August 28, 2006

It's not the dog, it's the owner

I'm sure you couldn't possibly have missed that last week the 9th rock from the sun had its status downgraded from "planet" to "dwarf planet." This has resulted in a tremendous kerfuffle amongst folks who feel Pluto was a planet for 76 years, and a planet it should remain.

I suspect that many of the Pluto-is-a-planet crowd is motivated more from having spent all that time memorizing the nine planets and their order than any tremendous commitment to the integrity of astronomical definitions.

For myself, I love this turn of events. We get to see firsthand that science is an organic, evolving process, constantly being adjusted with new discoveries. It highlights the value of inquiry, of investigative scientific study, and for boldly addressing the consequences of our discoveries in the best Galilean tradition. It's a commitment to what's so regardless of how we feel about what's so that characterizes scientific inquiry, and here in our lifetimes we get to see a significant correction made. We get to see responsibility, accuracy, and humility in the face of prior errors -- qualities we could all benefit from seeing more often in our lives.

So while I whole-heartedly approve of the adjustment, what has really annoyed the crap out of me is the constant references to Pluto, Mickey Mouse's dog, in the debate. Yes, both the planet and the cartoon have the same name. Thank you, I noticed. Other than the name, the planet and the dog have nothing to do with one another. I am baffled and disgusted at the orgy of Disney commentary that has been inspired by the planetary Pluto in the news.

Why does this Pluto business bug me so much? Because it's flat out lazy. Because it's a lack of commitment to the truth. Because in a world where we can no longer trust our government to report the truth, or even our reporters to report the truth, authenticity and integrity become the gold standard of behavior. Because a commitment to accuracy is what separates the wheat from the chaff in any debate, and what's so is that the heavenly body Pluto is not named after a cartoon dog. The more we intentionally or accidentally assert otherwise, the more we undermine ourselves by encouraging others to be equally careless.

Editorial cartoonists have been particularly guilty of the sin of sloth in this regard. Cartoonists who connect the planet with Disney’s dog fall into one of two categories: those who don'’t know that Pluto the ex-planet was named after Pluto, the Roman god of the underworld, and those who do.

For the former, they actually think that a planet was named after a cartoon dog. That's what they think. We have Earth, 7 Roman gods and goddesses -- and whoops -- a cartoon dog! Didn't even consider googling it though, did you? In this day and age, when you can find out anything within seconds with an internet connection, is there any excuse for not knowing some bit of information if you're going to be commenting on it?

And those latter cartoonists who do know that the icy dwarf planet is not named after a cartoon dog will still go for the cheap joke because it's easier that way; it's easier than making a joke about a roman god -- unless you're talking about Uranus, which pretty much writes itself.

So you have the ignorant and lazy cartoonists, or you have the mendacious and lazy cartoonists. In either event, there is a complete lack of commitment to the truth, a lack of concern with authenticity and accuracy.

And this is a problem, because I assert that in the coming years, all we’ll have left in a virtual world of computer generated digital entertainment is our own personal ethical barometer regarding what is so and what is not so. And because what is so is more important than what we think about it; because what is so exists outside of our petty psyches and whatever prejudices or inclinations we bring to the conversation.

Because there is only one what's so, and there are 8 billion what-people-thinks. That's why accuracy in fact is worth a little extra effort, worth going the extra, oh, 2 minutes for.


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