There’s an Anti-Science Conservative on Your Museum’s Board. So What?


There has been a ruckus of late around the hallowed halls of New York City’s American Museum of Natural History. An open letter from 450 scientists was published at the end of January calling on the museum to depose board member Rebekah Mercer; this following a private, but since leaked, letter from some curators calling for the same thing. The cause has been carried into the streets by protesters outside the museum who have called for Mercer’s ouster, and online through a slew of angry tweets and lambasting op-eds demanding the same.

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None of Mercer’s critics has presented any evidence of interference or influence from conservative donors or trustees over museum displays, programming, or research.

Mercer’s crime: She is a supporter of various institutions that deny climate change and oppose environmental efforts. She is also, as almost every article and op-ed feels the need to point out before even mentioning the climate change denialism, a Trump supporter. The concern seems to be that the public will lose trust in the museum as a bastion of knowledge if it associates with such conservatives, or that — through proximity or a sense of quid-pro-quo — they may corrupt the work done there.

The institution’s response to the campaign has been to release a statement noting that funders do not play a role in curatorial decision-making and that political views are explicitly not considered when making appointment decisions. Having spent time as a visiting scientist at the the museum myself, I can report that the staff who work there are brilliant and talented scientists and educators committed to teaching the world about science, including climate change. I would guess that most of the staff have never met, nor could even name, the 41 trustees, let alone experienced corrupting pressure from them. None of Mercer’s critics has presented any evidence of interference or influence from conservative donors or trustees — or liberal ones, for that matter — over museum displays, programming, or research.

It’s worrisome that appeals to reason and evidence must be made at all, given that the torch-and-pitchfork reaction to Mercer’s politics is ostensibly a defense against anti-science propagandists. But the heated reactions are problematic, perhaps even absurd, on many fronts. Beyond the lack of evidence, why be concerned with only conservative pressures, for example? Pseudoscience is not merely a habit of Republicans. The actress and comedian Tina Fey, another trustee and likely a more palatable one to most liberals, is also brilliant and talented — but she is not a scientist and we should not want her involved directly with museum decision-making either. More practically speaking, insofar as the rich are typically more conservative, it seems rather shortsighted to exclude the right from the museum’s donor base.

Simply put, the qualifications for being a board member are being wealthy, having wealthy friends, and being generous to the institution with both. Mercer, whose foundation has given about $4 million to the AMNH since 2012, surely fits the bill — which is not to say that she should therefore be lauded for her politics or other philanthropic proclivities. But are her transgressions so dire that they warrant excommunication from a museum over which she had no measurable influence, beyond spending lavishly to help it continue its science-based mission? None of us are morally pristine, but our hypocrisies do tend to be less public and less expensive.

If the stated intent behind all the hullabaloo is to protect the reputation of the institution, garnering it a new one of being anti-conservative seems very dangerous indeed. We must not bar the doors of scientific institutions to anyone, whether it’s done explicitly, or by making them feel, as a class, unwelcome. Science cannot be known purely as a place for liberals. It has to be inclusive to be done right, for in trying to describe the world we must necessarily include all of it. Scientific institutions may feel more comfortable in the absence of dissenting voices, but by excluding people on the basis of their politics, those same institutions would sacrifice the opportunity to share science where it is most likely to win new converts to reason and empiricism.

The beauty of science is that, as an approach, it has the ability to transcend politics, and thereby help right some of the wrongs that politics can bring about.

The beauty of science is that, as an approach, it has the ability to transcend politics, and thereby help right some of the wrongs that politics can bring about. Climate change is real. Ditto evolution. Through more research we can find ways to control the former and direct the latter. If you want to help persuade people of this, people who aren’t already on your side, you need to invite them in.

I’m glad to know that Rebekah Mercer spends time at the American Museum of Natural History. I like to imagine she’ll learn something while there — something about the beauty of the natural world and the importance of protecting it; about the wonder you feel when confronted with a universe much bigger and much older than you can truly conceive; about how reason may sometimes give you uncomfortable answers but knowledge is always better than ignorance in the long run. She’ll certainly find more evidence of this at the museum than in the other crowds she likely frequents. Isn’t this what her critics should want? To help her change her mind?

You don’t win the culture war by taking territory — Cambridge, Massachusetts or the 20 acres immediately west of Central Park between 77th and 81st or even the White House. You win the war by winning your opponents’ hearts and minds. Kicking out conservatives gets you the former but loses you the latter. (And with them their millions of dollars that pay for research and new signage and for someone to hopefully, finally take down the very questionable statue of Teddy Roosevelt on Central Park West.)

At stake here is not just a board seat and some reputation management. It is, at the end of the day, a fight for our whole planet. We should be fighting to win — and that means figuring out how to fight together.


Aspen Reese is a Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows, where she studies microbial ecology. She has previously worked as a visiting scientist at the American Natural History Museum.

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