Monday, January 11, 2010

Unscientific America and Pluto: The problem isn't the scientists

I recently read Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum's Unscientific America. Their thesis is that anti-science attitudes and the general lack of scientific knowledge in the United States are not the fault of the public or the media, but largely of scientists failing to communicate effectively. My response to this thesis is not positive. This book has been extensively discussed elsewhere. (Of these discussions, I recommend PZ Myers take, Joshua Rosenua's, this balanced analysis by Scicurious, this positive review by Chad Orzel, and this review by Mike at Real Climate)

A major theme of the book is that scientists are out of touch with the general public and spend too much time mocking the public or denouncing journalists rather than trying to engage the public and journalists to understand science. This argument may have some merit. However, the authors offer little evidence for their claim. Simply put, Mooney and Kirshenbaum are wrong: bad science journalism is far more the fault of bad science journalists than it is the fault of disengaged scientists.

Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s primary example of scientists being out of touch with the general public is the 2006 decision to recharacterize Pluto. After the discovery of Eris in 2005 and discovery of other similar objects, it became apparent to astronomers that consistent classification standards required that either Pluto be classified as a non-planet or that many more objects would need to be labeled as planets. Thus, in 2006, the International Astronomical Union constructed a new definition of planets which reclassified Pluto to the status of “dwarf planet.” Readers will likely recall the media outcry that erupted in response to this “downgrading” which included internet petitions and resolutions by various state governments supporting Pluto’s right to continue to be a planet. Mooney and Kirshenbaum point to the popular reaction and astronomers’ failure to anticipate or understand the reaction as an example of how scientists are out of touch with the general public. (There has been some discussion over the validity of Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s point and see for example these two remarks).

However, while reading Unscientific America, serendipity struck and I had occasion to read an article in the December 26, Puerto Rico Daily Sun, from Scripps Howard News Service. This article discussed extrasolar planets and how astronomers have recently discovered smaller extrasolar planets which are closer to what life-sustaining planets would look like. From the article:

"The first extrasolar planets were discovered 15 years ago, and now more than 400 have been found and at an accelerating pace. The early discoveries were gas giants on the order of Jupiter and Pluto and they have orbited far too close to their stars. But as techniques have improved, astronomers are able to identify smaller, occasionally rocky, planets, orbiting far enough from their stars to be close to what is considered a habitable zone."

The author is apparently trying to talk about astronomy while discussing "gas giants on the order of Jupiter and Pluto." Of course, Pluto is not a gas giant. Pluto is a tiny ball of rock, so small it isn't able to keep orbital debris out of its path. That's the entire reason it got downgraded from being a planet. It is small and rocky, not a gas giant. Anyone paying any attention to the faux controversy over Pluto should remember this. Indeed, anyone who remembers anything from grade school would know that Pluto is small and rocky.

This foolish statement about Pluto shows what is really wrong. While scientists may not be the best communicators, putting a majority of the blame for the status quo on scientists is wrong. The problem isn't the scientists. The problem is not that the scientists mistreat journalists and the media. The problem is that the media is full of people so ignorant that we get an article from a major news service claiming that Pluto is a gas giant. Not all journalists are this clueless. But cloning Carl Zimmer simply isn't a viable option. If we're going to deal with this problem, we need to focus on the actual causes. And poor journalism is far more the fault of ignorant journalists than it is of unengaged scientists.


Greg said...

I both agree and disagree. I happen to agree with Chris and Sheril that science itself, and scientists, need to take significant responsibility for the declining role of science in the public eye. At the same time, journalism is borked.

But, I'll be the "science journalist" you cite (who screwed up pluto) is not actually a science journalst. I'll bet this is a person without the training that someone like Zimmer has.

The fault would then not lie with this partiuclar journalist, but with the editor of the paper who assigned a science beat to a science-moron. Publishers are unlikely to assign non-experts to many areas, but often do so with science. I have been interviewed by journalists dozens of times and I can think of only two cases of the person being anything like a science expert, one for an interview with The World, and the other with my U's press agent, who happen to specialise in science. Otherwise, it's always starting in first grade with each interview.

Laurel Kornfeld said...

The Internet petitions and efforts to overturn the demotion of Pluto continue because that demotion was scientifically wrong. It was based on politics, not science. There is no scientific reason why an object has to "clear its orbital debris" to be considered a planet other than the fact that a tiny minority of the IAU concocted this specifically to exclude Pluto.

