Unscientific America: On Planets and Theories

Hopefully, this post won’t degenerate into a flame war (ZOMG! TEH RELGIONISMZ!!!), but I’ve finished reading Unscientific America. Unfortunately, right off the bat (page three), the ‘Pluto argument’ bothered me (on the other hand, the book could only improve). From my perspective (and what do I know, I’m just a scientist), it seems that if astronomers think Pluto isn’t a planet (and there seems to be some honest scientific debate about whether it is or not), then it’s not a planet. It doesn’t matter if it upsets other non-scientists: a planet means something to scientists and, apparently, Pluto isn’t a planet.
Personally, I don’t care if Pluto is a planet.
I’m quite certain Pluto doesn’t care if it’s called a planet.
But…


…If biologists had knuckled under like this about the word theory, instead of fighting to reclaim the scientific meaning of the word, we would have had a much harder time opposing creationists. Maybe, in the short term, it would have been easier to abandon the scientific meaning and stick with the colloquial one. But, in the long term, by hammering over and over the concept that the word theory means something to scientists, we were much better off, since it emphasizes that the theories of common descent and natural selection are integral to biology–that’s why they’re called theories.
If Mooney and Kirshenbaum were trying to make a general suggestion, it falls flat with me: the science is what it is. If this is supposed to be an example of ‘nerdy, asocial, robot scientists fuck up PR’, then I think it borders on the disingenuous: PR should never come before the science.
Having said that, Unscientific America has some very good ideas, some incomplete ones that needed a lot more refinement, and some bad ones. I’ll be discussing them more next week.

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24 Responses to Unscientific America: On Planets and Theories

  1. Zone says:

    and what do I know, I’m just a scientist
    I assume you know much within the area you were trained and work. Outside that, sorry, but I’ll defer to experts in *that* area.

  2. Zone: I agree and I think Mike does as well, which is why he defers to experts in the area of astronomy, who have determined Pluto isn’t a planet.
    I haven’t read Unscientific America (yet?), but I’ve been wondering what’s mentioned about Pluto. It seemed like a really odd point to bring up and criticize scientists for, especially because (from my point of view, at least) the entire thing was handled with a lot of good humor.

  3. Dave W. says:

    Rebecca, you can read the whole first chapter (about Pluto) online, at the book’s website.

  4. Captain Obvious says:

    “PR should never come before the science.”
    I think in those few words you’ve summed up the root cause of this and all the related kerfuffles.

  5. Joshua says:

    What Mike said.
    I must admit, as someone who likes kung fu movies and dabbled in Taoism during college, this whole “flow like water” thing has a certain philosophical appeal to me. However, there’s gotta be a line somewhere. At some point, you have to stick up for something. It’s not clear to me where Mooney/Nisbet/Kirschenbaum think that point is.
    I also admit I haven’t paid much attention to the framing types since the initial kerfluffle, but the main reason is that I felt they spent a lot of time telling us what to discard but not enough telling us what to keep. Or, even better, what to add. That’s just not productive. I can accept that sacrifices have to be made in order to communicate acceptably, but when I’m told to sacrifice fact without any clear suggestion of what I get in return… I just don’t see the point.

  6. ponderingfool says:

    How many people were really getting that upset about it? How many people are really that aware about the change? Seems most of the resolutions by governmental bodies that were passed were from places Clyde Tombaugh (Pluto’s discoverer) had lived. More provincial responses than anything. Pluto it should also be noted was discovered by an American. Science really shouldn’t give into such factors.

  7. Hi Mike,
    Thanks for reading our book!
    As for Pluto in Unscientific America, we’re not making the case for restoring Pluto (though we wouldn’t mind if it happened). Rather, the purpose is to explore what this incident says about the relationship between science and society–namely, that there’s a vast disconnect here. The Pluto affair illustrates that divide, as we explain. (This part of the book happens to be freely available online, right here.)
    I’m looking forward to reading your perspective next week!

  8. Ah, thanks for the links to the free first chapter! I’ll check it out asap.

  9. ponderingfool says:

    there’s a vast disconnect here.
    ************************
    Does this really show a vast discount though? Facebook page had a lot of people joining but why did people join? I know of people who joined because it was a fun “back in my day” type of thing that other people were doing (i.e. they joined for social reasons with low barrier of entry not because of outrage).

  10. NewEnglandBob says:

    Well said so far, Mike. I can’t wait to see what you say next week.

