Thursday, August 27, 2009

Astroblog: "Unscientific America" and the case of Pluto

Ian Musgrave has a great post ("Unscientific America" and the case of Pluto) that lays out the scientific reasons why Pluto was ultimately demoted from full planet status.

The fuss some people put up about Pluto's demotion was the basis for Mooney & Kirshenbaum's opening argument in their recent book "Unscientific America." M&K portray the antagonism toward this decision as an example of scientist's detachment and inability to communicate with the public, before going onto to blame general scientific illiteracy on aloof snobbish scientists.:

The furor over Pluto is just one particularly colorful example of the rift that exists today between the world of science and the rest of our society.
Musgrave does a great job of explaining the scientific events leading up to the IAU's "controversial" 2006 decision, and even some of the social events: I had forgotten completely about the mini-fuss in 2001 associated with the Hayden Planetarium not including Pluto as a planet. I certainly wasn't aware that Neil deGrasse Tyson received hate mail from 3rd graders for that!

There is one issue that Musgrave touches on but does not explore as deeply as I think it deserves:
Astronomers did forsee an outcry from the public, and they did care (especially as several of their own number had a strong attachment to Pluto s [sic] a planet). [emphasis mine]
M&K's thesis rests most easily on the assumption that the Pluto controversy was a simple case of clueless scientists versus an offended public.

But this simple picture ignores the internal conflict within the astronomical community that the media played upon (aided by those who disagreed with the results of the IAU vote). I remember getting emails from astronomer colleagues asking for signatures on petitions protesting the outcome of the IAU vote. That internal discord was certainly picked up by, or fed to, the media given their love for reporting controversy.

Not only do different scientists have strong personal opinions regarding their favourite objects, but there were strong political/financial reasons that would lead some to oppose Pluto's demotion. For example, its not hard to guess why many of the people associated with New Horizons (the fast Pluto fly-by mission) might not like Pluto being demoted (A mission to the only planet we haven't yet visited becomes rather less pressing when Pluto is now only one of many Minor Planets). In if NASA budgets weren't strained the justification for a mission and its funding matter a lot. I can certainly empathize with the scientists who oppose the IAU decision, even if I don't agree with them.

Given that Pluto "controversy" was fed or hyped to some significant extent by a genuine minority of disaffected astronomers it is a bad example of the (supposed) difficulties scientist's have with communicating with the public, and hence a bad foundation for M+K to start their book.

Certainly a better example of controversies where public attitude fail to reflect scientific consensus would be climate change, or stem cells. But there it is also obvious that whatever the limitations of scientist's own public outreach are, the majority of the opposition to the scientific consensus is deliberately fed by groups or organizations with their own socio-political agendas.

And that, I suspect, does not conform to the narrative M+K wish to present.

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