Back to the Future, Now Long Gone — Part 2

Previously: It was the best of science. It was the worst of science…

After enjoying an initial wave of euphoric commentary, Biosphere was battered with skeptics speaking out, especially scientists, wary of the project team’s qualifications  — specifically their lack of — as well as the project itself. The recent documentary, Spaceship Earth (on Hulu), quotes one such outspoken critic, Professor Basset Maguire, Jr., of the University of Texas:

It is a great adventure. And as adventure, you know, fine — but that’s not science. Nothing will be proved, it’s not replicable, there’s too many variables.

Biospherians Bernd Zabel, Linda Leigh, Taber MacCallum, Abigail Alling, Mark Van Thillo, Sally Silverstone, Roy Walford, and Jane Poynter

Biospherians Bernd Zabel, Linda Leigh, Taber MacCallum, Abigail Alling, Mark Van Thillo, Sally Silverstone, Roy Walford, and Jane Poynter

About the time the Biospherians started their grand adventure in fall 1991, I embarked on a grand adventure of my own — graduate school. For my second semester, I jumped at the chance to work as an intern for an old friend, Debby Kalk, at River City Interactive. It was early in my graduate studies for taking on an internship, but I could not pass up the chance to work for my quasi-mentor in the best interactive shop in Austin.

However, that internship ended abruptly within 3 weeks when the parent corporation, River City Productions, unexpectedly went bankrupt. All the offices were locked up without warning. Debby wasn’t even allowed back in to retrieve personal belongings from the office for weeks. This left me scrambling to find another internship to keep me on track with my planned degree program.

Luckily, I found one with Dr. Judy Lang at the Texas Memorial Museum, helping her expand an interactive learning exhibit, “The Vanishing Species of Texas” into a full-blown curriculum to be called “The Vanishing Species of the Southwest.” She already had another graduate intern writing the curriculum, but she faced a special challenge in how to evaluate the program’s effectiveness.

She already knew that standardized testing, widely considered the “gold standard” for assessing learning, would not work for this project. Our intended audience of Native American learners in middle school were typically terrible test-takers. To base any evaluation of the program on simplistic pre-and-post testing to demonstrate effectiveness might easily produce data seeming to prove the opposite. We needed something else.

A colleague had recommended “Evaluating with Validity” by Ernest House to Dr. Lang as a s resource for researching alternative evaluation methods. So, my internship assignment became to read the book, summarize it succinctly, determine useful information about designing — and justifying — alternative evaluation methods, and report back to her with options.

I gotta tell you that studying evaluation theory was not what I had in mind for my internship. I wanted to help design and develop the interactive lessons for the curriculum itself, but it was too late to change assignments again now.

But I dove in and discovered that evaluation theory can be quite complex. Dr. House made me aware, not only of alternative methods of assessing learning, but the role of evaluation in shaping an entire program. Much of what I learned involved how complex a process evaluation can be. It will always involve multiple stakeholders and audiences with both convergent and divergent interests regarding goals, methods, and outcomes of the project itself. These interests are often at odds with each other.

In short, any major evaluation effort is fraught with quasi-political dangers.

House presents case studies to show how program evaluation decisions about intended goals. underlying assumptions, and methodology. Change the parameters of any aspect of the evaluation and the outcome likely changes, too.

About this time in my reading and research, Dr. Lang asked me to advise her on whether or not to accept an appointment to the Scientific Advisory Committee evaluating Biosphere 2. The invitation put her in a peculiar position. In seniority and expertise, Dr. Lang was considered number 2 in her field of expertise. And the department’s #1 expert — Prof. Basset Maguire, Jr, quoted above and in the documentary —had already spoken out forcefully against the endeavor.

Dr. Lang asked if she should be concerned about accepting the position. The short answer: “Yes.”

Ernest House made specific recommendation for a fair evaluation in his book. His point was that all parties to the evaluation should reach an agreed understanding spelling out particulars about involved each stakeholder’s involvement, evaluation methodology and rationale, data collection procedures and a distribution plan to ensure appropriate levels of transparency in reporting.  He spelled out criteria for such a “fair evaluation agreement”  to be reached before starting the evaluation so rules, roles and responsibilities are spelled out in advance. I prepared a short report offering interpretations of each point that I felt would help Dr. Lang take an equitable approach to joining the committee.

After being satisfied that the conditions would be appropriately met, she accepted the assignment and agreed to serve on the committee.

Meanwhile, back at Biosphere 2, a major rift between John Allen and the group’s major financial backer, Texas billionaire, Ed Bass, was developing. For years, Bass had funded multiple endeavors by Allen and his intrepid followers all around the world. An enthusiastic supporter of the initial ideals behind Biosphere, Bass began listening to the project’s critics as the advisory committee began to meet.

As shown in the documentary, John Allen felt the support he counted on slipping away. He was not mistaken. Bass had begun to look elsewhere for advice regarding the project. He decided to call an investment banker he knew to provide a steadier hand, one Steve Bannon.

Yes, that Steve Bannon.

As described in a 2017 blog article by Daniel Litt:

Bannon immediately began generating proposals to monetize the biosphere, including plans to open “Biosphere 3,” a casino operated jointly with the Luxor in Las Vegas.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, Biosphere 2 remained in the red.

Under Bannon’s direction, the second and final mission began.  But tensions between the old management (Allen, Augustine, and the original crew of biospherians) on one hand, and the money — Bass and Bannon — on the other, soon reached a boiling point.  On April 1, 1994, Bass and Bannon sent US Marshals to Biosphere 2 with a restraining order, removing the original management from the project.

Spaceship Earth tells the story better than I can. Watching it brought back memories of that time and the minuscule role I played passing in the early days, and that’s what I wanted to write about primarily here.

Now, if you get as intrigued by the story the documentary tells as I did, you might fall down the same rabbit hole I did, digging up old and recent articles, books and their reviews, finding Jane Poynter’s TED talk…and wondering whatever happened to the original Biosphere 2 explorers and dreamers. If you have as much fun doing that as I did, well, you’re welcome.

Biosphere 2 lives on under the direction of the University of Arizona these days, offering education, research, and tours.

About bullersbackporch

I am a native Austinite, a high-tech Luddite, lover of music, movies and stories and a born trainer-explainer.
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