What’s in a Name?

There have been many, many stories about the demotion of Pluto, but I was interested in this story because it;s about a counter-vote by elementary school students to keep Pluto a planet. Which is very sweet, but it’s hard to tell from the story if the students really understood that this wasn’t just a decision about Pluto, with the vote slogans being things like “Pluto makes the world go round!” and “Boo Pluto!”. The vote was not pro- or anti-Pluto. Pluto is still there, after all.
The question, after all, is what we mean when we say the word “planet”. Less well covered than the implications to Pluto were the implications to other celestial bodies to the various definitions proposed. For those students who wanted Pluto to remain a planet, which of those definiteion did they then prefer? Or, as it seems from the article, was that not really the point of the “teachable moment”? I think it’s great to tie in actual modern science with a hook that students can get interested in. But I question whether asking students to vote on a topic that they probably don’t understand helps support the sciences. I fear they were left with an image of scientists as cold-hearted people who voted poor little Pluto out of the club. Too bad the teachable moment couldn’t be that sometimes science has to rule against its preferences, if that is what the data you are faced with requires.

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