I’ve been really surprised at the number of people writing about Unscientific America who are confused by the discussion of the Pluto incident (Mad Mike is the latest, but it’s not hard to find more). For those who haven’t read the book, the first chapter opens with a description of the public reaction to the decision by the IAU to demote Pluto from a “planet” to a “dwarf planet.”

I didn’t think the point of this was all that difficult to figure out, but it seems to have created a great deal of confusion. Some of this is probably disingenuous, but a number of people seem to be genuinely unsure about what the point of the anecdote was.

The point, I think, was that this is an illustration of how badly scientists misunderstand what will resonate with the public. Nobody in the astronomical community thought the decision would be a big deal at all, so they were caught completely off guard by the huge pro-Pluto outcry– Neil deGrasse Tyson wrote a book about it. As a result, what should’ve been an uncontroversial announcement turned into a giant spectacle.

Chris and Sheril put this in the book not as an attempt to claim that Pluto’s status should’ve been decided in some sort of global plebiscite, but as a relatively light and harmless illustration of how communications between scientists and the general public can go wrong. They’re not saying that people should’ve been consulted before making the change– the scientific consensus is clear, and the change needed to be made (no matter what they think in the Scalzi compound)– they’re saying that the people involved should’ve had some idea of how this would play with the public, and should’ve taken that into account when making the announcement of the change.

The Pluto chapter is not a call for changing the way scientific decisions are made, it’s a call for changing the way scientific decisions are communicated to the public. As such, it’s a perfectly sensible lead-in to the rest of the book.

At least, that’s how it reads to me. Maybe there’s something I’m missing, but it just doesn’t seem that complicated.

(Now, if you want to argue about whether it should’ve been obvious to astronomers that the Pluto thing would blow up, that’s another question. I think they probably should’ve had some idea, given the fuss kicked up when the Rose Center opened, but I don’t think anybody would’ve predicted that the IAU decision would be as big a deal as it ended up being. I think they got unlucky there, in that the story broke on a proverbial Slow News Day, and got blown out of proportion as a result.

(But that’s a quibble about details, and doesn’t really affect the general argument, or the purpose of putting that story in the book.)

(I’ll find something else to blog about now. Really I will.)

Comments

  1. #1 Coriolis
    July 17, 2009

    I don’t remember anyone being seriously offended one way or another by Pluto not being a planet anymore – it was mostly a joke. That was, if I’m not mistaken, the bigger point of criticism for most commentators. That their big example of a failure scientific communication was mostly a matter of amusement.

  2. #2 Kate from Iowa
    July 17, 2009

    I have to agree with Coriolis. If anything, the whole Pluto mess should have been more an indictment of the media’s shoddy reporting to fill a news vacuum (that it’s a vacuum caused by thier own unwillingness/inability to actually go cover the actual interesting science that goes on every damned day instead of a simple re-classification of a planet is another issue entirely,) that about mis-communicated/misunderstood scientists. There was little or no “text” of the decision, most of us just got a ten second blurb to the tune of “Well, Pluto’s not a planet anymore.” and with about that much substance. It was a non-issue until some bored idiot decided to make it a controversy and went out to do man-on-the-street interviews to support his (or her) idea that it should have been a big deal.

    I don’t know if I’ll read the book or not, but I have to agree with the people saying that maybe a Pluto argument was not the best place to start, if blaming scientists for the horrible state of science communication in this country.

  3. #3 Mike
    July 17, 2009

    I admit I haven’t read any more of the book then the online excerpt, nor do I plan to at this point. It’s largely due to the fact that I find that excerpt and their online defense of the book to be entirely insulting to both scientists and science popularisers and educators.

    In the case of Pluto I felt they laid the blame unfairly on scientists, when it seemed to me like a case of the media running with an out-of-touch-scientist narrative at the expense of actually trying explaining anything.

    Further, they cite the “When I was your age, Pluto was a Planet” facebook page as proof of the public outcry. I would say I have a fairly firm grasp of why it was demoted, am on board with the decision, and yet I am a member of that facebook group. Why? Because as Coriolis pointed out, that part of the “uproar” was all in good fun. The New Mexico resolution they mentioned was written as a poem for heaven’s sake.