Only four percent of the IAU voted on the controversial demotion, and most are not planetary scientists. Their decision was immediately opposed in a formal petition by hundreds of professional astronomers led by Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto. One reason the IAU definition makes no sense is it says dwarf planets are not planets at all! That is like saying a grizzly bear is not a bear, and it is inconsistent with the use of the term “dwarf” in astronomy, where dwarf stars are still stars, and dwarf galaxies are still galaxies. Also, the IAU definition classifies objects solely by where they are while ignoring what they are. If Earth were in Pluto’s orbit, according to the IAU definition, it would not be a planet either. A definition that takes the same object and makes it a planet in one location and not a planet in another is essentially useless. Pluto is a planet because it is spherical, meaning it is large enough to be pulled into a round shape by its own gravity--a state known as hydrostatic equilibrium and characteristic of planets, not of shapeless asteroids held together by chemical bonds. These reasons are why many astronomers, lay people, and educators are either ignoring the demotion entirely or working to get it overturned.

What is wrong with considering dwarf planets a subclass of planets that are planets because they are large enough to be rounded by their own gravity but of the dwarf subcategory because they are not large enough to gravitationally dominate their orbits.

I actually wrote a correction in the comments section responding to the article describing Pluto as a gas giant.

Readers can also find my review of "Unscientific America" at

Joshua said...

Greg, good points. Although I don't think it should take the training and intelligence that someone like Carl has in order to either engage in minimal fact checking or to have a very basic understanding of our solar system.


There are a variety of issues with your statements. First, planet is an inherently artificial distinction. Nature is intrinsically messy (this is similar to why biologists have so much trouble coming up with good definitions of species). I don't think you actually want to claim that "A definition that takes the same object and makes it a planet in one location and not a planet in another is essentially useless." If you really mean that, do you want the Earth's moon to be a planet? What about Titan or Europa?

The dilemma that existed which you don't acknowledge is that the choice is between either having lots of planets or having Pluto not be a planet. There is however clearly no way to get Pluto a planet and not throw in lots of other bodies too if one wants minimal consistency.

Using Stern's opinion is also less than ideal since by his own description his concern was that the reclassification would result in less funding to Pluto research.

Your complaint about the language used is also less than compelling in so far as it is 1) an issue purely of terminology 2) and a criticism of the term "dwarf planet" rather than a criticism to not classify Pluto as a planet.

Moreover, the notion that the public outcry had anything to do with issues as subtle as this is simply wrong: The vast majority of people making noise were simply unhappy pure and simple or really didn't care but had fun with the whole thing.

Frankly, the entire Pluto classification thing is pretty silly and I can't really bring myself to care about it. I'm far more concerned with people getting things unambiguously wrong than spats over what to label objects.

Laurel Kornfeld said...

Non-self-luminous celestial bodies large enough to be rounded by their own gravity should be considered planets. This includes spherical moons like Eath's moon, Titan and Europa. During the 19th century, these bodies were referred to as "secondary planets," an accurate term that recognizes the fact that geophysically, they are planets, but their primary orbits are around other planets rather than around the sun directly.

What is the problem with having a lot of planets? I cannot understand the argument made by some that "we cannot have too many planets," that a number too large would be impossible for kids to memorize. No one complains about there being billions of stars and billions of galaxies. No one tries to limit the number of elements in the Periodic Table to make them easy to memorize. Memorization is actually not very important anyway. We don't ask kids to memorize the names of all the rivers or mountains on Earth. Far more important than memorization is understanding the different types of planets and what their defining characteristics are.

Stern is one of the leading experts on the outer solar system in the world, so his position is obviously based on years of study. New Horizons was already fully funded by the time the IAU voted, so their vote had no effect on its funding. NASA sent a similar probe, Dawn, to Vesta and Ceres, neither of which were considered planets, and no one proposed not funding the mission for that reason. So this argument is basically a straw man.

Actually, Stern is the person who first coined the term dwarf planet to indicate objects large enough to be in hydrostatic equilibrium but not large enough to gravitationally dominate their orbits. However, he never intended for dwarf planets to not be considered planets at all. I disagree that terminology is not important; definitions are how we make sense of the world around us. Maybe my conviction in the importance of definitions stems from my being a writer.

