Part of a continuing (I hope?) series called:
The consequences of equivocation in scientific rhetoric.
(or, Words that both freaking Annoy Me and allow other Jerks to Annoy Me, and why I think Someone should do Something about it before I get more Annoyed)
Please read the premise for all these "annoying word" posts at this link right here.
This Annoying Word problem is a bit different than for most of the Annoying Words. Most of the words I'm thinking of for this series are those which truly mean one thing to the scientific community and another subtly, but crucially different thing to the public at large.
This one's different.
This one's about a word that kept losing its meaning over time. And, in my opinion, has become laden with so much weight and confusion that it just looks like a problem to me.
I don't know if anyone else agrees, but I have my reasons for thinking this way.
And also, too, it's my freaking blog so I can share my own opinions, even if they are dumb.
Do you? Yeah, I do.
Short version of that whole bizarre episode:
- Some astronomers decided that Pluto is not planety enough to be a planet.
- Ultimately, they proclaim that not only is not a planet, but is, in fact, a "Dwarf".
- The general public, at least in the United States, freaked the frak out.
On the side of the public reaction to the Putocolypse, it seemed as if people started getting mad at "those scientists" either for
- forcing the public to swallow whatever these "elites" from on high proclaim as the new truth,
- yet again changing what they say is true. "Just like when they said oat bran helped with good cholesterol and then turned around and said it didn't. Same thing!", or
- being mean to a rock.
Astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson - who is the most engaging communicator of astronomy, physics, and science in general - recounts the public reaction to his role in the whole thing with his book, The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America's Favorite Planet. He also had a show on Nova about the situation which was informative, humorous, and a even little bit touching.
While he was the first to catch grief about Plutoid abuse, Dr. Tyson was not responsible for the word "Dwarf". However, astronomer Mike Brown, self-described "Pluto-killer", is... at least to some extent.
Dr. Brown also just released a new book, How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming, which sounds to be a gleeful account of a man with Plutonian blood on his hands. Not surprisingly, Dr. Tyson thanks Dr. Brown for being the new target of hate-mail from 3rd graders.
What is it that Pluto isn't?
Now, looking back on it all, I really am starting to feel that this was a big stink about nothing but words:
Astronomers got hung up on definitions.
People got hung up on scientists changing the meaning of a word without even (in their minds) an explanation.
Of course, there were explanations. A lot of them.
But the reasoning about what the problem was with Pluto was - to my mind - all over the place: Pluto's too small to be a Planet, it has too weird an orbit, its moon is too close its own size, it's too far away, or it's got too many other space objects near it to be a Planet.
It started to remind me of when I was a kid and a teacher decided to really dislike a student in the class. Once the decision had been made that the kid was a bad egg, then any and every transgression, no matter how minor, was continuing proof of the student's badness, by definition:
"You were one minute late! Typical. You stay for detention!"
"But Jack was five minutes late and you didn't say anything to him!"
"Yes, but he isn't a bad student like you!"
But really, the source of this Pluto angst was nothing more than disagreement about what a being "Planet" actually meant. In 2006, a large group of astronomers decided to try its hand at a clearly defining the word "Planet" and decide whether Pluto fit into this definition.
But the more I read about it, I find the solution they devised to be a lot less than satisfying.
And it doesn't have anything to do with Pluto.
So what's my beef?