O.T. FORD, 2005 AUGUST 6


There are somewhere between eight and ten planets in our solar system, depending on which “scientist” you believe. ‘Science’ comes from the Latin word for “know”, so it seems reasonable to expect that when a scientist says something, it is known. Epistemology trumps etymology, though, and since we know (word used loosely) that scientists do not know as much as they claim to know, we must accept that the word ‘scientist’ now has an evolved meaning that does not conform to its historical origin. So, needless to say, does ‘planet’, because if Earth is any example, these planet things are pretty big, and it is hard to believe that we might have trouble counting them.

The sky gave the ancients much to study and ponder. They named its contents according to what they saw, and this phenomenon-based classification was both necessary and reasonable. In the present day, we have abandoned this phenomenology for something else, a set of truths about the universe that is also evolving. We take without further consideration that the Earth is a planet and the sun is a star. How would that have seemed to ancient astronomers? A star is a small bright light in the night sky. The sun is a large bright light in the day sky. Mars and Venus are small bright lights in the sky that move. The Earth is the flat thing we are standing on, so vast and of such a different nature that to compare it to the lights in the sky is like comparing apples to Asia. Yet we know that Earth is a planet, just like Mars or Jupiter or Pluto. Well, maybe not exactly like Pluto.

A group of scientists have clearly relished their recent announcement that they have discovered a new planet (‘scientists’, ‘discovered’, ‘new’, and ‘planet’ all used loosely). This is 2003 UB313, which may soon receive a less awkward name to suit its status. But its status as what? 2003 UB313 has been determined to orbit the sun at a distance greater than Neptune, and is therefore termed a trans-Neptunian object. By that definition, Pluto, of course, is also a trans-Neptunian object ― sometimes. Pluto and 2003 UB313 also fall in the distant region of solar orbit known as the Kuiper Belt, making them Kuiper Belt objects. The Kuiper Belt contains many, many objects orbiting the sun, most much smaller than Pluto, some of roughly comparable size (which, considering the range, includes Pluto’s own moon), and at least one, 2003 UB313, apparently larger. Are any of these planets? That rather depends on what a planet is. That, in turn, depends on who gets to define a word, and who gets to redefine it.

Scientists for some centuries have been functioning as a secular priesthood in our society. The role of the priesthood in the traditional sense was to mediate between humans and the supernatural or mysterious powers of the universe. Their specialist task was to tell humans what to think of the broader universe, and how to behave within it. Religion has correspondingly provided the metaphysics and ethics that structure our relationship with the universe and each other. Priests have generally done our thinking for us, and have been jealous of the power this has given them.

Needless to say, we have given them this power. We have ceded our thought to these specialists. We have consented to our own diminishment, intellectually and spiritually. Partially this is because some of us feel too busy to think, but partially this is a matter of design by those who feel themselves more qualified to think. We must therefore accept that we are too feeble to think, or worse, that thought itself, at least on our part, is immoral. It is not at all difficult to see how quickly this leads to the subjugation of entire populations.

Perhaps only a linguist among stewards would obsess about the value of language to dominion; but linguists of the modern age tend to be strong defenders of common property and the competence of the lowliest individuals. Language belongs to all of us, to its users, and not to an élite. The language of the least educated is just as grammatical, just as capable of expressing the full range of ideas, just as valid; and language itself is amoral. Strangely, it is the specialists who study language who are the first to surrender the right to speak authoritatively on what should and should not exist in language. It is experts in other specialties who believe they can school the masses on the use of language.

Zoologists, for example, insist that the expression ‘Canadian goose’ applies of necessity to any individual goose that is from or in Canada, and is therefore an improper name for a species; we have accordingly been directed to switch to the term ‘Canada goose’ for the species, despite the fact that many ordinary individual humans who have use for the term know this species as ‘Canadian goose’. The zoologists’ argument is not valid from a linguistic perspective, but not because the zoologists are not entitled to their own opinions about how language works or to use it in a way that makes sense to them as individuals. Rather, it is not valid because it is just an opinion and zoologists are not the arbiters of language. ‘Canadian goose’ is a perfectly-acceptable term for a breed of animal; indeed, many would argue that a noun phrase is better formed from a noun and an adjective than from two nouns, and certainly a noun phrase formed from a noun and an adjective can legitimately be used as a proper noun. Zoologists can perhaps tell us something about the physiology and the behavior of the Canadian goose, but it is not actually in their competence to tell us how language works.

