The ridiculous argument of science by popularity (or: Pluto IS TOO a planet!)

It would appear our new acquaintance SBH is in possession of an uncanny knack for identifying apocryphal insertions into humankind’s history. Over at his blog, he has a well-written introspection on the “eternal truths” he’s learned over the years, and how he reacted when science overturned two of them specifically: his irrational gut-instinct rejection of the notion that birds evolved from dinosaurs, and his ready acceptance of the booting of Pluto from the pantheon of planets.

In discussing the Pluto “debate”, he’s succeeded in prodding me into writing something space-related, on this, the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing (though sadly, I didn’t finish drafting this post in time). Strangely enough, my topic ties in with the Unscientific America blog-tempest, specifically the passage where Mooney/Kirshenbaum apparently and in all earnestness claimed that the ousting of Pluto hurt the cause of science because it was done despite some (as I recall, media-amplified and really quite minor) dissent. It seems fitting to me that the blog-blitzkrieg brought on by M&K’s book couldn’t stir me to write about Pluto, given their antithetical stance against pretty well everything I believe, including the scientific method’s correct decision to reclassify the puny clump of ice; yet this new acquaintance’s blog managed to do so on my first visit.

Pluto has long been one of our nine planets, taught in school since it was discovered in 1930. It figures heavily in astrology. There’s a Disney character named after it. There are acronyms so you can remember the order of these planets that would be wrecked by Pluto’s exclusion, and would take rewriting to fit the new acronym, e.g. My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas. “Just served us nine WHAT?”

Here’s the thing — Pluto’s barycentre with its moon Charon (the “pivot” spot around which the two orbit one another) lies between the two, and not within the body of one or the other, so technically it’s a binary system. Pluto has 1/5th the mass of the moon, and 1/3 the volume. Its orbit is really odd — it orbits the sun at a steep incline compared to the rest of the solar system, and it even overlaps Neptune’s orbit somewhat such that occasionally, Pluto is closer to the Sun than Neptune. It has all the trappings of an object caught in the Sun’s gravity well and settling into an orbit, rather than a planet proper, formed by the creation of the solar system.

Likewise, another object, a little further out, is named Eris. It has 27% more mass than Pluto, it has a highly inclined orbit at a totally different angle than Pluto, and there will actually be a short period of time by my understanding every thousand years or so when it is closer to the sun than Pluto. By all accounts, if Pluto is going to be a planet, Eris should too. And, that’s why the International Astronomical Union had been forced to finally, after so many years of waffling and massaging definitions, ultimately decide what counts as a planet and what doesn’t. And Pluto got left out in the cold. And by cold, I mean it got reclassified as, variously, a “plutoid”, a Kuiper belt object, or a dwarf planet (I’m assuming this last as a means of splitting the difference to get the dramallamas dominating the media to come on board). I mean, it’s not like Pluto got nuked out of existence by Mad Scientists — it’s just classified as another thing, because it doesn’t get caught by any net we cast to pick up all the “usual” planets, without also picking up Eris and who knows how many other objects that happen to be a smidge outside the Kuiper Belt. This would result in hundreds of new “planets” over time, and that’s just as unacceptable to us as losing Pluto from the acronym is to you crazy Pluto boosters.

Never forget the public will naturally be upset by any piece of information that they’ve learned that they then need to unlearn or reclassify. They are more willing to accept new information or apocrypha — take for instance the insertion of “under God” to the US Pledge of Allegiance in the 1950s, so added to differentiate from the Godless Russians. If anyone were to try to have “under God” removed from that pledge, I can guarantee that a vocal bunch would kick up a huge storm over it — between religious folks who believe removing it is an assault on them by the secular heathen devils, religious folks who honestly and earnestly think it’s been in there since the founding of the nation, and people who grew up with it in the pledge and consider it canon, there’ll be a lot of dissent. There always is.

Should the scientific method by which we accumulate knowledge about our planet, our solar system, our galaxy, and our universe, be subjected to traction by what’s popular or convenient? Assuredly not. If that were the case, with so many Creationists in positions of power in both Canada and the US presently, North America will quickly find ourselves shutting down all scientific research that contradicts the Bible. Astronomy? No sir, it was all poofed into existence by God in situ with all the light already in transit at most 6000 years ago. Archaeology? Why bother, God put those fossils there to fool us into believing there’s a huge history, and anyway, dinosaurs existed alongside humans before the Great Flood. Biology? Nope, no can do, it depends too much on Darwin. Genetics? Darwin depends too much on IT, so it has to be false as well.

This is a slippery slope argument. Unfortunately, it’s also demonstrably true. If you allow what’s popular to set your scientific standards, you’ll find a shitload of science getting thrown to the wayside for political expedience and religious accomodationism. And that doesn’t fly with me. Likely not with anyone else that’s been summarily categorized as “New Atheist” by Mooney and his ilk, either.

Update: I fixed your name. I don’t know where the hell I got SRV from.

The ridiculous argument of science by popularity (or: Pluto IS TOO a planet!)

8 thoughts on “The ridiculous argument of science by popularity (or: Pluto IS TOO a planet!)

  1. 2

    I find it rather ironic that seculars are the ones who have booted out any theory that challenges their theory on evolution.

    Don’t you also find it ironic that the nation that claims to currently be 76% Christians is also the most advanced nation in the world when it comes to technology.