As someone actively involved in the public outcry against this decision, I take issue with your statement, "The vast majority of people making noise were simply unhappy pure and simple or really didn't care..." Yes, there are some who have fun with this, but a significant number of people outraged by the decision are people who already have an interest in astronomy and the solar system. This has been my experience for over three years in doing public presentations, including one at the national Great Planet Debate at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, MD, in August 2008.

A much better classification scheme, one that acknowledges a spectrum of objects, would be something similar to the Herzsprung Russell Diagram used to classify stars. This diagram includes all subtypes of stars as well as stellar remnants like white dwarfs. At the lowest end of the diagram is a new category, the brown dwarf, which is much less massive than most stars but is more than a planet because at one point it fused deuterium. Why not create a similar system for planets?

Joshua said...

. I disagree that terminology is not important; definitions are how we make sense of the world around us. Maybe my conviction in the importance of definitions stems from my being a writer.

Of course definitions are important. But they have zero abstract validity. There's no Platonic definition of planet. We can use whatever definitions we choose as long as they are useful and convenient.

And yes, having a small number of "planets" is convenient if the number is going to have to suddenly jump.

The argument that these entities were labeled as planets in the 19th century really has very little relevance. To use a similar example: 1 was generally labeled a prime number in the 19th century too. So what? None of the math is at all different. It is just an issue of how certain theorems are stated.

And the existence of a few people who are genuinely outraged does little. There's a massive issue of sampling bias if one is talking to the people who actively go out to events like the "Great Planet Debate."

Moreover, the argument that we should have some system that acknowledge the continuum of objects is simply irrelevant: Sure, such a system might not be a bad idea. But that's an argument just as much against the pre-2006 system as before it.

Laurel Kornfeld said...

Yes, we can use whatever definitions of planet we find useful and convenient. At the same time, there has to be acknowledgment that the choice to use one type of definition or another is subjective. We don't get that from the IAU or supporters of their decision, who act like their view is "truth" and the only legitimate view rather than one view out of several that are equally legitimate. I have no problem with someone explaining that one gets different results in the number of planets when using dynamical versus geophysical criteria. Where I do have a problem is in a refusal to acknowledge that there are other legitimate viewpoints besides the one the IAU adopted in 2006. Something does not become reality just because an "authority" said so.

I think this is the main objection many had to the demotion of Pluto--that it was decreed by a small group calling themselves an authority, even though nothing had changed about Pluto itself. If you watch the video of the IAU session where the vote was done, you will see how chaotic and haphazard the process was and how many questions from the astronomers still in attendance were clearly not answered.

The universe was not designed for our convenience. If our solar system has hundreds of planets, then that is what it has. Using convenience as an argument is not scientific.

The fact that there is precedence for referring to spherical moons as "secondary planets" is very much relevant. It shows that there are options, through use of adjectives put in front of the word "planet," to include a broader spectrum of objects. You have not presented a valid argument as to why calling these objects "secondary planets" is somehow not legitimate.

You assume it is only a few people who are "genuinely outraged" over this issue. Those who attended the Great Planet Debate, including many educators, obviously care enough to study the science and understand why there are legitimate problems with the IAU classification. There are also many who did not or could not attend this conference, especially amateur astronomers and educators at all levels, who reject the IAU decision. What makes you think those who attended the Great Planet Debate are the only ones? If that event had been held on the west coast, I wouldn't have been able to afford to go, yet my convictions would be just as strong, and I would follow the event online.

Is it possible you are looking to discredit those who present the strongest, most scientific arguments for Pluto's planet status (and that of all dwarf planets)? It would be much easier for supporters of the IAU view if they could show that most or all of their opponents were coming from sentiment rather than scientifically logical positions. But that is not the case.

Change is not always a good thing. It depends on the type of change. The 2006 decision was a step in the wrong direction. At the March 2009 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate in New York City, three dynamicists plus Dr. Neil de Grasse Tyson agreed with three geophysicists that the 2006 resolution is overly problematic and should be amended.

Shalmo said...

off topic but science related:

I just wanted you to watch a very short set of videos:

These are 4 videos discussing the cowardice of Richard Dawkins and his inability to debate any established individuals, rather only going after the weakest of the weakest debaters to make a name for himself.

sorry didn't know where else to post them!

Joshua said...

Shalmo, thanks for the links.

Frankly, I don't see any cowardice at all in Dawkins' respone. He's explained repeatedly why he isn't interested in debating people who are professional debaters and don't have any other credentials.