It’s Official: Pluto Is Not A Planet

Finally, the International Astronomical Union has produced a definition of a planet, and Pluto does not qualify. This demotion of the “ninth planet” has been long overdue, and will make possible a more coherent description of our solar system.

Predictably, many have protested this decision, based on sentimentality or nationalist bias (since its discoverer was an American), as well as criticisms of the ambiguous and arbitrary nature of the definition. None of these criticisms can escape the fact that there is no consistent physical description of a planet that could include Pluto without also including several other existing asteroids, as well as potentially dozens of other trans-Neptunian objects yet to be discovered. Pluto has met the same fate as Ceres did in the nineteenth century. Originally thought to be one of a kind, it has been found to be smaller than initially thought, and but one of many objects in an asteroid belt.

Of course, in one sense it is certainly arbitrary to make a distinction between a planet and an asteroid, since both may have similar composition and orbital behavior. Nonetheless, the distinction that a planet dominates its orbital neighborhood suggests a further stage of development and greater prominence in a solar system. It is no argument to complain that with this new definition we may not know the true status of an object until we have explored the area around it. Many objects are necessarily classified ambiguously or erroneously due to lack of information upon discovery.

When we consider that there are only eight planets, we find many striking similarities among them that are not shared by other objects, such as Pluto. All have metallic cores, and all orbit the sun in the same direction, in the same plane as the sun’s rotation within a few degrees, in ellipses with low eccentricities that all have the same perihelion-aphelion orientation. The fact that the planets have such striking orbital similarities suggests that they formed around the same time as the solar system. We have four terrestrial planets, followed by a rocky asteroid belt, then four gas giants, followed by an icy asteroid belt. The asteroid belts are probably leftovers from planetary formation. Lastly, the comets, with their extremely eccentric orbits, are possibly stray interstellar objects caught by the sun’s gravity. At any event, this model is much more conducive to examining the problem of planetary formation than one that makes no distinction between the elegantly aligned eight planets and the chaotic asteroid objects that failed to attain this harmonious state.

The Myth of Neutrality

After dabbling in Wikipedia for several months, it has finally become clear to me exactly what is wrong with its neutral point-of-view (NPOV) policy, reflecting a similar problem that pervades modern liberal discourse. In order for an article to maintain NPOV, every popular position on an issue needs to be presented, often at the expense of properly expressing their relative likelihood or importance. Not only does this make articles read like haphazard assortments of facts, but the discussion is vulnerable to the demands of every advocacy group. When a structured article does occur, it is often because one advocacy group has won the day and imposed its editorial judgments about what is important.

Editing, in the traditional sense, has been one of Wikipedia’s weakest points, because there many Indians and no chiefs, and the NPOV is often interpreted to preclude making editorial judgments about what is significant. When I read an encyclopedia, I expect more than a collection of facts. I expect the author to have exercised judgment in using his limited space to provide me the most relevant facts in a meaningful structure. That is what makes an encyclopedia a useful springboard for research. I am not advocating opinionated articles, but simply pointing out the practical necessity of editorial judgments that necessarily come in conflict with NPOV as commonly interpreted.

More broadly, liberal discourse suffers from self-stultification through its aversion to making judgments about what is significant and relevant, out of concern for radical egalitarianism. This relativizing tendency ignores the inescapable fact that all genuine intellectual activity involves making judgments. Anything less is just data collection, without understanding the data’s meaning. This debases human discourse and lends credence to notions like artificial intelligence and collective intelligence, only because the notion of human intelligence has been dumbed down.

A Word on Affirmative Action

I am now totally against so-called “affirmative action”, based on how I’ve seen it implemented at my place of employment. To hire faculty, it is a requirement that at least one of three search committee members be female, which strikes me as blatantly sexist. Also, if I hire any staff who is white and male, I have to explain why he was more qualified than the other candidates, whereas no explanation is required if I hire a female or minority. Due to this atmosphere, some people try to say it would be good to hire so-and-so because they’re female or a minority, so it would look good for us. Thankfully, my boss and I have too much integrity to accept this kind of thinking, and we hire based solely on merit. So far, everyone I’ve hired is female and white or Indian, not by design, but it simply worked out that way. If next year all our hires are male, so be it.

What disgusts me about this policy is not an inordinate concern for the ability of white males to get a job, but the fact that it forces me to become acutely race-conscious when I have no such inclination. I am totally colorblind in my professional dealings with people, but this policy which is supposed to cure racism has actually created racism in someone who has none. Even if candidates do not declare their race, I am supposed to “guess” and enter that on the affirmative action form. This strikes me as profoundly immoral, to gather racial data without a person’s consent. If the person is hired, our payroll won’t run unless the “ethnicity” field is filled. I wonder what foreign students think of our country when they’re asked to fill an “optional” form asking for their race.

The origin of “affirmative action” is very different from the modern understanding of trying to actively recruit underrepresented minorities over equally (or even better) qualified applicants who are not minorities. President Johnson, in a 1965 executive order, ordered federal contractors to “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.” Ironically, in implementing such safeguards, most employers have chosen to show much regard for the race, color, and gender of their employees. This flows from a results-oriented ethic where the only acceptable proof of non-discrimination is the actual presence and success of minority employees. An authentically non-racist ethic would not look at demographic results, but the mode of hiring, i.e., whether the hirer dismisses candidates or mistreats their employees on the basis of race. This is a more difficult thing to measure, since it is much harder to prove a person’s motives than one’s deeds. This is probably why the results-based “affirmative action” is favored, at the expense of perpetuating benign racism.

This kind of affirmative action presumes that any gross statistical inequities in hiring must be evidence of discrimination, which would require us to accept the demonstrably false supposition that people of all races and genders will be comfortable in all career paths in similar proportions. When we outgrow this fallacy, we can accept that mathematics departments are not overwhelmingly male because of sexism (in fact most mathematicians are rather liberal in their politics). Maybe then we will also accept that diversity of character and experience is a much truer measure of cultural vitality than diversity of physical features.

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