Contra Pluto: A Microcosm of Progress

In 2006, the International Astronomical Union announced they had made an error. Pluto was not, in fact, a planet, as we had been taught to believe, but a dwarf planet. Pluto was much too small to be considered a planet, and to include Pluto as one of the planets in our solar system, we must also then acknowledge dwarf planets such as Eris and Ceres.

Upon learning this information, I thought to myself, “Oh. It seems as if I was taught false information that has now been revealed to be a clerical error. I shall correct this way of thinking moving forward.” I was taught that Pluto was a planet, but I could recognize that what I had been taught had been wrong. I assumed the rest of the world shared my mindset. Boy was I naive.

For some reason, the decision to “demote” Pluto from its planetary status caused an uproar. Perhaps it is in our nature to root for an underdog. Perhaps people deemed it unjust for those bigwigs at the IAU to allow Pluto membership to an exclusive club only to strip Pluto of its inalienable (ha) rights by denying its previously-held status simply for being too small.

I can assure these people that Pluto does not care. For one thing, Pluto, unlike human beings, is not capable of being affected by any form of oppression. By claiming that Pluto is “no longer” a planet, the IAU is not actually oppressing Pluto. Pluto doesn’t have feelings. The IAU was not scorning Pluto. The IAU was not even deeming Pluto unworthy.

To claim that Pluto is not a planet is to claim that a fox is not a feline. Yes, foxes and cats are both mammals, and they may even look similar, but it would not hurt a fox’s feelings if you told one it could not be a cat. I cannot be a gnome living in a toadstool house, but this is simply a fact I must be willing to accept.

We are all familiar with the story of the ugly duckling. A bird grows up among ducks, feeling out of place because it does not look like ducks ought. Then, people realized that this was because said bird was not a duck at all, but a swan. Did the swan attempt to hold onto its previously-held identity simply because it had led its whole life believing it was so? No, it accepted its swanhood, as Pluto would accept its dwarf-planetdom were Pluto even sentient to begin with, which to be absolutely clear, it very much is not. In this widely-known parable, its reclassification proved both enlightening and convenient.

The difference between the swan and Pluto is that being considered a swan is considered a promotion, not a demotion. But, the truth of the matter is, neither of these classifications is good or bad. They are simply neutral. Our society clings to arbitrary hierarchies to such an absurd degree that claiming an object is too small to be classified as one thing, and is instead, another, must be considered an insult to that cold (literally), unfeeling (literally) celestial body.

But, I believe there to be another, even more sinister reason for our collective rallying for Pluto: as much as some people will claim to want progress, very few people are truly open to change. We were taught that Pluto was a planet as children. We believed this, as children. We believed this as adults. And suddenly we are to believe something new altogether? Well, not on my watch.

It is this kind of stubbornness that concerns me, for two reasons: on the basis of scientific progress, and on the basis of social progress. For as much as people clamor outside the Apple store on the day of a new iPhone’s release, people are fundamentally unwilling to recognize progress. 

When Galileo Galilei proposed a heliocentric model of our solar system, the Catholic Church had him tried for heresy and sentenced him to house arrest. When Charles Darwin proposed his theory of evolution, there was an uproar. In fact, to this day, many still doubt his theory, though it is by far the soundest hypothesis we have. This doubt is not because they are unaware of the widely-held legitimacy of Darwin’s theory of evolution, but because they do not wish for a theory to contradict their (Christian) beliefs.

What differs science from religion is the allowance for the theoretical. A theory is a hypothesis that is capable of being disproved. Any religion is merely a hypothesis, or series of hypotheses, that cannot be disproved. Many people will conflate religious belief with faith, and it is not difficult to understand why. Some religions, such as Christianity, hinge on faith. To doubt is to practice their religion poorly. And, when we live in a culture so steeped in Christianity that people grow genuinely outraged over the so-called “War on Christmas,” it is not difficult to understand why so many view progress through a religious lens. Suddenly, to doubt the status of Pluto is to doubt the status of God Himself.

Therefore, Pluto is not simply Pluto. The definition of Pluto is a stand-in for the definition of anything you were once taught to believe that has since been redefined. Definitions change constantly. Facts are not as fixed as we have been taught to believe, not because there is no objective truth (perhaps there is), but because we have no objective truth.

