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Democracy in Science: The 2006 IAU Planet Definition Vote Controversy

Leonard Kelley holds a bachelor's in physics with a minor in mathematics. He loves the academic world and strives to constantly explore it.

The 2006 Vote in action.

The 2006 Vote in action.

Science is a dynamic and ever-changing field. As we get more data, our theories need to be adjusted to accommodate our new findings. Occasionally, the system we are using will need some revision also, like altering how animals are organized. This is done with the intention of adding distinction and clarity to the system so that more results can be inferred. Essentially, an ideal system of classification in science enlightens, not confuses.

The 7 scientists behind the prose of the definition.

The 7 scientists behind the prose of the definition.

IAU Vote on the Definition of a Planet

So it is interesting to note that, in August of 2006, scientists in the International Astronomical Union (IAU) voted on a definition of planethood. Out of the 2412 scientists that were present at that convention, only 424 were a part of the vote. And the definition they voted on was determined by a seven-person council that examined possibilities and chose what they felt were the essentials. The end result was the demotion of Pluto to a dwarf planet.

Many people were not happy with this decision, and how can we blame them? Pluto was a childhood memory that was altered and changes to the status quo are met with resistance. And yet, the vote that resulted in Pluto's demotion was because of new objects found in the Kuiper Belt. Science was trying to adjust to changing parameters and respond to new findings, just as it should.

What Is the Problem?

So where is the problem? The problem is the fact that voter turnout for the definition at the IAU was less than 18%. The IAU is a small group to begin with and every member is critical to its operation. Votes on measures are important should be attended to as they have far-reaching consequences. Wait . . . this sounds a lot like a typical vote we see in election years. Not everyone comes to the polls to make their voices heard when they have a chance to change what they don't like. But instead inaction results and undesired consequences are all that is left.

Science and Politics

Should science mirror politics like this? Certainly we need a discussion about any topic in science, a forum to talk about the merits of certain findings and the lack of others. But if that discussion is left to only a handful of individuals, then are we showing a true level of agreement? We do need a group of experts to help us make decisions and represent us, but we also need a system that allows for errors and balances. It works great for our government because we the people have chosen our representatives to hopefully vote for our best interests.

Not so in the IAU. I don't mean that they are not looking to do the right thing but that they are not chosen by the people. Instead, the IAU is more of an invitational organization that votes members in based on their body of work and level of representation in the academic world. With nearly 12,000 total members, it is a select few who make it to this prestige. They then work on all matters astronomical, hoping to add refinement and knowledge to the scientific community. Normally, most would say they do a good job since the machine is working and no problems have arisen.

So what went wrong in 2006? Was it pressure to fix the planet debate? To leave behind a legacy for the future? Or was it something else? Certain factors have to be considered before any conclusions can be made. First, the vote was done on the last day of that IAU meeting, when many people had left. Second, the vote had been drafted by seven people but had undergone a last-minute revision to include that "clearing the neighborhood" qualification. Third, no revision or follow-up vote was ever (thus far) attempted. Seems similar to many controversial votes that have happened in US history.

I hope it is clear that I am not dissatisfied with the results of the 2006 vote, but with the process behind it. Is the IAU happy with the vote? it would seem so. No measures have successfully changed the definition and with only 18% of potential voters participating the rest haven't gotten significant changes enacted. Is this once again another parallel to politics? A large percentage of voters not taking part in a critical vote and instead of expressing displeasure and a need for change, a silence falls loudly? Let's hope that if change is going to come that it will be done with a better way of truly settling the score—but also allowing for the ever-changing face of science to be preserved.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2015 Leonard Kelley