A better example is ‘bug’, though, because this is a term of common parlance, a word that, sadly, we need in our everyday lives. The English word ‘bug’ evolved to fill a semantic niche. I could define it; but naturally I do not need to, because we already know what a bug is. It is easy to conjure a mental image of a bug; it is fairly easy to distinguish in the real world between what can be called a bug and what cannot, and any dispute is in fact a difference of dialect. Zoologists are not speaking a different dialect; they think they know better than we what a bug is. They have appropriated ― or seized, or even stolen ― an item of common property for their own use. It would be one thing if they gave the word ‘bug’ a technical meaning in zoology and said nothing about the common language, but they have arrogated the word ‘bug’ to themselves alone, thenceforth to tell the rest of us what it applies to. Hence the zoologists’ expression ‘true bug’, used when communicating with laypersons to convey, not very subtly, that laypersons do not know how to use their own language. “Ahh, yes. Well, you can call that insect a bug, but it is not really a bug.” ‘Bug’, in this condescending context, applies to a limited order of insects (the hemiptera) who possess qualities selected by zoologists. The qualities of “tiny”, “mobile”, and “pest”, that are so important to the general conception of bugs, are not determinative to zoologists. But their coup de langue, should we acquiesce, would leave us with no word for bugs. What are we to call the damn things, then?

‘Planet’, by contrast, has always been a term of art among astronomers, adopted by laypersons on the assurance that it was grounded in certain knowledge. The populist argument that Pluto should be counted among the planets because the masses think it is a planet is mere steps away from the shocking revelation that scientists do not actually know what they are talking about. A planet, both in common usage and scientific usage, is a member of an arbitrary class; its members are chosen more or less by whim, and share only the property that they have been so chosen. They cannot be defined in any sensible way besides that. In other words, there is no set of properties that all planets have in common and no other objects have. Of the eight undisputed planets, all orbit the sun directly, but so do lots and lots and lots of other things. Some of these eight have moons, and some do not. Some are solid and some are gaseous. Any definition by size or by distance of orbit is totally and transparently arbitrary. The asteroids orbit the sun directly, and mostly lie between Mars and Jupiter. They do not do so in isolation, but neither, of course, does any of the planets with a moon. The Kuiper Belt objects orbit the sun directly, often in isolation. In seeking a standard that will include the eight innermost planets and possibly Pluto and/or 2003 UB313 (depending on personal preference), astronomers are engaging in contortions of logic.

It would be better to discuss the more egregious contortions of logic. Embryonic stem-cell research is a promising vista for medical science, with the unexplored potential to cure or treat numerous intractable diseases. But the wealthiest and most technologically-advanced research community, that of the United States, is essentially sitting this one out, because US research is too dependent on federal government grants and federal funding now ties the hands of researchers based on a minority religious position ― that it is unethical to experiment with embryonic life. Of course, the value of embryonic stem cells is that they have yet to develop into anything. They are undifferentiated human cells from an organism that does not think or feel in any way, was created in a lab for legal and socially-accepted purposes of assisted reproduction, and was going to be destroyed anyway. But a few zealots, led by George Bush, have determined that there is no scientific reason to expand embryonic stem-cell research beyond its present, primitive level.

Intelligent design is pseudoscience, naturally. It is an attempt to convince the unsuspecting that there is some scientific controversy over whether there might be a god who stands outside of the natural processes in the world, guiding its development through extraordinary, unobservable powers. There is no such controversy. There is, therefore, no compelling intellectual reason to discuss this controversy in the public schools. There is no more reason to make impressionable students aware of the disagreement between supporters of evolution and intelligent design than there is reason to acquaint students in South Africa with a village mayoral race in Japan. The proponents of intelligent design are demanding equal time on scientific grounds, when it is apparent that they are motivated by religious faith, and we have already agreed not to teach religious faith as fact in the public schools.

The most powerful person in the world is proudly illiterate, and shows it at every opportunity. He scorns intellectuals and despises reason. He has just thrown his weight behind the fabricated controversy of intelligent design, and has been blocking research on embryonic stem cells. He is determined to force his superstitions on his fellow citizens, and his fellow humans. The best counter to such foolishness is the truth and reason that scientists have usually been champions of, and among the best champions of. But they cannot bring any guidance to these important issues ― they cannot smack down the charlatans and impostors ― when it is obvious that they have not realized the limitations on their own knowledge. They are currently debating a controversy in astronomy that only exists because they have been making things up as they go along. Perhaps if they had spent less of their childhood reading and more of it playing kickball, they would have realized the unsustainability of this method. The earliest scientists insisted on starting from the first principles; the modern crop apparently sees nothing wrong with making unfounded and unreasoned pronouncements about insupportable distinctions in desperation to maintain their public credibility, the illusion of their clerical omniscience. What sort of breathless fanatics are these, and why should we listen to them?