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Thursday, August 24, 2006

Clarification, in which I indict the MSM and scientific experts because it's a cool thing to do 

In my previous post on the changing fortunes of Pluto over the last couple of days, someone thought that I was criticizing Jennifer for her Tuesday post about 12 planets. (By Thursday, the planets had been reduced to 8.)

It was not my intent to criticize Jennifer for her Tuesday post, which was based upon knowledge that was available at the time.

ON TUESDAY, ABC News reported the following:

A committee formed by the International Astronomers Union (IAU) has proposed that to be called a planet, a celestial body must be in orbit around a star while not itself being a star.

It also must be large enough in mass for its own gravity to pull it into a nearly spherical shape.

The new definition — the first time the IAU has tried to define scientifically what a planet is — means three new planets will be added to the current nine, and opens the door to dozens more which are seen fitting the description.

Based on that article, Jennifer reported on Tuesday that there were going to be three new planets.

ON THURSDAY, the SETI Institute ran the following with a date/time of August 24, 9:15 AM ET:

On August 16th, a panel convened by the International Astronomical Union in an attempt to vote on the definition of what a planet is. In doing so, they raised the possibility of increasing the number of planets from nine to twelve. Imagine--adding three planets to the solar system with the stroke of a pen. What a thrilling opportunity for science teachers, and for so many reasons. The vote raised a lot of questions and has been followed by a week of controversy. Today, the definition of "planet" may finally be decided.

Note that this article ran this morning, and still trumpeted the possibility of adding three new planets, and didn't say anything about subtracting a planet. Apparently the SETI Institute wasn't keeping up with the latest news, because two days earlier (after Jennifer had written her initial blog post, but well before the SETI article appeared), NewScientistSpace.Com was reporting about draft c:

The crucial change in "draft c" is that a planet must be the dominant body in its orbital zone, clearing out any little neighbours. Pluto does not qualify because its orbit crosses that of the vastly larger Neptune.

So, let's review:
  • ABC reports 12 planets.

  • Jennifer reports 12 planets.

  • NewScientistSpace.Com reports 8 planets.

  • Two days later, SETI reports 12 planets without mentioning 8 planets.

  • Jennifer reports 8 planets.

  • Mass rioting on the streets - whoops, that hasn't happened yet.

And, by the way, it wasn't only ABC News that was trumpeting the twelve planet possibility. Here's what RedOrbit ran on Wednesday:

Though not approved yet, the 76-year-old lineup of the solar system's planets would grow to 12 under a proposal by leading astronomers. Their recommendation will be decided by a vote of the International Astronomical Union on Thursday.

And here's a separate RedOrbit article from Wednesday, written from the Chinese perspective:

Wang Sichao, an expert with the Zijinshan Astronomical Observatory based in Nanjing, capital city of east China's Jiangsu Province, said, "No matter what the result is, the vote is very important. It signifies that over the past few decades, human understanding of the solar system has made a giant leap, smashing the original framework."

Under a draft resolution presented to the International Astronomical Union (IAU), Pluto would remain a planet and its largest moon, Charon, plus two other heavenly bodies would join Earth's solar system as new planets. Textbooks would be rewritten to say the solar system has 12 planets rather than the nine memorized by generations of schoolchildren.

Wang said scientists have based the draft resolution on scientific factors, but have also taken historical and social factors into consideration. But it is a compromise solution, Wang added, that does not really reflect astronomers' all-round understanding of celestial bodies in the solar system.

The other planet candidates, apart from Charon, are 2003 UB313, the farthest-known object in the solar system otherwise known as Xena, and the asteroid Ceres. Pluto risks being demoted to the status of dwarf planet.

Opponents of Pluto, which was named a planet in 1930, might still spoil for a fight. Earth's moon is larger; so is 2003 UB 313 (Xena), about 112 kilometers wider.

But the IAU said Pluto meets its proposed new definition of a planet: any round object larger than 800 kilometers in diameter that orbits the sun.

Roundness is key, experts said, because it indicates an object has enough self-gravity to pull itself into a spherical shape.

All of these articles were written BEFORE the vote was taken place Thursday, but many of them were written after draft c was released. This illustrates how our mind locks on things quickly. Once SETI and the RedNova writers heard the twelve planet stuff on Tuesday, they locked onto that, even though things were changing in Prague.

But I'm still most fascinated by the seamy side of the scientific community. On August 17, well before the final showdown in Prague, the following was written at LiveScience.Com:

What astronomers lack in party skills they make up for in the field of argumentation. They fight about how the asteroid search should be conducted, they argue over what telescopes deserve NASA’s precious funding, and they have the occasional spat about whether an unseen thing around a faraway star is a planet or a brown dwarf.

But mostly they argue about Pluto. Heatedly for seven years now. It’s approaching comical. And I think even they can see the humor in it all. That Pluto was ever termed a planet was a grand error, many astronomers agree. But school children love Pluto, so an equal number of astronomers are loathe to cross them. An even larger number of astronomers, meanwhile, have kept their mouths shut the whole time.

This week’s proposal to finally create a definition for the word “planet” (isn’t that amazing that there has never been one?) has pulled the bystanders out of the bleachers and into the brawl. It’s as if a pitcher in game 7 of the World Series beaned Barry Bonds and there was no crowd control.

The following was also written on August 17:

"I think it's [the pre draft c proposal] a terrible definition," said David Charbonneau, a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics...."It is ironic that we are left with more, not fewer objects for which we are uncertain of their 'planetary' status," Charbonneau told SPACE.com. "Perhaps astronomy will undergo a schism, with sects of astronomers proclaiming different numbers of planets."

I suspected that this could divide along grounds similar to religious grounds, with the Church of the 9 Planets, the Church of the 8 Planets, the Church of the 12 Planets, and the Church of No Planets (those pesky Gnostics again).

But of course no such schism would occur, because science produces a reliable result:

Science is not merely a collection of facts, concepts, and useful ideas about nature, or even the systematic investigation of nature, although both are common definitions of science. Science is a method of investigating nature--a way of knowing about nature--that discovers reliable knowledge about it. In other words, science is a method of discovering reliable knowledge about nature. There are other methods of discovering and learning knowledge about nature (these other knowledge methods or systems will be discussed below in contradistinction to science), but science is the only method that results in the acquisition of reliable knowledge.

Reliable knowledge is knowledge that has a high probablility of being true because its veracity has been justified by a reliable method....

What is scientific thinking? At this point, it is customary to discuss questions, observations, data, hypotheses, testing, and theories, which are the formal parts of the scientific method, but these are NOT the most important components of the scientific method. The scientific method is practiced within a context of scientific thinking, and scientific (and critical) thinking is based on three things: using empirical evidence (empiricism), practicing logical reasonsing (rationalism), and possessing a skeptical attitude (skepticism) about presumed knowledge that leads to self-questioning, holding tentative conclusions, and being undogmatic (willingness to change one's beliefs).

Perhaps one could argue that the scientific method is still being practiced, and some future convention will determine that there are 12 or 24 or 2 planets in our solar system. But I couldn't help but hoot when I saw this statement:

Scientists and critical thinkers always use logical reasoning.

Let's engage in some skepticism and self-questioning about THAT statement.

From the Ontario Empoblog (Latest OVVA news here)

Oh, Onatario! I hope you know I was kidding.
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