Among the plethora of falsehoods professional Reddit Boy Ben Shapiro espouses that are easily disprovable is the more subjective claim: “Facts don’t care about your feelings.” It has become something of a motto for him. And, though pithy and intuitive it may seem, it is an inherently flawed statement on a number of levels. For one, he has no right to claim this when it is evident that his entire political platform is rooted in denying science and critical thinking. But regardless of to whom that phrase is being attributed, it would still be wrong. For, simply put, facts do care about your feelings.

We can only prove something to be fact to the best of our ability due to our perception of the world, which we have no way of knowing is accurate or objective. Our senses determine every new piece of information we come across. We cannot prove there exists an absolute truth, for whatever we define as truth exists in the context of our definition of reality. So, if everyone in the world was in agreement about something, that would make it fact, but would it make it true?

Everyone agreed that Pluto was a planet. We had never been taught otherwise. But, when the news was announced that Pluto was, in fact, a dwarf planet, I immediately understood that this was the more correct assessment. As a kid who loved medieval fantasy and astronomy (and had lots of friends), I had named my toy swords Eris and Ceres. I was already familiar with the distinction between a planet and a dwarf planet. Perhaps my previous familiarity with the concept made it easier to accept.

As a child, I was homophobic. I was homophobic because I was taught to be, and I was never taught otherwise. I did not even consider the possibility that I could be gay, because I knew myself to be “normal.” And yet, no child is born homophobic. Rather, they are taught that homosexuality is an aberration, distinct and foreign. I could not possibly know anyone who was gay. I had a normal childhood, free of the traumas of having to encounter a homosexual in the wild.

My brother is from a different generation. By the time he was born, I was old enough to help raise him. Earlier this year, I informed him of the 2015 SCOTUS decision that changed America. To me, it feels deeply recent. I remembered waking up, opening my phone and reading the headline. To him, he was shocked that gay marriage had ever been prohibited in the first place.

My brother is being raised in a society that is no longer imbued with homophobia, a more tolerant society, both legally and socially. He does not consider the LGBT community abnormal. But here’s a secret: as much as the gay rights movement has advanced in the past decade, our society is still homophobic. Civil rights movements are never about changing hearts and minds, but about changing legislation. Because to change hearts and minds on a mass scale is near-impossible. The only thing we can do for the advancement of the marginalized is push to make everyone equal under the law, and hope the following generation is less willing to question this. 

Perhaps it was my relative youth that allowed me to be so amenable to the Pluto revision, as I had not yet internalized this “fact” as fact, but merely as something I had been taught. It was not unknown as a child to learn something one day and then edit my opinion of it the next. It was not unheard of to receive false information, from adults and fellow children alike. I was acutely aware of how little I knew, not only relative to the authority figures in my life, but in general.

You see, we as a species have this pretty major flaw: We would rather think that we know things than know that we do not. We treat science as fact when the entire process of science has always been based on guesswork, a shot in the dark until we land on something that feels plausible, but must be recognized as always willing to be disproved. We are quite sure that we live in a heliocentric solar system, as to live in a geocentric solar system simply does not abide by the laws of gravity. We are less certain about the so-called “laws” of gravity.

The only thing we know to be certain is the existence of existence itself. Perhaps not this existence—indeed, this existence as we define it is, in fact, quite likely to be all a farce. But, the fact that I am writing this proves that it exists within our definition of existence. Things are only as we define them to be. Definitions change as we continue to disprove theories and adjust the facts as we become exposed to more facts. But the ways in which we define things matter very little; no, it is admitting that precedent is not a factor in truth, that our forefathers knew nothing, as we, too, know nothing, that is so difficult for so many to admit.

As we know it, Pluto is not a planet, for Pluto does not fit within our parameters of planethood. To advocate to reinstate its planetary status on its behalf would be folly, for you would be defending the feelings of a freezing hunk of rock on the other end of the solar system. Pluto is no longer defined as a planet, but this could not matter less to the dwarf planet Pluto, for perhaps, Pluto exists despite our perception of it.