    As someone working in the science, visualization and education intersections, I often must track down journal articles so I can explain what’s wrong with a newspaper article (like Chris did to George Will, funny, huh?) and Pluto was probably the ultimate case for me (with AGW stories being second on the list). The book excerpt couldn’t have done more to turn me off to their message.

  4. #4 Roadtripper
    July 17, 2009

    I got the details on the new definition of ‘planet’ from an article in Scientific American. Up to that point, I was very skeptical of the change, but it turned out the new definition made perfect sense, once I had it explained to me. (Although it did require some 9th-grade math.) Since then, I haven’t given the distinction between ‘planets’ and ‘dwarf planets’ a second thought.

    So if I can take 20 or 30 minutes to read one freakin’ magazine article and figure this out, why can’t the rest of the so-called ‘public’ and what the heck is wrong with them if that’s so hard?

    The astronomers aren’t the ones who failed here, as far as I can tell. The explanation for changing Pluto’s status was, and still is, available to everyone, but apparently there were a great many people who simply could not be bothered to to find out.

    The real question is: why are they all so lazy and incurious?

    Oh, and how do we change their outlook?

    Rt

  5. #5 Anon
    July 17, 2009

    How do we know which stories will turn this way?

    Hindsight?

  6. #6 Kevin W. Parker
    July 17, 2009

    There were plenty of people upset by Pluto’s demotion – particularly kids, for some reason. Neil deGrasse Tyson talks about getting hate mail from entire classrooms of third-graders.

  7. #7 Kevin W. Parker
    July 17, 2009

    There were plenty of people upset by Pluto’s demotion – particularly kids, for some reason. Neil deGrasse Tyson talks about getting hate mail from entire classrooms of third-graders.

  8. #8 Laurel Kornfeld
    July 17, 2009

    Sorry, but there is no clear scientific consensus among astronomers about Pluto nor was it ever clear that a change needed to be made. And if one was needed, it certainly was not the change four percent of the IAU came up with in a process that violated their own bylaws. Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of New Horizons, led a petition of hundreds of planetary scientists in rejecting the IAU definition, which he described as “an embarrassment to astronomy” and “sloppy science that would never pass peer review.” He also accurately describes the IAU process in which the decision was made as having been “hijacked” by one particular group of astronomers–the dynamicists, who study the way celestial objects influence one another, as opposed to planetary scientists, who study the geophysical composition of these objects.

    Ironically, it was Stern who first coined the term “dwarf planet” to indicate small planets that are planets because their own gravity pulls them into a round shape, but of the dwarf subcategory because they do not gravitationally dominate their orbits. He never intended for dwarf planets to be considered not planets at all.

    I encourage anyone interested to view the IAU session at which this vote was adopted, as it is on their web site online. There you will see “astronomers behaving badly,” a great deal of chaos, people voting on resolutions they did not fuly understand due to last minute changes, and most notably, a very small group taking part at all–424 out of 10,000 IAU members, as no absentee voting was allowed.

    Members of the public saw all this and understand that there still is no consensus on “what is a planet” among astronomers, which is why many are working to get this definition overturned or are ignoring it altogether.

  9. #9 Chad Orzel
    July 17, 2009

    I don’t know if I’ll read the book or not, but I have to agree with the people saying that maybe a Pluto argument was not the best place to start, if blaming scientists for the horrible state of science communication in this country.

    I don’t think it’s really going to be feasible for somebody to write a book about the problems of science communication without putting at least a little blame on scientists. Especially not if they’d like to sell it.

    Look, would I have gone with the Pluto thing up front? Probably not, but I wasn’t the one writing it. And I do think it was a perfectly understandable thing to lead with: it’s recent, relatively high profile, and relatively uncontroversial (in the sense of not involving any of the hot-button emotional issues involved in science and politics). It starts the book off on a relatively light note, rather than jumping right into the really messy stuff.

    Personally, I would’ve gone with the “Will the LHC kill us all?” thing, which wasn’t quite as prominent, but offers most of the same features, plus some lawsuits by crazy people. But then, I’m a physicist. I suspect that happened late enough that they already had the Pluto stuff written, though.

