Minimizing the Dangers of Air Pollution Using Alternative Facts: A Science Museum Case Study

Date01 December 2019
AuthorDavid Haldane Lee
Published date01 December 2019
doi: 10.1002/wmh3.319
© 2019 Policy Studies Organization
Minimizing the Dangers of Air Pollution Using
Alternative Facts: A Science Museum Case Study
David Haldane Lee
A science museum exhibition about human health contains an exhibit that minimizes health impacts
of air pollution. Relevant details, such as the full range of health risks; fossil fuel combustion; air
quality statutes (and the local electrical utilitys violations of these statues), are omitted, while end
users of electricity are blamed. The exhibit accomplishes this, not through outright falsification, but
through selected alternative factsthat change the focus and imply misleading alternate ex-
planations. Using two classical rhetorical concepts (the practical syllogism and the enthymeme)allows
for the surfacing of missing evidence and unstated directives underlying multimodal rhetoric. By
stating multimedia arguments syllogistically, a technique is proposed for revealing hidden political
subtexts from beneath a putatively disinterested presentation of facts. The piece should be of interest to
researchers, message designers, and policymakers interested in the rhetoric of science, ecology, health,
and museums.
KEY WORDS: pollution, science museums, alternative facts, practical syllogism, enthymeme
In an open letter, 454 scientists called for the removal of Mercer Foundation
chair Rebekah Mercer from the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH)
Board of Trustees, because of her foundation's support of climate change denialism.
The letter states that the Mercer Family Foundation gave millions of dollars to
organizations that attack climate science and government policies intended to
protect the environment, including the Heartland Institute which, in turn, funds
other climate change denialist front groups (Open Letter,2018). These organ-
izations claim carbon dioxide pollution is beneficial for ecosystems, agriculture
and humanity, a position in clear conflict with the international scientific consensus
on climate changeaccording to the 454 scientists (Open Letter,2018). The sci-
entists calling for Mercer's resignation maintain that having climate change
denialists on the board of a prestigious science museum undermines public con-
fidence in the validity of the institutions responsible for transmitting scientific
knowledge(Open Letter,2018).
The Rebekah Mercer controversy, while not the subject of this paper, serves as a
starting point for a study of the selective presentation of facts at science museums.
Using case examples, I wish to suggest how, through omission, climate change
denialist rhetoric is instantiated in a science museum exhibit about air pollution.
I argue that the exhibit minimizes the harms to human health associated with
breathing polluted air, while obscuring the role of fossil fuel combustion. While
never resorting to outright misinformation, the exhibit presents an alternative set of
facts to ambiguate the causes of pollution, and take policy solutions off the agenda.
This paper argues that alternative facts”—used to minimize the problem, change
the subject, or place the blame elsewherewhile inimical the greater truth, need
not be false.
This research is at the intersection of the rhetoric of health and medicine and
museum studies, with brief excursions into literatures such as the interactional
communication perspective, argumentation, and speech act theory. To provide a
preview for the reader, before I describe the exhibit, I situate this study within
scholarship on indirect commands and rhetorical studies of museums. I endeavor
to unpack two terms: the practical syllogism and enthymeme, used to refer to
arguments in which the audience (in this case, the museum visitor)is expected to
supply one or more unstated propositions of an argumentor to draw a conclusion
that follows from the stated information. After describing the exhibit, I state mul-
timedia arguments syllogistically, muting selected premises and conclusions, to
infer probable meanings, not stated explicitly. Finally, implications of the study are
drawn out that will be of interest to readers of this journal concerned with medical
and health policy, including an alternative definition of alternative factsintended
to defend the concept of truth against a politically debilitating devaluation of it.
On Prescriptive Exhibits
In science museums, visitors are invited to turn wheels, pull levers, and press
buttons. In what other ways do the exhibits prescribe a course of action for the
visitor, even after their visit? This piece follows up on previous work (Lee, 2017,
2018; Lee, Steier, & Ostrenko, 2013)about the prescriptive (and not just descriptive)
purpose of museums, also noted in the museum rhetorics literature. For example,
Sharon Macdonald (1998)notes how political agendas are inscribed in the classi-
fication and juxtaposition of objects (p. 3). Carole Blair (1999)describes the capacity
of memorial sites to induce affective responses and preferred interpretations (pp.
4647). John Lynch (2013)describes how the Creation Museum discounts factual
evidence of evolution by relying on theistic beliefs and values presumed to be held
by visitors. Kenneth Zagacki and Victoria Gallagher (2009)chronicle an outdoor
exhibition that enacts environmental concerns extra discursively (p. 188). These and
other museum studies suggest the potential for exhibits to move audiences into
action. In the case of environmental concerns, such as pollution and climate change,
museums in general, and science centers in particular, emerge as vehicles of re-
dress, whether at the level of individual behaviors, policies, or mass movements.
In October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)issued
a dire warning about immanent public health dangers from warming temperatures,
including floods, droughts, and extreme heat. The report indicates drastic reduction
of carbon emissions is required to avoid these consequences (Rhodes, 2019). Science
exhibitions can play a role in diffusing this information and building the political
380 World Medical & Health Policy, 11:4

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT