Anti-ScienceScienceSkepticism

One fish, two fish, dead fish, boo fish…

The Georgia Aquarium opened in 2005 and is the biggest aquarium in the world (eat it Chattanooga!). Housing over a million creatures in over eight million gallons of water, it was an immediate attraction in Georgia and across the country. In fact, it was hard to even get into the aquarium initially – for over a year, the museum was busier than an Ikea on opening day. As a local Atlantan, I am thrilled to have this cool venue in my city, particularly when the aquarium’s mission is:

To be an entertaining, educational, and scientific institution featuring exhibits and programs of the highest standards, offering engaging guest experiences, and promoting the conservation of aquatic biodiversity throughout the world.

Yep, science and education hand-in-hand with entertainment. Certainly this simple mission statement won’t end up dripping with irony.

Unfortunately, it appears that the Aquarium wants to focus more on the ‘entertainment’ part of that mission and less on the ‘science and education.’

A few months back, the aquarium opened a new exhibit of Titanic artifacts. Some of these artifacts have never been on display before but that’s not important. What’s important is that the exhibit is HAUNTED. You heard me HAUNTED. Read more beyond the fold… IF YOU DARE…. oooOoooOooOooo….

It started when museum workers started reporting “strange encounters” when in the exhibit. The museum, seeing an opportunity for science shameless self-promotion, decided to bring in the Roswell Georgia Paranormal Investigators to ‘scientifically’ investigate what was going on. I’m familiar with RGPI because my husband and some other members of the Atlanta Skeptics went on their Roswell Ghost Tour last year. Anyway, I won’t go into all the details – you can read their findingshere (Spoiler: it involves someone whispering “Iceberg” and “Who’s there.” OOoOOOoooooOOOOh!). What are the odds that people who make their money convincing people that ghosts exist and that they can track them down would find some there?

Apparently pretty darn good. It got the attention of the ‘big guns’ of ghost investigation. The Ghost Hunters Sci Fi TV show decided to show up and do an entire show on the ‘haunted’ exhibit. It’ll be on tonight.

Last night and today, a bunch of us on Twitter sent in our opinions to the Georgia Aquarium twitter feed. You can see all the relevant tweets herebut the only response we’ve received from them so far is this:

Re: Ghost Hunters, we know it isn’t “hard science,” just something fun to share. Not everyone believes in ghosts, but some think it’s fun!

Where to begin? I’m so annoyed that I could just bullet:

  • “Some think it’s fun” – First of all, over 1,500 people died when the Titanic sank. Pretending there are ghosties and ghoulies running around the silverware that they left behind is an insult to them and their memories. Isn’t there enough drama in this story without making it up? Not cool, people.
  • “We know it isn’t ‘hard science'” – The Ghost Hunters and Paranormal investigators are looking for ghosts. They’re not doing ‘hard science’; they’re not doing any science at all. They’re running around in the dark with infrared lights and squealing when their machines go PING. They’re trying to invent a story on top of the compelling real story, and they have nothing to do with science. But the Georgia Aquarium is promoting what the Ghost Hunters and RGPI are doing as science. In their explanation of their special event this week that featured the RGPIs, they say:

    The Roswell Georgia Paranormal Investigators will give an overview of how their group attempts to scientifically study and document cases of authentic paranormal activity. Then, small groups will test their ghost-hunting ability as they walk through Titanic Aquatic, escorted by paranormal researchers.

    This means that they are promoting pseudoscience as real science. The problem with many of these paranormal investigators is that they tend to use the cloak of real science by using hi-tech devices and a vague semblance of scientific lingo. In actuality, they don’t have a good understanding of the scientific method at all. Check out the SAPS Skeptical Analysis site for much more information than I can provide about the methods and missteps of various ghost hunters.

  • I understand that getting on a syndicated cable TV show will mean additional publicity and revenue for the Georgia Aquarium. In an economy where people are staying home more and spending less, I do understand the temptation to get a quick fix like this. But if you say that ghosts are more entertaining, you imply that real science is less entertaining. In a world where we just discovered a fish with an entirely transparent head and eyes inside its face, I simply don’t buy it. Screw ghosts – can we get to the real science?

Interested in speaking out?

Masala Skeptic

Maria Walters (a.k.a. Masala Skeptic) has spent a lot of time in ‘furrin parts,’ including Hong Kong, Trinidad, and Pittsburgh. Although her passport is from India, she’s spent most of her adult life in the United States. She currently lives in Atlanta and has an unhealthy affection for science fiction, Neil Gaiman and all things Muppet.