    In addition, isn’t it interesting that Americans were also the first ones to reach the moon when we were almost 85% Christian.

    The reason that Christians are so super tolerant of divergent viewpoint is because of the Love of God which causes us to even love our enemies. The basis of tolerance is love. I have never seen a total secular country exercise tolerance. You can look at both Russia and China for modern day examples.

    A totally secular country like China and Russia just can’t compete with a truly Christian nation. Christian values produce awesome results! In fact the Western world guided by Christian values has dominated the modern world for the last 500 years.

    With the seculars dominating the field and trying to shut Christians out of the debate, I do expect America’s power to decline as well as it scientific enterprise. When love is no longer the heart of a country, values that are anti-progress develop including anger, suspicion, fear and isolation.

  2. 3

    You seem incapable of basing any argument on provable facts, Zdenny. Even assuming you mean “totally secular” as in a majority of the populace is non-believers, you’re prima facie wrong.


    A chart on Religion in Russia in Time magazine for May 27, 1996 shows Russian Orthodox as 71.8% of the population in Russia, Muslim 5.5%, Catholic 1.8%, Protestant 0.7%, Buddhist 0.6%, Jewish 0.3%, Other 0.9%; no affiliation 18.9%.


    According to the surveys of Phil Zuckerman on in 1993; there was 59% (over 700 million)[30] of the Chinese population was irreligious and 8% – 14% was atheist (from over 100 to 180 million) as of 2005[6]. There are intrinsic logistical difficulties in trying to count the number of religious people anywhere, as well as difficulties peculiar to China. According to Phil Zuckerman, “low response rates,” “non-random samples,” and “adverse political/cultural climates” are all persistent problems in establishing accurate numbers of religious believers in a given locality[31]. Similar difficulties arise in attempting to subdivide religious people into sects. These issues are especially pertinent in China for two reasons. First, it is a matter of current debate whether several important belief systems in China constitute “religions.” As Daniel L. Overmeyer writes, in recent years there has been a “new appreciation…of the religious dimensions of Confucianism, both in its ritual activities and in the inward search for an ultimate source of moral order”[32]. Many Chinese belief systems have concepts of a sacred and sometimes spiritual natural world yet do not always invoke a concept of personal god (with the exception of Heaven worship)[33].

    If you start counting anyone who’s lapsed or who does not practice a religion overtly, as being atheist, then sure, China’s pretty enlightened religion-wise (regardless of their dictatorial and oppressive nature — I mean, throwing people in jail for watching porn, or for daring to speak out against their government? Sounds like something a theocracy would do!). Considering the government was founded in 1949 as officially atheist, stating that one could not be a member of the Communist Party while being religious, yes, China’s government was pretty secular, but that they were oppressive does not spring forth from that secularism. In 1978 their constitution was written, which guarantees freedom of religion.

    Also, what the living hell does this entire post have to do with a) evolution, or b) throwing out “competing theories” against it? I don’t see anything about reclassifying Pluto as a dwarf planet that reflects, in any way, shape or form, on the concept that life forms subject to natural selection are capable of speciating and changing forms and obtaining new features over time.

    The reason that Christians are so super tolerant of divergent viewpoint is because of the Love of God which causes us to even love our enemies.

    Oh. I guess THAT explains you running around telling us we can’t love. You sure are tolerant of those people that you act intolerantly toward!

    Don’t you also find it ironic that the nation that claims to currently be 76% Christians is also the most advanced nation in the world when it comes to technology.

    In addition, isn’t it interesting that Americans were also the first ones to reach the moon when we were almost 85% Christian.

    You don’t understand irony. Nor do you understand the world. Right now, Japan is considered the most technologically advanced country, and its main religions are Shinto and Buddhism. Roughly 16% are classified as “other” — including all other religions, e.g. Christianity, and irreligious and atheist.

    I’d contend that America “chose the moon” for a number of reasons — first, they wanted to outdo Russia, which they viewed as evil by virtue of having a different political system. Second, they wanted to outspend Russia at something, not only to prove they could put a man on the moon but to force Russia to bankrupt themselves (and this is how the Cold War ended). The fact that the people of America were whipped into an anti-Communist frenzy, and that Communism was conflated with secularism (falsely in my mind), allowed the Christian belief to step aside and let science do its thing.

    Every instance of technological progress in history is actively stymied by religion. Every instance of scientific knowledge being obtained or applied in history is dampened by religion. The last time religion had a stranglehold on public policy was the Dark Ages. Do you know why they called them the Dark Ages? Because human knowledge was so stifled as to have stopped growing for hundreds of years. In fact, it wasn’t just stifled, it was practically murdered in its crib, with a great deal of scientific progress being lost.

  3. sbh

    This is just to let you know that I read this piece, that it was both cool and thought-provoking, and that I find Zdenny’s attempt to hijack potential discussion irritating in the extreme. I’m personally upset at the moment by what I will call household politics that have nothing to do with anything going on online, so I’m not up to making any sane comment, but I hope to be back when and if things settle down.

  4. sbh

    Oh, yeah, also, damn good reply to Zdenny. Of course anybody who lives in such an alternate version of reality kind of makes it easy–I had to laugh out loud when he described Christians as “super tolerant of divergent viewpoint[s].” And what is his problem with plurals, anyway?

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