don’t forget to blame a scientist…

Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum blame scientists for public scientific illiteracy. The case study serving as exhibit one? Pluto's demotion from planethood.
solar system photo

Generally, when you walk down the street and see a man shouting about conspiracy theories on a soapbox a few steps from a court house, you don’t expect to see a police officer handing him a bullhorn and clapping as he makes a particularly heated statement. And yet, I saw an analogous situation in Chris Mooney’s and Sheril Kirshenbaum’s new book, Unscientific America. Rather than start with the state of the nation’s schools or the false controversies damaging science education and literacy, their prime example of the giant rift between the scientific community and the public is the demotion of Pluto after the discovery of Eris and Sedna. Huh?

The funny thing is that while quoting the reasons given by the IAU for the planet’s reclassification, they still say it could’ve been left a planet and quote critics while demanding to know just how scientists could’ve failed to anticipate the bizarre public outcry that followed. Mooney is a science writer and Kirshenbaum is a biologist. I would think both of them should be familiar with the fact that science is a dynamic structure and when a new discovery comes along, it could overthrow century old ideas. This is the point I try to drive home on this blog at least once a week when explaining how the scientific process works. Get enough evidence and you can pretty much overturn anything you want. The same thing happened with Pluto.

Sure, its orbit was always eccentric and very unusual compared to the other planets in the solar system, but a strange orbit isn’t necessarily a reason not to call it a planet. We know from looking at alien stars that planets can have very erratic orbits on a fairly constant basis. But at the time when we called Pluto a planet, it was the only spherical, rocky object out there. We thought it was unique. However, it turns out that the Kuiper Belt also hosts over a dozen other spherical and large objects with similar orbits. It’s not unique after all and it floats in the haze of other small rocky, icy bodies rather than dominates an orbit around the Sun like say, Earth which is the most gravitationally powerful object 1AU from its star. The suggestion that we could’ve just tacked on a few more planets not to offend Pluto’s sensitivities borders on blatantly unscientific. In reality, we would’ve ended up with potentially hundreds of new planets which we weren’t sure are planets at all.

If anything, the debate over Pluto raised questions about what a planet actually is and the IAU came to a huge realization that no one actually bothered to define exactly what a planet was until then. As astronomers tried to figure it out, there was no way they could know that the public would get so riled up over a bit of rock and ice so far away, even Hubble is powerless to image it as anything more than a fuzzy ball with hazy streaks. This was the outrage of people who grew up with a memorization of science, not a flexible view of it and they were mad that something they learned in school was being challenged or taken away. To them, science was a fact list, like the answer cards to a trivia game. That someone would come up, take a look at the card and say “oh, this one’s wrong” was cheating in their minds. And when people get riled up, they often don’t care about what you tell them or how you explain the change. They want to vent first, then maybe they’ll think about listening.

Rather than see this is a revealing glimpse into the dynamic nature of science and a symptom of the problem in science education standards in our schools, Mooney and Kirshenbaum use it to turn the criticism around, put scientists against the wall and demand an explanation for why they didn’t explain things better. They tried to explain the problem very well if you were paying attention. For example, Neil deGrasse Tyson always does a phenomenal job of providing easily digestible notes on complex phenomena and he was very vocal during all the commotion. It was his explanation that got me looking back over my astronomy notes and concluding that the reasoning behind the demotion was perfectly sound in my mind. But I was willing to listen and ask why an object which was classified as a planet for so long be demoted, not just angry about eggheads messing with my textbooks and snarking about what they’re going to change next.

Funny enough, when someone tries to raise the problem that explanations from scientists also require public intent to listen to the explanations being provided in response to Mooney’s remarks or on his blog, that person is immediately accused of turning on the public and being disrespectful of their views. The fact remains that a crazed zealot who thinks that scientists are the spawn of Satan and evolution is a demonic doctrine Darwin’s ancestors found in a haunted forest, doesn’t care about explanations and evidence. Blaming scientists for his delusions is counter-productive and seems to be more of a populist appeasement tactic than anything else. Science writers need to have the constitution to give the public a bittersweet pill in debates about the state of science education in the U.S. Sure, the scientists can always do a better job of explaining their research and what it means but the public needs to be willing to listen and limit the damage done by people who care only about dismantling science and public schooling to validate their personal delusions. Communication needs to be a two-way road, not an exercise in talking past people who frankly don’t give a damn about what they’re being told by those with who they disagree.

# science // astronomy / popular science / science education

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