Saturday, September 03, 2011

Museum exhibits on forensics don't teach disputes behind science

I was interested to see notice of a museum exhibit opening today focused on forensic science in Sugar Land, described thusly on Ultimate Fort Bend:
The Houston Museum of Natural Science at Sugar Land will host the upcoming "Crime Lab Detective" exhibit.

As part of the exhibit, the “Johnsons” have been away on a weeklong vacation to Hawaii. One of their neighbors noticed a broken window one morning and decided to investigate. Things had been moved and removed from inside the house. A burglary has occurred and its up to the public to solve the mystery.

In “Crime Lab Detective,” visitors are the lead detectives and are challenged to examine various clues, such as cloth fiber on a picket fence and tire marks, to help solve the crime. Whether working independently or as part of a team, the accompanying “Detective Notebook” will help guide guests through the process.
Unless there's more to it, this strikes me as a remarkably uncritical portrayal of forensic science at a moment in history when things considered "scientific" by law enforcement for many years have been called into question after actual science is applied to them. A National Academy of Sciences 2009 report was extremely critical of forensics specialists  in what amount to subjective disciplines clinging to outdated, untested methods and calling it science, calling for a soup to nuts overhaul of forensic fields.

Humorously, last weekend I happened to take the granddaughter to the Children's Museum in Houston, which includes an exhibit that sounds like it's roughly as sophisticated at the one for adults in Sugar Land. Here are a few pics from that experience, all taken by your correspondent:

Whodunnit? Kids solve the crime.
Mug shots of possible suspects.

Crime solving tools for kids.
Crime lab paraphernalia
Subjective forensics portrayed as science.
I can understand the Children's Museum failing to address the new scientific focus on historic forensic methods, but one would hope the Houston Natural History Museum would do so, even at a branch exhibit in Sugar Land.


Anonymous said...

Forensic science is not the only thing that must be discredited.

Incandesio said...

I don't see the Official Crime Lab Magic 8-Ball displayed anywhere...

sunray's wench said...

It's a pity they didn't check their spelling on "Suspect D Writing samle" too.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Hadn't noticed that, sw, that's really funny!

Anonymous said...

Also missing is any information regarding Fort Bend's most infamous "detective" Deputy Keith Pikett, a retired canine officer with the Fort Bend County Sheriff's Office.,8599,1913987,00.html

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Okay, 7:14, now you're getting somewhere! :)

Where is the Keith Pikett exhibit?

Anonymous said...

To be fair, these sorts of museum exhibits are never about science controversies, or even about how mainstream science is done in a practical sense. I've been to dozens of them, and they are all basically the same - hands-on family fun experiences directed toward the middle range of the educational distribution, which in Texas is pretty illiterate about any science that isn't about calculating precisely how many pairs of animals would fit on the ark. From their start in the 1800s, science museums have always been 80% PT Barnum and only 20% Louis Agassiz. And that has virtually nothing to do with the folks who run the museums, and virtually everything to do with the folks who go to museums. Having a substantial conversation about science requires some minimal fluency in the concepts and language of science. You ought to at least understand what a gaussian distribution is and why it's different from a T-distribution. And you really, really need to understand why measurement error and sampling error happen and why these types of errors are not mistakes. The museum folks are trying to do a good thing, which is to give people an opportunity to observe things they haven't observed before. To beat on them because they don't sufficiently advance your agenda is just goofy-assed.

Anonymous said...

You are right when you said:
"Texas is pretty illiterate about any science that isn't about calculating precisely how many pairs of animals would fit on the ark."

In my biology class the teacher spent most of the semester talking about the ark--the type of wood it was made of, its length and width and, and, as you said, how many pairs of animals would fit on the ark. It was the same in my chemistry class. Most of the people who write on this blog are right about Texas, but boy you are more right.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

3:50, I'd argue that the exhibit as presented promotes an "agenda" - encouraging the public to accept forensics as scientific and valid while igoring well-known flaws in many disciplines and local forensic controversies like the dog sniffing episode.

Your argument is that natural science museums aren't about science, anyway, and that we should accept they're just Barnum-style hucksters with no obligation to the truth beyond catering to the lowest common intellectual denominator. You then strangely say the museum is trying to do a good thing, which apparently is whitewashing problems in a field in which there's a significant public interest. If science is irrelevant to the exhibit, according to you, I fail to see what's so laudable about what they're doing.