Unscientific America: The Pluto Thing

I’ve been really surprised at the number of people writing about Unscientific America who are confused by the discussion of the Pluto incident (Mad Mike is the latest, but it’s not hard to find more). For those who haven’t read the book, the first chapter opens with a description of the public reaction to the decision by the IAU to demote Pluto from a “planet” to a “dwarf planet.”

I didn’t think the point of this was all that difficult to figure out, but it seems to have created a great deal of confusion. Some of this is probably disingenuous, but a number of people seem to be genuinely unsure about what the point of the anecdote was.

The point, I think, was that this is an illustration of how badly scientists misunderstand what will resonate with the public. Nobody in the astronomical community thought the decision would be a big deal at all, so they were caught completely off guard by the huge pro-Pluto outcry– Neil deGrasse Tyson wrote a book about it. As a result, what should’ve been an uncontroversial announcement turned into a giant spectacle.

Chris and Sheril put this in the book not as an attempt to claim that Pluto’s status should’ve been decided in some sort of global plebiscite, but as a relatively light and harmless illustration of how communications between scientists and the general public can go wrong. They’re not saying that people should’ve been consulted before making the change– the scientific consensus is clear, and the change needed to be made (no matter what they think in the Scalzi compound)– they’re saying that the people involved should’ve had some idea of how this would play with the public, and should’ve taken that into account when making the announcement of the change.

The Pluto chapter is not a call for changing the way scientific decisions are made, it’s a call for changing the way scientific decisions are communicated to the public. As such, it’s a perfectly sensible lead-in to the rest of the book.

At least, that’s how it reads to me. Maybe there’s something I’m missing, but it just doesn’t seem that complicated.

(Now, if you want to argue about whether it should’ve been obvious to astronomers that the Pluto thing would blow up, that’s another question. I think they probably should’ve had some idea, given the fuss kicked up when the Rose Center opened, but I don’t think anybody would’ve predicted that the IAU decision would be as big a deal as it ended up being. I think they got unlucky there, in that the story broke on a proverbial Slow News Day, and got blown out of proportion as a result.

(But that’s a quibble about details, and doesn’t really affect the general argument, or the purpose of putting that story in the book.)

(I’ll find something else to blog about now. Really I will.)