Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Abuse of Pluto

As much as democracy can be a boon in terms of advancing a common will (or at least majority will), it isn't a model for science to adopt. This was abundantly evident last year in the case of the demotion of Pluto from planetary status.

Worse, I surmised it was only a matter of time before various right wing sites and forums would use Pluto’s demotion as a basis to attack science. In particular, the argument goes: “If science had to backtrack on Pluto, taking away its planethood, why not on evolution and global warming as well? Shouldn’t all science be regarded as ‘tentative’?”

In fact, not.

For one thing the “consensus” achieved on Pluto was accomplished not through objective inquiry and scientific test, but rather a vote at a recent meeting of the International Astronomical Union. As a member of the American Astronomical Society, who totally disagreed with this process, it pains me to write this - but any time a scientific conclusion is reached by vote, it’s time to raise the red flag!

The modern consensus on evolution, meanwhile, was achieved by a body of empirical evidence, including from the fossil record, microbiology and genetics. For example, one of the most powerful lines of evidence has shown that the human chromosome designated '2' was the result of the telomeric fusion of the two ape chromosomes, 2p and 2q. The effect also saw the reduction from 24 chromosome pairs in apes, to 23 pairs in humans. (Source: Yunis and Prakash, 1982, Science, Vol. 215, p. 1525, 'The Origin of Man: A Chromosomal Pictorial Legacy')

Mathematical precision also consolidates scientific discovery in quantitative fields, making them less likely to be overturned. Particle physics is one such example, wherein the original three sub-atomic particles (proton, neutron, electron) have now become a veritable “zoo” numbering in the hundreds – including up, down, top and bottom quarks, W and Z bosons, electron, mu and tau neutrinos and many others too numerous to mention. This panoply of particles didn’t just manifest because the respective particle physicists intended to be “mean” to school children or regular mortals. It emerged out of more refined and detailed experiments that exposed each of the particles.

The same applies to the current consensus on global warming, only arrived at after years of computer analysis of ice cores, changing CO2 concentrations therein, satellite imagery disclosing retreat of polar ice and data from over 1300 temperature sensing bouys in the oceans.

In the end, the error of the planetary astronomers was to cave in to public pressure to avoid “complexity”, e.g. in adding numerous additional planets like Charon, Xena, Ceres etc. This, despite the fact the original IAU definition was perfectly rational in its criteria for a planet.

Alan Stern, executive director of the Space Science & Engineering Division of the Southwest Research Institute – and Principal Investigator for NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto- observed that the new planet definition was “sadly flawed, particularly due to the vagueness of the third condition”, e.g. clearing the neighborhood around its orbit – which might also disqualify Earth!)

He added: “A lot of people are going to ignore the (new) definition because it doesn’t make sense.” (Source: Eos, Vol. 87, 29 August, p. 350)

The tragedy of the Pluto vote is that it has not only set back planetary astronomy – showing the preponderance of ego over scientific inquiry – but also public confidence in science. In any case, this retrenchment of scientific position gives no aid or comfort to those who would eschew either evolution or global warming.

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