does not make you immune from criticism, it does not make you an expert in rearing children and it does not make you medically qualified, intelligent or well informed. It may, however,  make some people more selfish, overly-defensive and irrational. Not only do some parents think that society owes them for having children (I for one didn’t ask them to have unprotected sex), but they also seem to think that their ‘little darlings’ are beyond reproach and any trouble that they get into is somebody else’s fault. Continue reading

Thoughts on humanism

I thought I’d write a piece on humanism because it seems to have a lot of confusion surrounding it. Some view it as a religion or cult, others see it as an organised anti-religious sect of militant atheists. The confusion arises because the term “humanist” can be used to describe a variety of philosophical approaches both contemporary and historical.

I am a Secular Humanist, which effectively means that I am an atheist with beliefs about the ability of people to improve their lives and the lives of others (including other species) by behaving in a rational and socially responsible way. Humanists subscribe to the ‘Golden Rule‘ (don’t do things to others that you wouldn’t like to have done to yourself) as a simple moral guideline and rather than relying on the supernatural as the source of moral principles, humanists rely on rational consideration and those human values that have arisen as part of the evolution of human social behaviour. In short, humanism is explicitly being good without god. Continue reading

Dumbing down

I work as a museum where we are constantly trying to improve our science communication to get scientific principles across in an accessible and concise yet accurate way. It is not easy.

Science is complicated – as is the world that science attempts to describe and interpret. This makes it difficult to package science in a sound-bite-sized chunk that the lay person can quickly grasp. We end up having to trim away much of the reasoning, context and alternative interpretations of what we try to report, leaving a core of information that comes across as authoritarian and dogmatic. This is the antithesis of the scientific method. Continue reading

The unbroken chain of life

Having spent years studying the bones of animals long dead, I have been fortunate enough to see – on a daily basis – evidence of the relationship between humans and other animals. For me, our kinship with the rest of life on Earth is a vivid reality. Evolution is change and that change is the result of an ongoing struggle for life – where those that are best suited for the struggle are rewarded by the continuation of their lineage. This means that we are each an end link in an unbroken chain of life, stretching back over two billion years. For all that time, each one of our ancestors must have been amongst the best of their kind. In the words of Charles Darwin, “There is grandeur in this view of life”. Continue reading