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  • Thursday, August 24, 2006

    Pluto gets the boot

    Pluto is no longer a planet -- or so voted the International Astronomical Union today.

    Why did Pluto get the boot, you might ask?

    No, it's not size that matters. It's not even shape. It's because Pluto's orbit overlaps with Neptune's. The technical definition of a planet requires that the body must clear the neighborhood around its oribit, and Pluto doesn't (but why does Pluto rather than Neptune get kicked out of the planetary club?).

    Interestingly, Pluto is not the first planet to be demoted. There is an asteriod named Ceres that was considered a planet in the 1800s before it got sent down to the minors -- or "dwarf planet" status.

    Pluto is only the latest to be pushed out. Definitions have long been used as a yardstick to include and exclude. In some situations, such classifications makes sense. Standards and criteria are often necessary to create boundaries. In other cases -- like gender or race or marriage for example -- definitions have been used to deny people their dignity. We recognize now that race is a social construct inflicted on society and scientifically irrelevant. And this has been an evolution in thought -- and definition.

    And that's exactly my point. Definitions are fluid. That isn't to say they also aren't legitimate. Just to be clear here -- using definitions is a perfectly valid exercise. There is nothing wrong with defining things. We rely on definitions all of the time. But in doing so, let's all recognize that definitions only work if there is a social consensus on the meaning and that value-judgments are inherent in creating definitions. Some definitions may be based on scientific data, but ultimately, how the definitions themselves are arrived at and used are a social construct. Add to that the tendency for people to "normalize" that which meets a definition and view as defective that which does not and that's where the discrimination comes in.

    So not only are definitions value-laden (i.e., created through choices that involve value-judgments) but they are also often the basis for creating values (i.e., X does not meet the definition of Y, so X must be excluded and is therefore somehow inferior to Y).

    Pluto could have been a planet if the Astronomical Union had chosen a different set of criteria for planets. Its inherent nature has not changed just because a group of scientists have said it's no longer a planet. The definition -- or how it was applied -- changed. There are thousands of brave men and women who would serve in our military if the criteria for service did not include a value-judgment on sexuality. Their ability to carry out the functions required to be good military personnel is not contingent on their sexuality. My parents' marriage would not have been illegal in Virginia until 1967 but for a value-laden definition. Their marriage was no less so because a group of VA legislators thought it unworthy of legal sanction. So definitions can change -- as a result of a decision to change the underlying criteria which collectively create the boundaries (thus changing the definition itself) or because societal consensus has shifted away from the construct such that a term loses meaning.

    So the mnemonics you learned as a kid to remember the planets must be trashed. Pluto is out.

    But what about Goofy? (Don't worry -- Goofy is a live and well, as evidenced by the silliness of that question... which is my way of getting off my high horse now.)

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