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Saturday, October 4, 2008

Let Go? Hell, No!

This entry is in response to a commenter named Christopher P. Martin, who along with me and quite a few other people posted comments on the naming of Haumea, the solar system's newest planet, at this site:  . Unfortunately, the comments section for the article was closed before I had a chance to answer his last comment, which I feel deserves a response, so I am responding here.

First, Mr. Martin's comment, verbatim: "My throwaway teaching comment was an oversimplification, of course! I, like you, want to encourage debate. That I had to teach Pluto's planet status as a 'fact' was the problem. However, I still insist that people need to 'let go.' It isn't that important. I think anyone who is particularly bothered one way or the other (as you clearly have been for at least two years judging by your extensive livejournal on the topic) should really learn to let go! Doesn't matter what you call it, it's still there! You just said so yourself- reality cannot be changed 'by dictate,' so why do you care what Pluto's called? Stick to your politics. That's a more usual place for passionately expressed semantic debate that fails to change or mean anything."

In an earlier comment, Mr. Martin claimed he left teaching because of frustration over being required to teach the IAU planet definition regarding Pluto's status, an issue I discussed in many previous entries. I believe it is important what Pluto is called for exactly the reason that caused Mr. Martin's frustration. Semantics do matter. Words determine how we perceive the world around us. Terminology determines what is considered important enough to make it into school curricula and what is seen as extraneous. The IAU demotion obviously cannot change the fact that "Pluto is still there," but the harm it can do is cause far fewer people, especially young people, to be aware that it is there.

Supporters of Pluto's demotion can emphasize as much as they want that the new definition does not diminish Pluto's importance, but the fact is, in real life, in real classrooms and textbooks, it does. If curricula that used to teach nine planets now teach only eight, the result is a diminishing of knowledge, typified by the student I mentioned in the previous entry who after telling her mother she learned about the solar system in school, when asked "what about Pluto?" innocently responded, "there is no Pluto."  If he was so bothered by being compelled to teach the IAU definition, Mr. Martin should join those of us who publicly advocate for a fair teaching of the controversy in schools rather than simply walk away.

To some extent, what is and is not important is a value judgment. Mr. Martin may have legitimately decided this issue is not important to him; however, his remarks telling me to "let it go" show a clear lack of respect for my values and, in fact, for anyone who happens to think differently than he does. Our culture, through numerous talk shows and self-help books, has an inherent bias towards "letting things go," which in many cases and for many people, is not appropriate. A one-size fits all solution usually never is. Think about it. If a person believes something is ethically, morally, scientifically, or in any other way wrong, why should he or she give up that conviction just because time passes? It's been five and a half years since President Bush started the Iraq War. Should opponents of the war just "let it go" because time has passed even though nothing has been resolved? Should those of us concerned about global climate change "let it go" because it's been 20 years since the issue came into national focus, and during those years we've gone in the wrong direction regarding dependence on fossil fuels?

If anyone should be urged to "let go," it is the IAU. The people of the world, both scientists and lay people, have spoken--in classrooms, in seminars, on the Internet, in emails, in art and culture, in surveys, even in their purchasing of pro-Pluto merchandise--and have made it clear that by wide margins, they oppose the 2006 planet definition. Leading planetary scientists have gone as far as to hold their own conference on the issue (the Great Planet Debate), and attempts to rectify what the IAU did continue at numerous astronomical and planetary science conferences. Even many who stand by the IAU vote give it lukewarm support at best and admit both the process at the General Assembly and the outcome were sloppy. Yet IAU president Catherine Cesarsky and the IAU leadership stubbornly refuse to admit they might have made a mistake and persist in their denial of public rejection to the decision. Instead of continuing to dig a bigger and bigger hole for themselves and destroy what is left of their credibility, the IAU should own up to the fact that they mishandled this issue and commit to revisit it--along with including electronic voting--at their 2009 General Assembly.

Admitting to the mistake and taking action to correct it would actually increase rather than diminish the group's standing in the world. Everyone makes mistakes; the real courage comes in owning up to them and doing what is necessary to set things right. As a writer and a person who loves astronomy, I do care very much what Pluto is called. Mr. Martin might want to take a look at George Orwell's novel 1984 for a lesson in just how much language is power, and perception is reality. People in power (in this case the IAU) cannot change objective reality of what is out there, but they very well can manipulate perception about it through dictating specific uses of language. To me--and to many others--this is unacceptable, no matter how much time passes, if it is not rectified.

If Mr. Martin doesn't like this journal or my passion about Pluto, he in no way is obligated to read my writing or ever visit this site. He can find plenty of "passionately expressed semantic debate that fails to change or mean anything" in the rhetoric surrounding the upcoming US national elections. Whether he recognizes it or not, the fight to reinstate Pluto's planet status--and that of all dwarf planets--will result in real change. Hopefully, that will be sooner rather than later, but even if it takes 20 or 30 years, I don't plan to "let go" any time soon, and I hope other Pluto supporters have no such plans either. Every time I or other Pluto advocates help one child get a grade reinstated or one teacher to understand that there is legitimate scientific reasoning for viewing Pluto as a planet and therefore teach the controversy rather than just one side of the issue, we are making a difference, as my best friend puts it, "saving Pluto one child at a time" (and one adult at a time as well). Meanwhile, this journal will stay around for as long as is necessary.