Thursday, August 31, 2006

Rhode Island, Pluto, and Betsy Ross II

You were begging for more Pluto after this post. I am happy to oblige.

There is this op/ed piece from physics professor Jeffrey Mallow and law professor (?) Steven Lubet:

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It seems that kids love Pluto (both the planet and the Disney dog), and that schoolteachers have capitalized on that affection, using it to spur lessons in both civics and composition. After all, if scientists can vote on nature, why shouldn't ordinary people lobby for the decision they want (or to reverse a decision if they don't like it)? But science is not democratic, and it turns out that children are taught exactly the wrong lesson when they are encouraged to defend Pluto's planetary status.

By its nature, science continually submits long-held ideas to critical investigation and eventual revision, usually by consensus and sometimes by formal vote. But the process is nothing like political voting. Confronted with a mass of data, scientists try to make sense of it by establishing theoretical categories. Almost inevitably, nature eventually strikes back by revealing new data that call these categories into question.

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The category "planet," which worked fine for the first eight, never quite fit Pluto: Its orbit was not in the approximate plane of the others; its size kept shrinking, based on better and better measurements, until it was recognized as smaller than some asteroids and a host of other objects in the distant Kuiper belt; and -- the final nail -- its orbit crossed over that of another planet, Neptune. So the scientific vote on Pluto was simply necessary to correct old errors on the basis of new facts.

And that brings us back to the children's crusade. Although they are no doubt motivated by the best intentions, teachers do their students a disservice when they rally them behind Pluto's cause. In fact, they are undermining serious educational goals by suggesting that popular sentiment can, or should, sway science. That is the sort of thinking that leads left-wing deconstructionists to claim that science is merely a "white male Eurocentric social construction," in effect a conspiracy to "privilege" science above other "ways of knowing." It also leads the "intelligent design" advocates on the radical right to believe that the biology curriculum should be determined by school board elections, rather than by, well, biology.

Rather than complain about Pluto's demotion, teachers should take this opportunity to educate their children about the scientific method, and how it forces scientists to keep an open mind. In a world of increasingly polarized opinions and dogmatic "truths," it is truly wonderful to see scientists engage in a process of open reevaluation. Now, if we could only get politicians to do the same thing.

My responses:

1. I have a post on Intelligent Design and the scientific method here.

2. It seems that this was not an hypothesis that was tested, revealing new information. The facts about Pluto that led to this vote of the International Astronomical Union go back at least to when I was in high school 20 years ago. The discovery of additional similar-sized heavenly bodies farther away from the Sun may be new, but that would suggest adding to the list, rather than subtracting from it. That debate -- whether to have 12 planets vs. eight -- seems worthy of attention by schoolchildren. And their participation does not hinder scientific discovery one bit.

3. This debate is all about conventions and semantics. We are deciding how many ping pong balls will be hanging on the mobile in the science classroom and what that cool poster in National Geographic will look like. Does an asteroid or dwarf planet become more or less interesting to study, based on how we categorize it? Is the ability of a space vehicle to use the gravity of Pluto to change course somehow changed by its demotion from the list? Of course not.

4. If the International Astronomical Union is voting on the issue, maybe this is not as cut and dried as the authors claim. Or maybe they think that only certain elites deserve to join this debate over semantics. Physicists and law professors (!) are among those who qualify to have an opinion.

5. Letter writing, petitioning for redress of grievances, research, debate, current events, astronomy, history...keep that stuff out of the schools!

6. It doesn't matter. It is about as weighty a subject as whether black is a color or the thumb is a finger. But it is a nice break from other issues that do matter.


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