Friday, June 20, 2008

Show Us the Data, Please

In the wake of the incredulity and ridicule following the announcement of the IAU's most recently coined term, "plutoids," IAU leaders and supporters of Pluto's 2006 demotion are abandoning all pretense of professionalism, resorting to the old political tactic of repeating something enough times in the hope that people will believe it as fact.

Dr. Catherine Cesarsky, president of the IAU, is leading this latest campaign by repeating statements that astronomers who seek to overturn the 2006 IAU planet definition constitute "a very small portion of the astronomy community," "practically nobody is trying to get Pluto reclassified as a planet," and "a few people make a lot of noise."

As a scientist, Cesarsky is certainly aware that any such claims must be backed up with supporting data if they are to be considered credible. Naturally, the question arises, on what data are Cesarsky's statements based? Did she conduct a survey of astronomers, and if so, how many, when, and was it a random sample, a comprehensive poll of everyone in the field, or a selective decision based on her own preconceived notions?

I may be completely wrong here, but my guess is that there was no survey or poll conducted at all, that Cesarsky's statements are simply conjecture with no data to back them up.  Yet Cesarsky has no problem repeating what are clearly political rather than scientific statements whose intention is nothing other than to discredit astronomers and others who support overturning the 2006 planet definition and reinstating Pluto and likely many other objects, such as Ceres and Eris, as planets.

If she claimed a scientific discovery in astrophysics, would she expect people around the world to believe in that discovery without supporting evidence? Would she expect controversial claims to be accepted on faith without any peer review? If she tried such things, she would be laughed out of her field.

In politics, the first principle of propaganda is "a lie repeated a thousand times becomes the truth."

Four percent of the IAU's membership voted in Prague, and most of those are not planetary scientists but other types of astronomers, meaning planets are not the area of their expertise. A tiny group decided on the term "plutoids." According to Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of New Horizons, many planetary scientists do not even belong to the IAU. Whether that is because they do not meet the IAU's requirements for membership or because they would rather spend their time on science rather than political maneuvering doesn't matter. The fact is, these people deserve to be heard, and in this electronic age, there is no excuse for not giving voice to every astronomer whose research specialty is studying planets.

Interestingly, one astronomer who would not meet the qualifications for IAU membership is the late Clyde Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto.  IAU membership requires candidates have a PhD in their fields, and Tombaugh's highest degree was a Masters, unless one counts an honorary doctorate he was given by Northern Arizona University in 1960.

Cesarsky's statements are now being parroted by supporters of the IAU decision all over the Internet and the media, none of whom back up these statements with any supporting data.

One of the most outrageous claims is being made by German astronomy journalist Daniel Fischer, who is repeating the IAU line all over the Internet. Fischer states the following regarding the signatories of Dr. Stern's petition rejecting the IAU's 2006 planet definition:

"The so-called petition (the one with the 300 signatures) is a joke: I actually contacted most of the well-known astronomers who signed and asked them for their reason. Intriguingly some actually agreed with the IAU decision and many had no opinion at all. But they had signed for purely political reasons - be it that they were involved in New Horizons, others were simply angry that they hadn't been consulted."
He also says, in an online discussion with me,  "I actually went to great lengths to contact many of the astronomers who signed the 'petition' and found out what drove them - and you just don't want their own words to be true and dismiss my research as 'hearsay.'"
Source for both:

Both Fischer and I are journalists and bloggers.  As a journalist, he should know fully well that any such claims, especially those arguing that professional astronomers signed their names to a statement in which they do not believe, must be backed up with supporting evidence as opposed to being accepted on his word alone.  Yet he does not provide any of that evidence.

So my challenge to him, is please tell us--on your blog, on the blog above, or at another site--the names of the signatories you contacted, when you spoke to them, and the exact statements they made. If you cannot provide this data, your claim has about as much credence as a story that you were abducted by a UFO but have nothing to prove it other than your word.