  11. Eric Lund says:

    The point of the exercise is coming up with a consistent, universally agreed upon definition of the word “planet”. The definition of “planet” had already been changed at least once: I recall from a visit to Old Sturbridge Village some years ago that students in the 1830s learned about 35 planets–that total probably included what are now called asteroids, and may have included the Galilean satellites of Jupiter as well as Titan, but did not include Neptune, which hadn’t been discovered yet.
    The key thing is whether planetary astronomers can defend the new definition of “planet” as being consistently applicable. If so, they have every reason for defending that definition. If not, we will find the definition changing again. As M&K note in the excerpt, it’s a semantic exercise–but in science, technical terms have to mean the same thing to everybody, or they’re useless. It’s not like the Red Queen getting to say that words mean exactly what she wants them to mean.

  12. It is not accurate to say “astronomers do not consider Pluto a planet. The reality is some astronomers do not while others disagree. Only four percent of the IAU voted on this, and most are not planetary scientists. Their decision was immediately opposed by hundreds of professional astronomers led by Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto. Stern and like-minded scientists favor a broader planet definition that includes any non-self-luminous spheroidal body orbiting a star. The spherical part is important because objects become round when they are large enough for their own gravity to pull them into a round shape–a characteristic of planets and not of shapeless asteroids. In summary, the public deserves to know the truth, which is that this is very much an ongoing debate.

  13. ponderingfool says:

    The spherical part is important because objects become round when they are large enough for their own gravity to pull them into a round shape–a characteristic of planets and not of shapeless asteroids. In summary, the public deserves to know the truth, which is that this is very much an ongoing debate.
    **********************
    Isn’t that why they called it a dwarf planet? There is also the issue of Pluto’s relationship with Charon which isn’t exactly a typical planet/moon interaction from my understanding of astronomy. At the end of the day though the debate isn’t highlighting a deep divide between the public and science.
    Are Sheril and Chris arguing that astronomers should have handled the roll out better to get the American public to accept it better? (From my understanding the outcry was not as large as in the US; it should be noted an American discovered Pluto.) What would Sheril and Chris suggest the astronomers to have done? I get the implication from the piece they thought the other suggestion, incorporating the desires of some scientists, historians and journalists to have a definition of a planet that included Pluto, may have been better. Why historians and journalists should be included I don’t know. In the end however in this part of the book they really don’t explain anything other than tell the reader it demonstrates a divide between the public and scientists.

  14. Laurel,
    I agree that it’s not entirely clear if Pluto should or should not be a planet. But it’s not something that should be influenced by popular whim.

  15. Laurel,
    I agree that it’s not entirely clear if Pluto should or should not be a planet. But it’s not something that should be influenced by popular whim.

  16. Mike says:

    Alan Stern has a bit of a biased view, since he is in charge of a mission to Pluto.
    The crux of the issue is this, has Pluto “cleared it’s path”? The answer is no. Jupiter has Trojan asteroids, that is, asteroids that orbit the sun in the L4 and L5 Lagrange points. The orbital dynamics of the Trojans are controlled strongly by Juiter. In a less strong, but still subordinate role, Pluto is in a 3:2 resonance with Neptune. Neptune’s gravity dominates the orbit of Pluto. The wiki page has a good discussion of what this all means, and includes the money quote from Alan Stern himself: “From a dynamical standpoint, our solar system clearly contains 8 überplanets”.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clearing_the_neighbourhood

  17. New Horizons was already on its way to Pluto when the IAU vote took place, meaning there were no funding issues involved. Also, calling objects dwarf planets has not precluded NASA from sending missions there, as the Dawn mission went ahead regardless of the IAU debate.
    All scientists are biased to some extent, but the major divide here is between dynamicists, who study the way celestial objects influence one another, and planetary scientists, who study the geophysical composition of these objects. One could say the first group focuses on where the objects are while the second focuses on what the objects are.
    The IAU definition is completely biased in favor of the dynamicists’ view. It is the dynamicists who concocted the requirement that an object “clear its orbit” to be considered a planet. If you look at the actual study done by Stern and Levison, not the Wikipedia page, in which they established the two classes of “uber planets” or those that gravitationally dominate their orbits, and “unter planets,” those that do not gravitationally dominate their orbits but are in hydrostatic equilibrium, it is clear that the authors never say that the “unter planets” should not be considered planets at all!
    Stern, who originally coined the term “dwarf planet,” reaffirmed this at the Great Planet Debate held last August at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab. Yes, he would agree our solar system has 8 “uber planets,” but he does not see these as the sum total of all the planets in the solar system, recognizing that there are five and likely many more “unter planets” that are planets as well. That is the crux of the problem with the IAU definition–the specific statement that dwarf planets are not planets. If this were changed, much of the controversy would evaporate.
    Interestingly, astronomers have found an exoplanet system with two gas giants in a 3:2 orbital resonance. Neither of those could be said to clear their orbits, and according to the IAU definition, they would not be considered planets. This just doesn’t make sense.
    As far as state legislative declarations, they were motivated by lobbying from citizens’ groups and have no force in law. However, as someone who personally knows some of those who lobbied for them, I can say with strong conviction that they did not intend the resolutions to be a joke. Some of these people are invested enough in this issue that they took the time and money to show up and participate at the Great Planet Debate. That says a lot about their motivation in this matter.

