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Monday, April 27, 2009

Intermission: Rant

Okay, this is food related, but it shouldn't be. The Houston Museum of Natural Science is heavily advertising some event called Big Bite Nite. Supposedly, with representation from some of the city's best restaurants (I noticed, however, that Jamba Juice is there...).

My rant - what does this have to do with (natural) science? There is a tiny little segment supposedly on the chemistry of cooking ... that is at best reaching. It links to a couple of short videos, one on making butter from cream, and another on ice cream, and links further to articles like this one: The Science Behind Ice Cream. Go ahead, take a quick peek, and come back. Notice that although there is a recipe for making ice cream, there is really no discussion of science. It's only in the title, very GWB-esque.

Food and cuisine are a fantastic teaching tool when used creatively, from Heston Blumenthal's Kitchen Chemistry, to Harold McGee's seminal work, and an understanding behind the science of taste itself. The way this thing is structured is pablum for (potentially) wealthy people who see dinosaur skeletons as yet another objet d'art rather than an important stimulus for critical thinking and an understanding of the natural universe.


  1. I can understand your frustration. However, Ill challenge you on this. Name the last time you went to the HMNS that wasnt for a special exhibition. For me, I visited regularly - until I was out of junior high. I havent been back more than a couple of times to see IMAX shows or visit a special exhibition (i.e. BodyWorlds). The museum, like any enterprise, has to evaluate how to expand its membership and patronage, and this is a way to get people into the facility and realize that there is more to see than just what they saw in the 6th grade. If just 10% of the 'Big Bites' patrons end up with memberships, my guess is thats a successful event for them. If just 10% of those end up as donors, thats even better.

    HMNS isnt trying to do science with these events - it's pure marketing. I can understand why thats offensive, but a facility that cannot be pragmatic is doomed to failure - even if on principled grounds.

    PS - what I find comical is the 'Methodist Health Care Center for the Performing Arts' ad I saw in the 'Opera' magazine they gave us when we came in to the Wortham last week. WTF? Whats next, the 'Methodist Health Care Center for Bloggers', specializing in ergonomic assessments and removal of trolls?

  2. I can't really put a finger on it, but the marketing of the "cultural" things in Houston seems to be pretty lazy. That is at least part of the frustration. A couple of reasons this particular thing rubs me the wrong way:

    1. The prevalence in science ignorance in Texas makes this state particularly welcoming to delusional folks like the Institute of Creation Research. And I do think that one of the most important tools of continuing science education is a museum of science; and when they abandon their mission (specially in marketing), this strikes me as disingenuous.

    2. Over on Twitter, one of the HMNS staff chided me that BBN will have "cultural performances and live animals". I don't think they get the meat of my complaint about the event.

    Yes, I do understand that marketing is important, but there is a difference between drawing people in - and misleading them outright. And this is specially galling given the strictures of scientific conduct.

  3. I work for the Museum, and I was the person who replied to your tweet. I'm sorry if you thought I was "chiding" you - I only meant to provide you with some additional information about the event. I do understand your points - but was unable to respond on this blog last night for some reason. I was also involved in producing the food science videos - so I thought you might be interested in my perspective.

    Like our Mixers & Elixirs events in the summer, Big Bite Nite is a way to get a lot of people into the Museum to experience it, who might not otherwise attend. And while it is certainly not as intrinsically science-centric, as, say, the Hall of Gems and Minerals - you can visit that hall during the event, along with many others. You can have fun – and learn at the same time. There is nothing wrong with that - and in our experience, it's often the best way to get people engaged and interested in pursuing science further.

    Our hope is that people who come to Big Bite Nite will come back - and while they are here, we have arranged for a lot of science activities, including live animal demonstrations, insect cooking, and cultural performances that spotlight China.

    I disagree that the event or the marketing of the event is misleading - it's a food event, with a science twist. Also, as with everything the Museum does, all proceeds go back into our educational programs and exhibits - which include many exhibitions of the type I think you are looking for - like the world premiere of Lucy, the 3.2 million year old hominid; a meteorite that a museum team excavated in 2006 (premiering Monday with a new planetarium show exploring its significance and origins); our upcoming exhibition featuring the terra cotta warriors; and an examination of Amazonian cultures debuting later this year.

  4. We'll have to disagree on this point. Science education is a cause near and dear to me, and I'll stand that this so called "food event with a science twist" has NO science in it beyond an afterthought mention. How are "insect cooking and cultural performances that spotlight China" supposed to be scientific activities? I can see that it's good marketing for the Terra Cotta warriors -- but, please, I am really straining to find the "Natural Science" in any of these.

    Calling a spade a spade is part and parcel of scientific discipline. I will agree that this is a food centric event, but I personally find that paying lip service to the word "science" without actually conducting any science is at best stealing the hard won respect and authority of scientists, and at worst empowering misunderstanding and myths about scientific research.

  5. I'm going to disagree with you on this one, Ricky. I think I'm okay with folks using a science institution for non-science activities. After all, their money will go to a good place, and who knows, they might accidentally learn something. However, if it were an actual anti-science group, I'd feel VERY differently. Or, if this were something that were displacing a science event. But as something on top of the normal activities of the science museum, I'm unconvinced that's a bad thing...

  6. I may not be expressing myself well. I don't really object to the HMNS engaging in non-science activities, heck, I think it is indeed crucial to successful communication. But they shouldn't label it as a science event when there isn't any science involved. It's like being promised a chocolate chip cookie, only to find there is a single chip in it.

    Basically, I am calling that the emperor has no clothes. Just because you get to do something under the shade of a T. rex skeleton doesn't make it a scientific endeavor. And it is precisely this kind of sly redefinition that gives succor to creationists in the Texas educational system.

  7. Ahhh... methinks I understand...

    Yes indeed, merely having a scientist at your party doesn't make it a science event. And having your party under a dinosaur doesn't make it a science event.

    In that case, I guess we agree.