Cesarsky and fellow IAU supporters are also resorting to another old political tactic, namely, if one cannot defend one's position, simply attack one's opponents instead--the classic ad hominem, sometimes known here in the US as "swiftboating," after the personal attacks on 2004 Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.  In this case, the attacks attempt to discredit opponents of the 2006 planet definition as motivated by emotions such as anger and frustration or by nationalistic, namely American, attachments and personal interest in the New Horizons mission, rather than by genuine scientific concerns.  On the site, , researcher Mark Richardson describes the efforts of Stern and others to overturn the decision as "throwing a temper tantrum and crying."

In light of all this, I encourage everyone who believes in overturning the 2006 planet definition for a better one as well as reinstating Pluto and allowing for the addition of new objects as planets, to take part in an initiative being launched by Siobhan Elias in Streator, Illinois, contacting Cesarsky, the IAU, CNN, and the BBC and stating in the strongest possible terms your support for classifying dwarf planets as a subclass of planets.

Here, in her own words, is Siobhan's message:

"Dear family, friends & organization members:

As many of you know, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) has made a mess of planet definitions, upsetting very many lay people, scientists, and school children. Amazingly, the IAU's president recently stated that
"I don't think there will be a big [reaction]," she says. "A few people make a lot of noise."

Please read the letter below that I've sent to IAU president, Catherine Cesarsky, with copies to the IAU, BBC & CNN (I've provided their email addresses).Please send her your own letter! It can be as brief as a few sentences or more "vocal" like mine. Make sure to use "Dwarf Planets Are Planets Too" in the subject line. Then send a letter to your
family & friends in the USA AND ABROAD and have them do the same, and so on, and so on...I think you get the point.

Here are the e-mail addresses-

I can't do this alone, but together we can create an avalanche of e-mails to Cesarsky and show her how many thousands of people recognize the IAU's blunder. Don't miss out on being involved in this world-wide protest.

-Siobhan Elias   (see my letter below)

To Catherine Cesarsky, IAU President,

I am writing to you regarding the 'new' definition of a planet, approved by a very small faction of the voting members of the International Astronomical Union (IAU). I must add that when I first read the definition in August 2006, I was confused and angered.

As a resident of Streator, IL, hometown of Clyde Tombaugh, I saw this as a biased and calculated move to have Pluto 'stricken' from the record simply because an American discovered it. Of course, we are proud of this great feat of Clyde Tombaugh back in 1930. Why shouldn't we be? What he did was, at the very least, incredible. His subsequent contributions to the world of science and astronomy will forever be recognized.

The inconsistency of the definition in relation to what is now considered to be a planet is the term 'cleared the neighborhood.' What most intelligent people recognize to be the nine planets, all orbit the sun and have sufficient mass for hydrostatic equilibrium. However, five of the nine planets have a 'neighborhood"' which is NOT completely cleared. So if we go by the current IAU definition, Pluto, Earth, Jupiter, Neptune and Mars are not planets. That would be fine if the IAU applied the definition evenly when discriminating what is and what is not considered to be a planet.

The issue is not that planet Pluto was reclassified.The issue is not if most Americans agree or disagree with the definition. Your recent statements in the various articles I've read are insulting to the thousands of us who believe the IAU "screwed up" and now, through your comments, are trying to justify this by saying 'Nobody cares.' I know that countless scientists and lay people all over the world, have and will, continue to oppose this 'new' definition. Also, to say only the people tied to the New Horizons project are the ones pushing for the reinstatement of Pluto is ridiculous.  To minimalize their 'expertise' of the littlest planet is ludicrous. Who would know better if Pluto was a planet than the very scientists working on the New Horizons Mission?  With that thinking, it would be O.K. to have a dentist remove my appendix rather than a surgeon, simply because he was 'in the room.'

Just so there is no future misunderstanding on your part, I will do what I can to contact as many people as possible and have them also send you their thoughts (on this very controversial issue) which you seem to think 'nobody cares' about.

So here is the issue.... the current definition is inconsistent. It is not applied evenly to what some even consider, the 12 planets. Because of all these things.....the IAU has lost its credibility. Until this organization can stand up and admit their mistake, I believe most will feel the same. The IAU will not only have lost the support of people all over the world, but it will also lose the very membership which made it a 'once credible' organization.

Mrs. Siobhan Elias"

Please follow Siobhan's example and write! Let's make our voices heard!!!

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