It would appear our new acquaintance SBH is in possession of an uncanny knack for identifying apocryphal insertions into humankind’s history. Over at his blog, he has a well-written introspection on the “eternal truths” he’s learned over the years, and how he reacted when science overturned two of them specifically: his irrational gut-instinct rejection of the notion that birds evolved from dinosaurs, and his ready acceptance of the booting of Pluto from the pantheon of planets.
In discussing the Pluto “debate”, he’s succeeded in prodding me into writing something space-related, on this, the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing (though sadly, I didn’t finish drafting this post in time). Strangely enough, my topic ties in with the Unscientific America blog-tempest, specifically the passage where Mooney/Kirshenbaum apparently and in all earnestness claimed that the ousting of Pluto hurt the cause of science because it was done despite some (as I recall, media-amplified and really quite minor) dissent. It seems fitting to me that the blog-blitzkrieg brought on by M&K’s book couldn’t stir me to write about Pluto, given their antithetical stance against pretty well everything I believe, including the scientific method’s correct decision to reclassify the puny clump of ice; yet this new acquaintance’s blog managed to do so on my first visit.
Pluto has long been one of our nine planets, taught in school since it was discovered in 1930. It figures heavily in astrology. There’s a Disney character named after it. There are acronyms so you can remember the order of these planets that would be wrecked by Pluto’s exclusion, and would take rewriting to fit the new acronym, e.g. My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas. “Just served us nine WHAT?”
Here’s the thing — Pluto’s barycentre with its moon Charon (the “pivot” spot around which the two orbit one another) lies between the two, and not within the body of one or the other, so technically it’s a binary system. Pluto has 1/5th the mass of the moon, and 1/3 the volume. Its orbit is really odd — it orbits the sun at a steep incline compared to the rest of the solar system, and it even overlaps Neptune’s orbit somewhat such that occasionally, Pluto is closer to the Sun than Neptune. It has all the trappings of an object caught in the Sun’s gravity well and settling into an orbit, rather than a planet proper, formed by the creation of the solar system.
Likewise, another object, a little further out, is named Eris. It has 27% more mass than Pluto, it has a highly inclined orbit at a totally different angle than Pluto, and there will actually be a short period of time by my understanding every thousand years or so when it is closer to the sun than Pluto. By all accounts, if Pluto is going to be a planet, Eris should too. And, that’s why the International Astronomical Union had been forced to finally, after so many years of waffling and massaging definitions, ultimately decide what counts as a planet and what doesn’t. And Pluto got left out in the cold. And by cold, I mean it got reclassified as, variously, a “plutoid”, a Kuiper belt object, or a dwarf planet (I’m assuming this last as a means of splitting the difference to get the dramallamas dominating the media to come on board). I mean, it’s not like Pluto got nuked out of existence by Mad Scientists — it’s just classified as another thing, because it doesn’t get caught by any net we cast to pick up all the “usual” planets, without also picking up Eris and who knows how many other objects that happen to be a smidge outside the Kuiper Belt. This would result in hundreds of new “planets” over time, and that’s just as unacceptable to us as losing Pluto from the acronym is to you crazy Pluto boosters.
Never forget the public will naturally be upset by any piece of information that they’ve learned that they then need to unlearn or reclassify. They are more willing to accept new information or apocrypha — take for instance the insertion of “under God” to the US Pledge of Allegiance in the 1950s, so added to differentiate from the Godless Russians. If anyone were to try to have “under God” removed from that pledge, I can guarantee that a vocal bunch would kick up a huge storm over it — between religious folks who believe removing it is an assault on them by the secular heathen devils, religious folks who honestly and earnestly think it’s been in there since the founding of the nation, and people who grew up with it in the pledge and consider it canon, there’ll be a lot of dissent. There always is.
Should the scientific method by which we accumulate knowledge about our planet, our solar system, our galaxy, and our universe, be subjected to traction by what’s popular or convenient? Assuredly not. If that were the case, with so many Creationists in positions of power in both Canada and the US presently, North America will quickly find ourselves shutting down all scientific research that contradicts the Bible. Astronomy? No sir, it was all poofed into existence by God in situ with all the light already in transit at most 6000 years ago. Archaeology? Why bother, God put those fossils there to fool us into believing there’s a huge history, and anyway, dinosaurs existed alongside humans before the Great Flood. Biology? Nope, no can do, it depends too much on Darwin. Genetics? Darwin depends too much on IT, so it has to be false as well.
This is a slippery slope argument. Unfortunately, it’s also demonstrably true. If you allow what’s popular to set your scientific standards, you’ll find a shitload of science getting thrown to the wayside for political expedience and religious accomodationism. And that doesn’t fly with me. Likely not with anyone else that’s been summarily categorized as “New Atheist” by Mooney and his ilk, either.
Update: I fixed your name. I don’t know where the hell I got SRV from.