  10. #10 Roadtripper
    July 17, 2009

    Laurel;

    That’s very interesting, and it seems I haven’t gotten the entire story — I heard there was a new definition of planet from the IAU, and that it was “official.” And I figured the old adage about ‘laws and sausage’ probably applied here, but this is worse than I guessed. Thanks for the info.

    So if the IAU once again redefines the term ‘planet’ to include Pluto, will that also include Sedna, Eris and the rest? We’ll need a whole new mnemonic for the school-kids, and it’s gonna be a doozy!

    Rt

  11. #11 Laurel Kornfeld
    July 18, 2009

    Whether a definition counts as “official” is not a matter of science but of consensus, legitimacy, and ultimately, usage. Sure, the leadership of the IAU considers its decisions as “official,” but if enough astronomers disagree and use a different definition, the IAU’s claim becomes meaningless. The IAU may or may not redefine the term planet. The reality is after making quite a mess last time, most IAU members don’t want to touch this issue. At the same time, Stern and dissenting astronomers are essentially writing off and ignoring the IAU altogether. So we may have to settle for textbooks describing an ongoing debate. This is not that difficult for kids to learn; my five-year-old nephew has no problem understanding it. In fact, it teaches an important lesson–that sometimes, even experts disagree because they are looking at the same thing from different perspectives.

    Personally, I don’t think mnemonics or memorization are a big deal. At one time, we knew very little about the planets, so education focused on memorizing their names. Now that we have extensive knowledge from the robotic missions, I and many others believe it is more important for kids to understand the categories of planets such as terrestrial planets, gas giants, ice giants, dwarf planets–and the features that define them. We don’t limit the number of elements in the Periodic Table to make it easier for kids to memorize them, and we don’t ask anyone to memorize the 63 moons of Jupiter. In this day and age, kids should be taught that the number of planets in this solar system and others is one that constantly changes with new discoveries and that this is not a bad thing.

  12. #12 Pluto, the dwarf
    July 18, 2009

    @Laurel

    At the risk of invoking logic:
    the absence of 9,576 votes (assuming both your figures are accurate and precise) does not allow us to infer how those people would have voted. So your claim about some great hijacking can’t be supported by the numbers alone.

    At the risk of invoking taxonomy:
    scientists who study planets focus on different issues. Your dynamicists ask certain questions; those who favor simply geophysical properties ask different questions. We may want to argue about which approach is more appealing, but that doesn’t exclude one group from having expertise in making a decision about how we might classify a planet.

    At the risk of invoking definitions:
    The new IAU definition for Pluto doesn’t claim it is not a planet at all. Merely that it is not a planet like the other eight objects we call planets. But even amongst them we make distinctions between gas giants and terrestrial planets. Pluto merely became a dwarf planet. It’s not an asteroid, or merely a large icy ball (okay, maybe it is just a large icy ball). So your Dr. Stern’s “dwarf planet” category seems to have been invoked in the new definitions of objects (1, planets; 2, dwarf planets; 3, small solar-system objects (i.e., other objects).

    In general (no longer @ Laurel):
    And really, what role does the public, no matter how passionate (an emotion that should be tempered when practicing science) play in deciding so-called scientific questions? What expertise does the public have in these matters? Science is not about consensus, like a bunch of Quakers sitting around trying to decide some course of action. And what sort of critical analysis do we have to apply to scientists who have large vested interests in particular outcomes, such as Dr. Stern of the New Horizons project? And how can we not see “sloppy science that would never pass peer review” as anything more than a tropic slur?

    Because I haven’t read Unscientific America and so have to admit that I might be wrong, but I have a hard time seeing the invocation of Pluto as anything but nostalgic and emotional. Indeed, Chris has written on the Intersections blog that he believe Pluto was a planet because:
    “‘The Nostalgia Factor’ (with the caveat that I really think it ought to be called the “Historical Precedent Choice”)”
    This is simply absurd. What historical precedent? 80 years is historical precedent? If history is the litmus test of planethood, Pluto, Neptune and Uranus need to be demoted to something, and we should return to the original five planets and two luminaries. But wait, history (and worse, nostalgia) plays little role in deciding scientific questions. That is simply not how science claims to progress.

