Censoring Science: IMAX and Evolution

Story Updated 10:20 p.m., EST

This week, I'm headed to Dallas, Texas, for the National Science Teachers Association national meeting. Science educators from across the nation meet each spring to share resources, lessons, meet publishers, and generally advance science teaching for the nation. As a part of the NSTA events, there's an afternoon field trip to the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History. Teachers are promised a great experience. To quote the program: "Extraordinary Learning Environments at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History: Spend a high-energy afternoon in the extraordinary learning environments at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History. Tailor the afternoon to meet your own professional development interests and needs. Options include observing science learning with the youngest visitors in Museum School; visiting the stellar Noble Planetarium; experiencing the incredible Omni Theatre; exploring visual perception, force and motion, waves, and pendulums in Explorazone; and reliving the past in Kid Stuff: Great Toys from Our Childhood. You'll also want to visit the Museum's permanent exhibit collection. Pick up lots of teacher resource materials in the Center" Sounds great. But something is missing here. The IMAX theater won't be showing films that involve evolution.

Science museums have a more significant mission: they are a portal to the nature of science for teachers, students and the general public. They endeavor to bring the big ideas, the latest discoveries and the process of science to the children and adults alike. In addition to exhibits and events, many science centers feature IMAX theaters. Via film, visitors can travel to the distant reaches of the universe with the Hubble telescope and dive to the bottom of the ocean to explore volcanic vents. IMAX films take us on adventures that, in the past, have been available only to a few. They make science come to life.

Apparently this is fine in most of the country, but not everywhere, and not at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History. According to an article, "A New Screen Test for Imax: It's the Bible vs. the Volcano," in the New York Times by Cornelia Dean, IMAX films are acceptable, as long as they do not discuss biological or geological evolution, or the age of the universe. Some science center theaters--including the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History--are rejecting films that mention or imply evolution because of religious controversy. According to Dean, these theaters have variously rejected "Cosmic Voyage, which depicts the universe in dimensions running from the scale of subatomic particles to clusters of galaxies; Galapagos, about the islands where Darwin theorized about evolution; and Volcanoes of the Deep Sea, an underwater epic about the bizarre creatures that flourish in the hot, sulfurous emanations from vents in the ocean floor."*

Dean describes an interview with Carol Murray, director of marketing for the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History: "the museum decided not to offer the movie (Volcanoes of the Deep) after showing it to a sample audience, a practice often followed by managers of IMAX theaters. Ms. Murray said 137 people participated in the survey, and while some thought it was well done, "some people said it was blasphemous." In their written comments, she explained, they made statements like "I really hate it when the theory of evolution is presented as fact," or "I don't agree with their presentation of human existence." Apparently, the decision to show or not to show an IMAX film is a marketing-driven decision based upon anti-evolutionary reactions rather on whether the films portray valid scientific principles, discoveries, and explorations.

Forth Worth is not alone in rejecting Volcanoes of the Deep. It's also been rejected in Georgia and the Carolinas according to Pietro Serapiglia, who handles distribution for Stephen Low, the film's Montreal-based director and producer. According to the Associated Press, "IMAX theaters in several Southern cities have decided not to show a film on volcanoes out of concern that its references to evolution might offend those with fundamental religious beliefs. "We've got to pick a film that's going to sell in our area. If it's not going to sell, we're not going to take it," said Lisa Buzzelli, director of an IMAX theater in Charleston that is not showing the movie. "Many people here believe in creationism, not evolution." Apparently Buzzelli has not completely ruled out showing the film in the future. Certainly science centers and museums need to bring in audiences to survive; these organizations have to watch the bottom line. But, should they indirectly censor science via the selection process for science films to please a minority of public religious beliefs? I think not. First and foremost, science centers have a responsibility to inform the public, and that includes exhibiting evidence that supports evolution to the public. Humans are related to other organisms on the planet. We share DNA with the critters that surround deep sea vents as described in Volcanoes of the Deep. If science centers avoid presenting the factual basis for the theory of evolution, they do a disservice to the public--those who question evolution and those who do not.

*EDITOR'S NOTE: On March 31, 2005, the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History opened Volcanoes of the Deep Sea for a one-month engagement.

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Edna DeVore
Director of Education and Public Outreach, SETI Institute

 Edna DeVore is a science and astronomy educator and the former Director of Education and Public Outreach for the SETI Institute. She earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Pacific followed by a master's degree in instructional technology from San Jose State and a master's in astronomy from the University of Arizona. In 1992, Edna joined the SETI Institute, where she wrote features on space exploration, astrobiology and more, some of which appeared on Space.com. She was among the first principal investigators to propose projects to NASA's Office of Space Science and receive funding for educational programs. Edna went on to work on education and public outreach for NASA's Kepler space telescope and SOFIA flying telescope missions. Edna received numerous awards during her tenure at SETI, including NASA Honor Awards for her work on Kepler and SOFIA, and Aerospace Awareness Award for Women in Aerospace in 2005. Edna retired in 2013.