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21 Comments

  1. “The Roswell Georgia Paranormal Investigators will give an overview of how their group attempts to scientifically study and document cases of authentic paranormal activity.”

    Attempts? I like that. Pity most people wont pick up on that and add “and fail”

  2. Hold on.. let me get my head out of the wall since I’ve just finished banging my noggin on it. I tweeted the following: @GeorgiaAquarium “To be an entertaining, educational, and scientific institution..” Ghost Hunters you call SCIENTIFIC? Sad, sad.. Of course, I doubt I’ll hear anything back..

  3. Okay, it’s not scientific. But having spent my time volunteering in many different museums (ranging from the small neighborhood variety to several years at the Smithsonian’s Natural History, both on the floors and in the research wings), there is a HUGE divide between the scientists and the marketing people.

    You know who wins most of the time? That would be the marketing people. You know why? Because sadly enough, most people find the concept of museums and aquariums boring. So ANYTHING you can do to get them in the door – where you then hope the coolness of the science and your facility will bring them back – sometimes needs to be done.

    Do I think it’s good science? God, no. Do I think that perhaps the aquarium should make people go through a circuitous route to get to the Titanic stuff? Hell, yes.

    We’re all skeptics here – we all love and glory in the coolness that is science. But for every one of us, there are at least two (if not more) who think museums and aquariums are boring. Look at all the stuff we rail about and how many people believe it.

    I guess I’m in the minority, but I can’t be that upset. They saw a marketing ploy that would get people in the door….which keeps the doors open for others with more scientific leanings.

    The ends don’t always justify the means, but I guess in addition to being skeptical, I’m also cynical. I’ve seen how people trudge through world-class museums like it’s a chore. If playing the Barnum card (i.e. – “there’s a sucker born every minute”) means that people will pay entrance fees – which in turn, helps contribute to researcher and curator salaries – then I can live with it.

    Personally, I think they should put up a “This Way To The Egress” sign and see what happens.

  4. “We know it isn’t ‘hard science’”

    No, it isn’t hard science. It straps ‘hard science’ down, strips it naked, fucks it up the ass and then shits on it while filming so it can sell the video.

    That’s what this whole thing is to ‘hard science’. What it is to science is even worse. When ‘education’ centers start promoting the clear perversion of science AS SCIENCE…

    I just don’t know what else to say.

  5. @Chasmosaur: I wouldn’t have a problem as long as the Paranormal “Investigators” also have to pay and the museum isn’t footing the bill for their being there. While I understand what you are getting at, I think the outrage amongst the skeptics is less about the ghost hunters being there (though that is annoying) and more about the fact that the museum, an institution that is supposed to promote good facts and science, are implicitly if not explicitly endorsing Paranormal “Investigation” as a real science, which, unless done by someone like Joe Nickell, it clearly is not.

  6. @killyosaur42:

    True. I didn’t see anything that specifically said the aquarium was paying for the paranormal investigation, or if they are, they aren’t paying full price. I’m sure whatever that company was saw it as a great marketing coup as well.

    The sad fact is people go to aquariums and museums and zoos not to be educated these days, but to be entertained. I did a stint in the hands-on room at Natural History. All sorts of cool stuff to handle and touch and ask about. And about 66% of the people were “bored because there aren’t any computer screens to touch”. God forbid you actively engage in your museum….

  7. @Chasmosaur:

    I didn’t see anything that specifically said the aquarium was paying for the paranormal investigation, or if they are, they aren’t paying full price. I’m sure whatever that company was saw it as a great marketing coup as well.

    As I understand it, and I could be wrong, the local ghost humpers made their $$$ when the museum sponsored an after-hours Titanic dinner followed by a tour of the exhibit with the humpers who explained how they use their equipment and what they claim it’s telling them, etc. The dinner/tour cost $90 a plate, and the RGPI got some money from there.

    I don’t know how the TV Ghost Humpers fit in.

    BTW, I think you have a general point about struggling museums and aquariums. The Georgia Aquarium is a little different — it is always packed — but if you are the curator of the Antebellum Spider Pelts Museum of Mt. Pleasant, S.C., a financial windfall like this might be hard to resist.

    But I don’t think it excuses anything.