    Opening with Pluto seems to have been an emotional move, not an effort to show how scientists failed to communicate, but an effort to give readers an opportunity to criticize experts about a topic readers feel strongly, and wrongly think they have something to contribute. Both Chris and Sheril think they have something to contribute:
    “Sheril and I just bought our “Dear Earth, You Suck: Love Pluto” t-shirts, so we’ll have more to say about all of this soon enough, including in Unscientific America. Meanwhile, read Dr. Tyson’s book, and try to remember that despite his role in the Pluto affair, he isn’t a bad person…just a little misguided.”
    I would suggest that Pluto wasn’t included as an example of poor scientist-to-public communication, but because Chris and Sheril, as members of the public, feel that Pluto was wrongly demoted.

  13. #13 ptd
    July 18, 2009

    “In this day and age, kids should be taught that the number of planets in this solar system and others is one that constantly changes with new discoveries and that this is not a bad thing.”

    So the number can go up and down, as “new discoveries” indicate. Perhaps the discovery of all those Kuiper Belt objects tells us, in fact, that Pluto resembles them more than it does the other eight objects. Why is that a bad thing? Why do we decry the reduction of planets from nine to eight?

  14. #14 Lab Lemming
    July 18, 2009

    How was the Pluto circus a failure? Name the last time the public got so involved with something scientific that has no bearing on their direct lives.

    It was a public relations coup.

  15. #15 Vagueofgodalming
    July 18, 2009

    I think it’s clear from the online excerpt that the IAU decision is intended only as an example of poor communication.

    However, from the IAU’s official report on public communication at the 2006 GA (available here):

    ‘Before the GA we wrote in internal working papers:
    “The “planet” issue has the potential to become a historic event of epic proportions. It may become the hottest astronomy story of the year, or even the decade. It has the potential to change history. Seeing this a potential historic event, do we fulfil our “public duty” and inform
    10
    openly about the process and the decisions, or do we keep quiet to protect the slow and thoughtful scientific work process?”
    ‘ (Italics theirs)

    I think it’s fair to say that there are indeed communications issues over the planet definition, but Mooney and Kirshenbaum come off as rather ill-informed in the online excerpt they provide. I get the impression that, by and large, the IAU knew exactly what it was getting into.

    It also comes off as very ethnocentric, though that may not matter in a book aimed at a specifically American issue (clue in the title, I know).

  16. #16 Vagueofgodalming
    July 18, 2009

    Gah. I support everything you say about the need for editors.

    ‘It also comes off as very ethnocentric’ – that is, the excerpt from Unscientific America, not the IAU.

    And that ’10′ is a page number.

  17. #17 ponderingfool
    July 18, 2009

    I think these are the lines that have caused the problems: “In defining the word “planet,” they were arguably not so much engaged in science as a semantic exercise, meaning that instead of ruling Pluto out, they could just as easily have ruled a few new planets in, as a group of scientists, historians, and journalists had in fact proposed. But the IAU rejected that compromise for a variety of technical reasons: Pluto is much smaller than the other eight planets; it orbits the sun in a far more elliptical manner; its gravitational pull is not strong enough to have “cleared the neighborhood around its orbit” of other significant objects and debris…”

    Sheril and Chris in their writing made it seem like what the astronomers were debating wasn’t science (“not so much engaged in science as a semantic exercise”). Definitions in science matter. Theory as Mike the Mad Biologist pointed out has specific meaning to scientists. Then the authors include the line about the compromise, which included more than scientists but also historians and journalists. They don’t describe the compromise position. Next, the thinking of the IAU is described as “technical reasons”, which can be viewed as those astronomers just being silly.

    They then tell us the uproar and then about disconnect between scientists and the public. The authors never really describe how the scientists failed in the communication or if they really did. Maybe they tried and well failed for other reasons outside of their control.

