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Re: Most popular/common dinosaur misconceptions
At 2:35 PM -0500 8/18/06, Tim Williams wrote:
>>And if you want to look at the public messiness of redefinition of scientific
>>concepts, go read what's happening with astronomers' efforts to redefine what
>>is a planet.
>I like this analogy; but I would interpret it in a positive way. I think the
>IAU is (bravely) trying to correct the public misconception of what is and
>what is not a 'planet'. Unlike a star, there is currently no *scientific*
>definition of what a planet is. If Pluto is a planet, why not Charon, or
>Ceres, or UB313? The IAU has proposed a definition that is as scientific as
>possible, incorporating as much physical concepts as possible. Yes, the
>public will be confused as to what a planet is - but they already are
>confused. The scientific community is trying to provide guidance; but the
>public has to be willing to listen, and to be guided.
There are levels of problems with what the astronomers are doing, and from what
I've heard the proposed new nomenclature is in trouble.
One problem is -- from the public's view -- trying to change the "facts" of
science. This happens all the time in some areas of medicine, such as
nutritional recommendations (remember when margarine was good and butter bad?),
and it seriously erodes public confidence. The public asks "why should we pay
any attention if they can't make up their minds." This undermining of public
confidence is a serious problem, and scientists should be _very_ sure that the
change is important and accurate before they charge ahead with something as
highly visible and contentious.
Another is that the scientists themselves grew up with the old definitions, and
that many like them and want to keep them. Just think of the continuing effort
to keep the name "Brontosaurus" alive. For better or worse, it's a name that
has a life of its own in the popular culture,
There really are no hard and fast physical divisions separating planets,
comets, asteroids, and so on. Some asteroids turn out to have cometary
emissions, and the traditional cutoffs in size levels look more and more like
artifacts. There seems to be a continuum of objects out there, and the only
reason this doesn't show up in objects larger than Pluto and 2003 UB313 is that
we haven't found enough of the things. This traditionally has not been the case
in paleontology, but evolution tells us there _has_ to be a continuum, and now
we've found one in the realm of the Chinese dino-birds, as you wrote:
>Similarly, how can we seriously claim that _Microraptor_ and _Caudipteryx_ are
>dinosaurs but not birds, and that _Archaeopteryx_ and _Jeholornis_ are birds
>but not dinosaurs? Tom hit the nail right on the head.
And astronomers made one very foolish terminological choice -- they decided to
call the Pluto-like subset of small planets "Plutons," a term which has a quite
distinct geological meaning.
In some ways, I actually like the approach they took, although I consider the
"pluton" label a very serious mistake. But all the fuss and bother spent on the
change also reinforces the notion that there are hard and fast lines between
different groups of bodies, not merely variations across a continuum of size,
structure, and location. And I think that's a lesson in teaching about
evolution -- we tend to sort and classify almost instinctively, but we also
need to recognize evolution is a continuum. That's why I'm so fascinated by the
dinosaur-bird transition .
Jeff Hecht, science & technology writer
525 Auburn St., Auburndale, MA 02466 USA
v. 617-965-3834; fax 617-332-4760