    If museums and aquariums are not generally exciting, it is because the people who work there have fallen down on the job. You *can* do things to have fun at the museum without actually whoring your mission out. If you cannot think of another way, then maybe you are not doing your job as a curator. Talk to people at successful museums. Ask your kids. Get your local news media involved. Do not just shrug and say “well, my observatory isn’t attracting anyone — let’s get an astrologer in here to get horoscopes done while we look at the stars.”

    Maybe I’m optimistic, but places like this are alternative entertainment and educational options, which is important when people are trying to scrape rent money together.

  8. @phlebas:

    Maybe I’m optimistic, but places like this are alternative entertainment and educational options, which is important when people are trying to scrape rent money together.

    I’d suggest they aren’t alternative entertainment anymore; at least the newer aquariums (aquaria?). It seems to me they have become mainstream entertainment. Many big cities now feature them, and usually they are included in what can be termed an “entertainment district”.

    For example, the Houston Aquarium is located in an area boasting theaters, shopping, amusement park type rides, etc. The freaking Hard Rock Cafe is across the street. And there is even a restaurant/bar right in the aquarium.

    I haven’t been to the New Orleans Aquarium since Katrina, and I don’t even know its condition these days, but it’s within walking distance of Canal/Bourbon Street, and close to some casinos.

    I think these things have moved out of the realm of conventional/traditional museum, and into being a mainstream entertainment destination. And the marketing approach for them is going to reflect that.

    But still . . . . The Ghost Hunters?????

  9. @MoltenHotMagma: Hard science is mostly sitting down with a pencil. That doesn’t get anyone to go to a museum. Science needs to be ‘dumbed down’ a little in order to be understood by the majority of the public. Most people won’t go to a museum to read a meta-study or listen to a lecture on p-values.

    Hard science doesn’t sell. But, the aquarium isn’t about hard science anyway. It’s about soft science, which is meant to inspire and educate, and perhaps the spark of inspiration will help create future scientists.

    The Ghost Hunters presents me with a dilemma:

    1) The ‘exciting’ and dramatic subject of ghosts, plus a TV presence, will undoubtedly be good PR for the aquarium, and will result in increased visitor numbers who will no doubt learn some real science while they’re there.

    2) The aquarium is validating/endorsing the ghost hunters as scientific when they are no such thing, which could distort people’s impressions of what science is.

    Do the benefits of 1) outweigh the drawbacks of 2) ?

  10. @phlebas:

    As I understand it, and I could be wrong, the local ghost humpers made their $$$ when the museum sponsored an after-hours Titanic dinner followed by a tour of the exhibit with the humpers who explained how they use their equipment and what they claim it’s telling them, etc. The dinner/tour cost $90 a plate, and the RGPI got some money from there.

    Okay, now THAT is wrong.

    Resident programs like that should, if anything, be better than what you get normally through the museum experience. Now I’m beyond cynicism…

  11. Museums began many years ago as Cabinets of Curiosities, collections of “stuff” assembled by wealthy dilettantes, for the most part. In time those collections became the basis of carefully recorded observations, and then scientific research. The great unwashed public was not needed (or wanted) as these were private collections anyway.

    Then came the British Museum. Publicly owned, and by extension, in need of public support, it became the model for the museums we now enjoy. Museums (and aquariums) have been riding that public support rollercoaster ever since. Whether their backing has to be lobbied for in the halls of Parliament or Congress or the state legislature, or achieved through high attendance generated by the museum’s marketing staff (or both in the case of our American museums) the need for ongoing funding is central.

    The Georgia Aquarium boasts “a state-of-the-art animal health facility with more than 10,500 square feet and was designed by world-class veterinary professionals from academic and aquarium facilities. Currently, it is the only planned integration of an aquarium and veterinarian teaching hospital program.” Along with “research to improve husbandry methods, develop innovative and exciting new exhibits, contribute to the understanding of the underwater world and apply new discoveries to the conservation of aquatic life,” they seem like they’re up to their watery necks in the genuine article – scientific research. Expensive scientific research.

    So the marketers, in their justifiable zeal, got the notion (correctly) that more warm bodies would pay their money at the front door if they thought the place had some aspects of a carnival funhouse. My guess is it worked. And I’ll also hazard, without any proof whatsoever other than my own years spent working in the museum field, that more than a few of the people who came through the door on that we-got-ghosts pretext got a headful of the real science, exploration, conservation and education. And likely also got the message that, really, there weren’t any ghosts.

    No, don’t be concerned that the Georgia Aquarium may be sullying science. Be concerned, rather, about places like the Creation Museum – total nonsense parading as science fact, and packing them in day after day. And they don’t just believe in ghosts.

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