    To me it just wasn’t written well (not saying I am, far from it). If they had described the attempted communication here in the US by scientists and showed why it failed, and then proposed how things could have been different then I can see including Pluto. This opening becomes a microcosm of the issues they are going to talk about the rest of book in more depth. Heck they could continue the Pluto story line throughout, as a hook.

  18. #18 Laurel Kornfeld
    July 19, 2009

    “the absence of 9,576 votes (assuming both your figures are accurate and precise) does not allow us to infer how those people would have voted. So your claim about some great hijacking can’t be supported by the numbers alone.”

    I agree; the absence of these votes does not indicate how they would have voted. However, the issue is that 96 percent of the IAU’s membership had no say in this matter. Why does the IAU not allow electronic voting? Furthermore, why did the IAU violate its own bylaws by putting a resolution on the floor of the General Assembly that had not been first vetted by the appropriate committee, as required? Many of the original 2,500 members who did attend the GA left early thinking that the earlier resolution that would have established 12 planets, the one recommended by the IAU’s own committee, would be the one to be voted on.

    Some astronomers consider the vote to have been “hijacked” because the resolution was hastily thrown together by a group of dynamicists who wanted a solely dynamical planet definition as opposed to the one the IAU committee recommended. Most who voted did not even get to see the resolution until the day of the vote.

    “scientists who study planets focus on different issues. Your dynamicists ask certain questions; those who favor simply geophysical properties ask different questions. We may want to argue about which approach is more appealing, but that doesn’t exclude one group from having expertise in making a decision about how we might classify a planet.”

    A good planet definition should equally incorporate both dynamics and geophysics. The IAU definition is solely based on dynamics. Those who study geophysical characteristics were in fact excluded from the process through which this decision was made.

    “The new IAU definition for Pluto doesn’t claim it is not a planet at all. Merely that it is not a planet like the other eight objects we call planets.”

    This is incorrect. Resolution 5b, had it been adopted by the IAU, would have established both classical planets and dwarf planets as subclasses of planets. Because this resolution was defeated by a vote of 333-91, the official IAU position is that dwarf planets are NOT planets at all.

    “Perhaps the discovery of all those Kuiper Belt objects tells us, in fact, that Pluto resembles them more than it does the other eight objects.”

    Pluto, Haumea, Makemake, and Eris do resemble other Kuiper Belt Objects in their composition, but they are also fundamentally different because they are large enough to be in a state of hydrostatic equilibrium, a quality they have in common with the eight larger planets. This puts them in dual categories, as both Kuiper Belt Objects and planets.

    “And what sort of critical analysis do we have to apply to scientists who have large vested interests in particular outcomes, such as Dr. Stern of the New Horizons project?”

    This amounts to an ad hominem attack on Stern. All scientists are motivated by a combination of vested interests and noble pursuit of knowledge. New Horizons had already launched when this decision was made, so no funding issues were involved. The Dawn mission was then in the works to explore Ceres and Vesta, which were considered asteroids. Stern is one of the leading planetary scientists and experts on Pluto and the Kuiper Belt in the world–unlike most of the 424 IAU members who voted, most of whom are not planetary scientists but other types of astronomers.

    The dynamicists had their own vested interests. One particular vocal dynamicist was quoted as saying his career would be ruined if Pluto maintained its status as a planet!

    The term “sloppy science” referred to the rushed, flawed process used to pass the IAU resolution and to the vague concept of “clearing an orbit,” which, if applied literally, could disqualify all planets in our solar system, as most have asteroids in their orbital paths, and Neptune does not “clear its orbit” of Pluto.

  19. #19 Ian Musgrave
    July 20, 2009

    Just what lessons are we to get from M&K’s presentation of the Pluto affair?

    That scientists need to communicate more? Astronomy is the poster child of science, people love it, there are heaps of pretty pictures, and the combined weight of the NASA and Hubble publicity machines, plus the large base of amateur astronomers gives astronomy a degree of public outreach we in other less photogenic sciences could only dream of.

    The Pluto issue had been live in the general public since Neil deGrasse Tyson’s display at the Hayden planetarium. The high profile discoveries of Sedna and Eris (“Xena”) kept the planet debate in focus, there were websites about the planet issue linked to these high profile discoveries, and articles in such obscure publications as “The New York Times” (that was humor, by the way). Whether in old media or new media the public was informed to a degree almost no other high profile science issue had (except for perhaps global warming and GMO foods).

