Pluto the Dwarf and the Politics of Science

29 Jun

I was doing my usual situation review at 5AM when it struck me that the object officially known as 134340 Pluto would be a good case study for the role of social construction and politics in science. When I was growing up that object was known as Pluto (Wikipedia entry here), the ninth planet of our solar system. It was discovered in 1930 after a search that had begun in the 1840s. The name was suggested a British school girl, Venetia Burney and, soon after being applied to the planet, was applied to a cartoon dog by the Walt Disney Company.

And that’s where things stood until early in the last decade of the 20th Century when astronomers began to discover other similar objects “out there” in what became known as the Kuiper belt (Wikipedia article here). A number of the moons of other planets are hypothesized to be members of the Kuiper belt.

Then, 136199 Eris was discovered early in 2005. It’s much farther out in space then 134340 Pluto; but it orbits the sun; has its own moon, Dysnomia; and is larger than 134340 Pluto. Whoops! We’ve got problems, Houston.

It was one thing to discover the Pluto was one of a bunch of objects out there, some of which may be orbiting other planets as moons. As long as Pluto was larger than those other objects it made sense to classify it as a plant along with the other 8 (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune) and thus as something other than those other KBOs (Kuiper Belt Objects). But if Eris is larger than Pluto, albeit farther out, this classification is looking a bit capricious and arbitrary.

What to do?

Well, in 2006 the International Astronomical Union met, adopted an official definition of planet, and Pluto was demoted to dwarfhood, along with Eris, Ceres, Haumea, and Makemake. People were not happy, not happy at all. But that’s life.

The reclassification of Pluto was a political matter in the sense that it involved negotiations among different parties with different interests. But it wasn’t political in the sense that those competing parties were competing over laws, budgets, resources, and programs that have a strong influence on how many people live their lives. It was a matter of social construction in the utterly trivial sense that any named entities are social constructions by virtue of the fact that language itself is a social construction.

Scientific practice is full of this kind of politics and this kind of social construction. It’s ongoing and has been since forever, almost. But it mostly takes place out of public view and concerns matters which are intelligible only to highly educated specialists. But everyone knew about Pluto and the concept of a planet is an easy one to grasp. And so this scientific spat had a public face that got petitions circulated and passed some amusing laws in California, New Mexico, and Illinois.

The case of global warming is different and far more consequential. The science is difficult and problematic even within the scientific community; the relevant scientific models cannot be grasped without considerable mathematical and technical sophistication. The implications of the science are staggering. The lives of billions of humans and countless nonhumans are at stake, if not immediately or in the near future, then over the next century or so.

Things ARE going to change. We don’t know what those changes will be or how much we can influence them. All we know is that the longer we wait to act, the less we’ll be able to influence those changes.

And some people refuse to believe even that.


2 Responses to “Pluto the Dwarf and the Politics of Science”

  1. Charlie Keil June 29, 2012 at 12:49 pm #

    All the Pluto issues are relevant. But climate change and global storming have been with us for a while now; it’s not just the future. And human caused extinctions of creatures are estimated to be running 100 to 200 PER DAY.
    (I’m going to check that out on the web. But the web of life is shrinking as we speak. Some think that our impact on speciation was most severe on the giant vertebrates 50,000 to just a few thousand years ago, when the “big birds” were decimated in New Zealand.
    Never underestimate the human impact on the web of live NOW! We don’t know what all the radiation, new chemicals, increasing carbon emissions are going to add up to tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. Triggers may already have been pulled.

    • Bill Benzon July 1, 2012 at 11:40 am #

      You know, Charlie, when I started writing this post, I intended only for my personal blog, New Savanna. The idea was to talk about politics IN science that wouldn’t threaten those many intelligent and well-meaning people who get all uptight when intellectuals of certain persuasions say that there’s science in politics, and science is socially constructed, in deep ways. But not in ways that imply that science is the arbitrary construction of ward-heeling political hacks and hitmen. But, as I came near the end of my intended material I figured I can say something about global warming. Not a lot, just something, namely: 1) that this issue is both messier and more intellectually problematic than the status of Pluto, and 2) that this issue does entail and require that kind of politics that involves backroom deals and ward-heeling hackery, among other things.

      That’s all I had in mind there, to make a distinction. Since I DID make, I decided to post the note here as well, figuring maybe there’s a long shot that someone who’s in climate denial might read the post and just think about climate change. You maybe the idea would pass through some brain cells without the threat of hellfire and brimstone singing their nostril hairs in the process. Your comment is pretty much designed to scare that person off, because we don’t want those types around here.

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