  18. mk says:

    Regarding pluto… really why does anyone fucking care?

  19. ponderingfool says:

    Regarding pluto… really why does anyone fucking care?
    ********************************************
    I suspect most people do not. It was a fun joke because well it is funny, especially those that get worked up about outside of astronomers.
    As for Unscientific America, if the Pluto incident was about poor communication, then they should have directly said. Maybe explain how the message got spun “out of control” by the scientists, how they were ill-prepared, etc., and maybe explain how they could have done better. Make it a fuller microcosm of the entire book, setting up the issues and discussions that are developed further in subsequent chapters. Right now the impression can be given that the decision itself by the astronomers was the problem in the authors’ minds and as Mike says that is getting the order of things wrong. It is poor writing as it stands now.

  20. “It was a fun joke because well it is funny, especially those that get worked up about outside of astronomers.”
    Amateur astronomers are astronomers too. Some are actually more knowledgable about general astronomy than highly specialized professionals (no, I’m not talking about myself, but most members of my astronomy club would meet this criterion).

  21. “Regarding pluto… really why does anyone fucking care?”
    I could say the same thing about Michael Jackson.
    Pluto, at least, is far more interesting.

  22. ponderingfool says:

    Amateur astronomers are astronomers too. Some are actually more knowledgable about general astronomy than highly specialized professionals (no, I’m not talking about myself, but most members of my astronomy club would meet this criterion).
    **********************
    I said outside of astronomy. I would include amateur astronomers. Science doesn’t begin nor end with a paycheck.
    At the end of the day whether Pluto is defined as a planet or dwarf planet or something else, it should be based on astronomy not some PR movement to calm a relatively few predominately Americans.

  23. Ian Musgrave says:

    Sheril R. Kirshenbaum wrote at #7: “Rather, the purpose is to explore what this incident says about the relationship between science and society–namely, that there’s a vast disconnect here. The Pluto affair illustrates that divide, as we explain.”
    Well, no, you don’t. What exactly is the disconnect or divide? That the general public does not understand the technical issues involved in taxonomy? That scientists need to communicate more?
    Astronomy is the poster child of science, people love it, there are heaps of pretty pictures, and the combined weight of the NASA and Hubble publicity machines, plus the large base of amateur astronomers gives astronomy a degree of public outreach we in other less photogenic sciences could only dream of.
    The Pluto issue had been live in the general public since Neil deGrasse Tyson’s display at the Hayden planetarium. The high profile discoveries of Sedna and Eris (“Xena”) kept the planet debate in focus, there were websites about the planet issue linked to these high profile discoveries, and articles in such obscure publications as “The New York Times” (that was humour). The IAU paid significant attention to the importance of the issue with lots of high profile media coverage and internet updates, all relating back to the science issues at hand.
    Yet despite this there was still a public (in the US at least) outcry. What more could astronomers possibly have done? Held focus groups? Kuiper belt parades? M&K, as well as misrepresenting the episode, don’t give us any hints.
    What was in Chris and Sheril’s minds when they wrote things such as “The International Astronomical Union (IAU)… opted to poke the public with a sharp stick”, “Didn’t the scientists involved foresee such an outcry from the public? Did they simply not care?”. The IAU did care, and devoted significant public outreach resources to the issue. So Sheril, what more could they have done?
    For a more detailed look at the Pluto affair and public outreach, see my blog post here.

  24. mk says:

    I could say the same thing about Michael Jackson.
    Pluto, at least, is far more interesting.

    I see. So that’s what’s driving fans of Pluto? Pure emotion.

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