The Scientific Activist

For such a small planet (or non-planet now), Pluto sure has been making waves the last couple of weeks. I haven’t really weighed in and instead deferred to the experts. I’m not going to really say much now either, but, hell, I’ll admit it. I’m going to miss Pluto. A lot. Losing Pluto shakes the foundation of the worldview I grew up with, and this seems to be a widespread phenomenon.

Along those lines, Monday’s Washington Post featured an article by Shankar Vedantam that placed the loss of Pluto into a broader context, using it as an example to shed light on more general social phenomena. And, depending on how much you want to read into it, it gives one compelling reason why public understanding and acceptance of science often suffers, and even why social change is generally an uphill battle (but we won’t really go into that here):

Whether or not it is rational, human beings do care intensely about definitions. Some of our most contentious public debates are about definitions. Is the conflict raging in Iraq a civil war? In the abortion debate over when life begins, what exactly do we mean by life?

Definitions and categories are the handles by which we grasp the world. If we change the handles, we change how we see the world.

Peter Lipton, a University of Cambridge philosopher of science, argues that science itself is a composite of external reality and human interpretation of that reality. This is why, after a paradigm shift such as the redefinition of a planet, reality itself can feel different. Whether we say the solar system has eight planets or nine or 12 makes no difference to the solar system, but it makes an enormous difference to us.

Much of the business of science, in fact, has to do with the construction and demolition of categories. No sooner had the astronomers devised their new definition of a planet — the idea that planets need to be large enough to “clear out their neighborhoods” of smaller bodies — than others began testing the solidity of the definition….

…The reason people care so much about one definition rather than another is because definitions are markers for group identity, said Barbara King, a biological anthropologist at the College of William and Mary who studies social behavior in primates. Wanting to see the world a particular way is an extension of our innate tendency to form groups, coalitions and tribes.

The point here, though, is that we tend to grow up thinking that since science is an objective and factual field, one that should therefore be black and white. Of course, science ends up being much fuzzier than we expect, often well beyond our comfort levels. I wasn’t taught in school that “Pluto is a planet-like mass orbiting the sun and could be considered a planet depending on how a planet is defined.” No, it was “Pluto is the ninth planet.” Period. Although the first definition is more accurate, it’s also much more uncomfortable.

If science can’t make things simple, then what can? Religion? Unfortunately for science, the more vocal proponents of religion are more apt to make things black and white, something that people are inherently drawn to. Because scientists refuse to sell out their field by oversimplifying things, when religion and science clash, science is bound to lose, at least in the short term.

This is especially true if scientific evidence is put up against already established doctrine. One generally has to leave his or comfort zone to embrace a new idea, but this is going to be even more difficult if it also involves giving up a large degree of certainty (and here’s where the social change angle comes into play):

People often find it threatening when the categories with which they are familiar are challenged, agreed New York psychiatrist Jack Drescher, who has studied how boundaries of gender and sexuality are constructed. Drescher recently wrote a paper exploring the issue, and cited a 1948 comment in a book by sex researcher Alfred Kinsey:

“The world is not to be divided into sheep and goats. Not all things are black nor all things white. It is a fundamental of taxonomy that nature rarely deals with discrete categories. Only the human mind invents categories and tries to force facts into separated pigeon-holes. The living world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects.”

So, what is a scientist to do, then? As history has shown, education is our ally. Scientists need to more actively promote their work, fuzziness and all. Although people are naturally uncomfortable with uncertainty, the more familiar they are with it, the less uncomfortable they will be. Also necessary is a more accurate presentation of the basic philosophy of science in the earlier years of school. Now, I’m not saying that elementary school teachers need to start telling their students that we really can’t be certain of anything at all. “Then why on earth should I care about learning any of this stuff?” students would surely ask (even more than now). If, however, science is taught more as a process of inquiry, rather than just a series of facts, then students are much more likely to be more comfortable with science for life, limitations and all.

Of course, that then means we would need properly funded science classrooms, since laboratory equipment is fundamental to inquiry-based learning in the sciences, and we should probably think about how much we’re going to pay these teachers to make sure we attract the best and brightest, and, well, you get the picture.

Comments

  1. #1 coturnix
    August 29, 2006

    This is also an interesitng commentary in a “big picture” way. What do you think?

  2. #2 Nick Anthis
    August 29, 2006

    It’s a compelling piece and I think he makes a good point in that by focusing so much on definitions we act as if there are certain fundamental categories, although in reality there really aren’t. However, I think that what he’s missing is that in science we are to a large degree using functional definitions that hopefully, as the field advances, become backed up by enough theory to become more fundamental. To this end, I would disagree with him on his views on the biological definition of species. The generally accepted definition (two animals are in the same species if they can produce fertile offspring) is both functional and based in biological theory (assortment of chromosomes).

  3. #3 Natasha
    August 30, 2006

    Umm no, you’re a bit behind the times about the species concept business. Thats the old ‘biological species concept’ that Mayr suggested and really it has its problems. The least of which are pragmatic; how do you take a museum specimen and mate it with a living organism to determine if they are the same species?

    There are other more serious ‘functional’ problems. The bsc does not always split things cleanly, for instance, how do you deal with hybrids, especially that can back-cross successfully, they exist, what species are they?

    There are many species concepts in the offing, genetic, phenetic, cladistic, evolutionary, etc

    http://www.columbia.edu/cu/cup/catalog/data/023110/0231101422.HTM
    This is supposed to be a great book on the state of the art.

  4. #4 Ted
    August 30, 2006

    I’m not sure what was so scientific about the new definition of planets to begin with. The wording is so ambiguous as to be self contradictory. It’s anthropocentric in its use of ‘Sun’ and ‘solar system’, and thus inadequate for dealing with the hundreds of extra-solar planets already discovered and their often complex systems. Also, it is logically flawed. A planetary system with planets in Trojan orbits such as Saturn’s moons Tethys, Calypso, and Telesto, would have to have all planets sharing an orbit named ‘dwarf planets’, regardless of their size, even if all three were multiple Jupiter mass planets. Similarly, during planet formation, even multiple chunks of protoplanets potentially more massive than the Earth would need to be called dwarfs as they hadn’t yet cleared their orbits. Unlike the distinction between star and brown dwarf, there is no property intrinsic to the object to distinguish planet and dwarf planet. Is an electron any less an electron if it is in free space, in a quantum dot, in orbit around an atom, or in a covalent bond? No, it is a physical object with certain properties that define it, regardless of location, proximity to anything, or formation history. I think they really flamingoed up this one.

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