Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Lake Monsters and Science Museums

When we were up in Burlington, we took the kids to ECHO, the science museum and aquarium, at the Leahy Center for Lake Champlain. It's wonderful with lots of hands-on, active engagement activities for kids. There are great displays on the ecology, natural and cultural history of the area, and who knew there was a turtle called a stinkpot (the skunk of the aquatic set).

I will admit, I felt a bit uneasy, though, in the aquarium portion. Generally quite nice with interesting interactive shipwreck activities and tanks showing examples of the life in the lake that lay just outside the door of the museum, there was one large exhibit that gave me pause. It was dedicated to Champ, the resident lake monster of Lake Champlain.

Champ is much like his more famous but equally fictional cousin, the Loch Ness Monster, except without the Scottish brough and with a penchant for vegan Indian take-out. Champ is an inextricable part of local lore. The minor league baseball team is called the Lake Monsters. There are businesses throughout the area, like Champ's car wash, who trade on the story. He really is the unofficial mascot of the region.

But does he belong in a science museum in a display that clearly overstates the likelihood of his existence? In fact, in one room, they had a long roll of paper and told the children that it was Champ's birthday and they asked the kids to write birthday wishes and draw pictures to give to him at his party later on that night. The kids had fun, but is there a problem here?

To be fair, during Champ Week, the museum did sponsor a program called, "Believer or Skeptic" that was "A 20-minute family interactive program exploring the facts and legends of the Lake monster--celebrating Champ Week" and ran three nights during the week. But the Champ display is a standing exhibit, so the question remains.

The curmudgeon argument is clear. Science museums are for teaching science. By taking fictional characters and pseudo-scientific claims and create a false equivalence between them and real science, you make your otherwise wonderful facility into the equivalent of showing the Intelligent Design lobby's film "The Privileged Planet" in the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History and take yourself in a dangerous step towards the the Creation Museum. It would be like the Air and Space Museum having a display discussing the aerodynamic properties of Santa's sleigh.

On the other hand, there's the "lighten up, it's a silly pictorial of a lake monster that no one really takes seriously" defense, but there seems to be an even more interesting line on this side. Look, one might argue, the whole point of the museum is to excite children's interest and imagination around understanding the universe they live in. This exhibit, while propping up a myth that no scientist takes seriously, does excite the young minds and leads them to consider what else the world might hold, mysteries like those of quantum mechanics that are weirder by several orders of magnitude. When we teach physics, even at the collegiate level, we begin by teaching and testing students about Newtonian mechanics, a theory we know to be false. Why? Because it is pedagogically advantageous. In the case of college physics, it is to prepare students on an easier theory to be able to translate physical systems into mathematical models of second order-differential equations and to be able to solve those equations for easy cases, for the science museum it is the more modest goal of creating wonder in young minds and giving them the sense that there is a way to address the questions that wonder creates. If we can use falsehood to educate in the one case, why not in the other? It's just the scientific version of Plato's noble lie from the Republic.

So, does a fun exhibit about a mythical lake monster that does nothing to actively dispel the myth belong in a science museum?