Pluto, Science, Education, and Religion

You've probably heard that Pluto is no longer a planet. This news has left some people (like school kids) scratching their heads, but it also highlights one of the fundamental tenets of science that most of us are never explicitly taught:

Science deals with facts, which are unchanging, until science decides to change them.

I don't remember being taught this, and I have a feeling no one else was either. This omission makes sense in elementary school -- how could you explain to 4th graders that what they're being taught might not be correct? Of course, most of it is correct, but it opens the door for a kid to wonder why they need to study at all. If the facts are going to change eventually, why would you need to know them? (and are they even facts?)

Schools could deal with this issue by focusing their science classes more directly on the scientific method, so when a big change like this happens, people can understand why.

Science isn't a rigid, unbending structure that proclaims it's always right, and that's the crux of the historic battle between science and religion. People like things to be reliable and stay the same. Science is the truth as generated by the scientific method, and that definition allows it to change. Religion does not allow for change -- if it did, that means it's fallible, and who would believe in a fallible god?

The idea that a well accepted fact can be changed at any time makes people uncomfortable, so they naturally fall back onto something that doesn't change (religion). They point to this changeability as a flaw in the system, and by extension think it's unreliable and false. This type of thinking might make one feel better, but it doesn't do any good for progress and humanity as a whole.

On the contrary, this changeability is one of the most important facets of science. It allows the entire system to be self-correcting, pushing humanity forward, better than closing-your-eyes-and-wishing ever can. Teaching this to kids at the right time in their education would make them better people, better citizens, and might even prevent a few wars.

Was the incorrect spelling of "Pluto" in the title intentional? :)

I think the fundemental problem with science education in this country, is the presentation of science as just a bunch of facts. Science is not a set of anything. It's a process by which we can and do continue to learn about the world around us. The fickleness of whether Pluto is a planet or a "dwarf planet" highlights the strength of science in my opinion. It's good to know that astronomers are constantly trying to learn more and understand better the universe.

Was the incorrect spelling of "Pluto" in the title intentional? :)

Obviously not. Fixed :).

Seriously, you both need hobbies that get you away from the computer, something like mountain biking maybe :)

At least it's nice to see that none of us have changed a bit in the last 10 or so years.

So my hobby can't be writing brilliantly and posting it online? I've heard about what mountain biking can do to a person!
I like to think that I'm smarter now.

When do you plan to start that hobby?

Just wait until you see my next post.

ORIGIN via Latin from Plout?n, the Greek name of the god of the underworld.

After reading Brian's article, it's interesting to note Pluto's religious ancestry. Funny how we don't need laws to separate church and science. Now church and state however...

That's really interesting to think about. The planets used to be such a central part of religion, but then science came along and explained them. They are all named after gods (except for xena). Now in some uncertain times, religion has stepped in to provide stability for people. It's as if there's an inescapable gravity holding the two together.