    The IAU paid significant attention to the importance of the issue, the document linked to in #15 states
    “With regard to the first “explosion” –the public “bomb” – damage control consisted of keeping the process as open as possible and informing the press about each step of the process as it took place – including the first Resolution draft and the ongoing debate. As many as thirty journalists had already signed up weeks before the meeting and it was well known among science journalists that the definition of a planet was going to be discussed, suggesting a strong outside interest that spoke forcibly for an open communication strategy.” That was the key issue, the IAU tried to keep people informed by all the reasonable outreach channels.

    Yet despite this there was still a public (in the US at least) outcry. What more could astronomers possibly have done? Held focus groups? Kuiper belt parades? M&K, as well as misrepresenting the episode, don’t give us any hints.

    Simply put there were very good and pressing reasons to produce a definition of “Planet”, the discovery of the Eris, an ice world larger than Pluto, being the final catalyst. These issues are dismissed flippantly by M&K. I go into the history and public education aspects in some more detail in my blog post on this issue.

    (Waves to Laurel, see you again here!).

  20. #20 dan franks
    July 20, 2009

    @Laurel:
    “The new IAU definition for Pluto doesn’t claim it is not a planet at all. Merely that it is not a planet like the other eight objects we call planets.”

    This is incorrect. Resolution 5b, had it been adopted by the IAU, would have established both classical planets and dwarf planets as subclasses of planets. Because this resolution was defeated by a vote of 333-91, the official IAU position is that dwarf planets are NOT planets at all.”

    Whatever Resolution 5b might have done, Resolutions 5A and 6A seem to indicate that Pluto is still a planet *and* representative of a “new category of trans-Neptunian objects.” Reading this, I have a hard time seeing Pluto being excluded from the mythical pantheon of planets (any more than unusually small people are excluded from the category “people”).
    From the IAU website:

    RESOLUTION 5A
    The IAU therefore resolves that planets and other bodies in our Solar System, except satellites, be defined into three distinct categories in the following way:
    (1) A “planet” [1] is a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (c) has cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit.
    (2) A “dwarf planet” is a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape [2], (c) has not cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit, and
    (d) is not a satellite.
    (3) All other objects [3], except satellites, orbiting the Sun shall be referred to collectively as “Small Solar-System Bodies”.
    IAU Resolution: Pluto
    RESOLUTION 6A
    The IAU further resolves:
    Pluto is a “dwarf planet” by the above definition and is recognized as the prototype of a new category of trans-Neptunian objects

    @Laurel:
    “This amounts to an ad hominem attack on Stern. All scientists are motivated by a combination of vested interests and noble pursuit of knowledge. New Horizons had already launched when this decision was made, so no funding issues were involved. The Dawn mission was then in the works to explore Ceres and Vesta, which were considered asteroids. Stern is one of the leading planetary scientists and experts on Pluto and the Kuiper Belt in the world–unlike most of the 424 IAU members who voted, most of whom are not planetary scientists but other types of astronomers.”
    I don’t see any ad hominem here, but rather a question as to how you, Laurel, are reading the comments of scientists. Having looked at your pluto blog, I see that you are remarkably critical of comments by deGrasse Tyson based on his (extra-scientific) commitments. Perhaps you can bring the same level of analysis to the comments by scientists with whom you agree.

    In the end, we should expect the scientific understanding of the natural world to change over time. Indeed, that’s why Pluto became a planet and perhaps why it should no longer be a planet. To paraphrase Ian’s questions:
    What lessons does the Pluto incident teach us? And do those lessons (if any) have anything to contribute to M&K’s book? It seems, given Chris Mooney’s other statements about wanting Pluto to be a planet, he would perhaps advocate for the IAU having conducted public surveys to learn how the public wanted to classify Pluto. I don’t really think the public should be making decisions about scientific definitions (which is different from whether or not the public should have a say in how that science is deployed/employed in society).

    Just my 2¢.

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