Written Nov. 16, 2019
And now, to boldly go where everyone and their brother has gone before.
No, not the well-traveled corridors of the starship Enterprise – though this will take us to the final frontier. Namely, to the vicinity of Pluto, the frozen world with the simmering debate: is it a planet, a dwarf planet, or a really lost California skier?
For the head of NASA, it’s incredibly obvious.
“I am here to tell you, as the NASA Administrator, I believe Pluto should be a planet,” Jim Bridenstine said earlier this month to the International Astronautical Congress – as opposed to the International Astronomical Union, which demoted our distant neighbor to dwarf planet status 13 years ago, making grade-school textbooks around the world obsolete at a stroke.
If this sounds like a really weird thing to argue about – well, yeah. But the most passionate arguments can flare up over the smallest things. Daylight Saving Time. The “real name” of This-Sponsor-Here Stadium at Mile High. Heck, if you want to inflame a group of Star Wars fans for the next 40 minutes, just sidle up and ask them whether Han shot first.
In the case of the Pluto War, everyone’s got their official-sounding reasons, such as whether the planet “clears its orbit” (or whether any planet does), or the presence of moons or an atmosphere, or maybe even eventually whether there’s ever been an Elvis sighting there. All of which underscores the fact that “planet” is a really fuzzy concept – about as fuzzy as “continent.”
What’s that? Everyone knows what a continent is? Well, sort of. Some of us were taught in school that there were seven. Others learned that there were six, since Europe and Asia aren’t truly separated by anything but history. An alien from outer space might argue that there are four – the big American land mass, the big Europe/Africa/Asia land mass, plus Australia and Antarctica. And is Australia really the world’s smallest continent, or just its biggest island?
It’s a matter of perspective.
Debates like these are safely amusing because whoever wins, it doesn’t really change much. (Except for the textbook budget, of course.) But when they get so passionate, they can edge into a gray area where strongly-held opinion takes on the power of fact.
From there, it’s a short step to the genuinely dangerous area: the belief that facts are malleable. The idea that every fact is just someone’s opinion, and that if the facts disagree with what I think, then the facts must be wrong.
That’s not a funny debate at all.
It has consequences for human dignity. For law and justice. For anything that relies on reason and inquiry – which is to say, our ability to live side-by-side with each other at all. Anything becomes justifiable and correct if you get enough people to agree with you. Our history, past and present, has some very scary examples of that.
Granted, even our capacity for wishful thinking has limits. If you’re firmly convinced that you can fly, and you step off a 500-foot cliff, the physical universe will quickly disabuse your notions. (“See how quickly I flew downward?”) But if we have to hit those walls, the ones where Captain Obvious gives us a dope slap, then we’re already in trouble.
As I’ve said many times, we all have a story. But our own stories aren’t the only ones that matter. We have to step away. To see the stories of others. To digest the facts that we don’t want to hear but that aren’t going away.
I know. Easy to say. Hard to do. But you have to acknowledge the need before you can start. And as a species, we need some perspective.
Well – I hear Pluto’s nice this time of year.