Back in September 2006, Gus Van Horn blogged about a first grade teacher who got her students to start a school-wide petition to protest the demotion of Pluto to “dwarf planet” status on the grounds of “sticking up for the little guy,” (or more accurately, the frigid, inanimate, and too small to be properly classified as a planet “little guy”). Van Horn wrote that he was appalled that children in science class were being taught that truth is a matter of majority vote and that feelings should guide each voter:
The recent clarification of what constitutes a planet, most famous for “demoting” Pluto, has been a near-disaster in many ways, and this is not childhood nostalgia speaking. For another, the unavoidable confusion caused by elementary school curriculum changes is causing some teachers to discuss, prematurely and, I strongly suspect, ineffectively, the way science is done. For example, one third grade teacher wants to use her now-obsolete solar system model to teach “how models are reconstructed and change.” But this blatant anthropomorphization of Pluto coupled with political indoctrination takes the cake:
Last month’s news that Pluto was being demoted to a lower-class dwarf planet in the solar system spurred the young ones at that private elementary school on Houston’s west side to take matters into their own hands and start a schoolwide petition to save it. “All of a sudden, these scientists have kicked out the little guy,” said Jana Shockley, whose pupils initiated the petition. “And these are first-graders; they’re the little guys. “They asked ‘What can we do to help Pluto out?’ ” Shockley said. “Just because it’s small doesn’t mean it’s not important.”
Great. Let’s teach children in science class that truth is a matter of majority vote and that feelings should guide each voter. And that’s far worse than the obvious left-wing political lesson they’re being taught, which they could later correct if their minds weren’t being undercut now.
Flash forward to the present and the teacher involved (or someone claiming to be her) apparently paid Van Horn’s blog a visit and posted a comment to complain about her coverage.
I am constistantly (sic) shocked at the uneducated rants of the educated. I teach 1st grade, I teach complex concepts on a level that is both appropiate (sic) and understandable to my audience, so when I happened upon your blog I was surprised. I will try to educate you on our Pluto campaign. The children were give a lesson on democracy and not science. The IAU which is comprised of over 2000 scientific members who met in Europe last August. Less than a majority attended and voted to demote the ninth planet. We decided to vote as well, a vote of popular opinion. Our tiny class of 14 stated their case for Pluto and we secured a majority agreement from fellow classmates. A great lesson on democracy and appropriate avenues for debate. I hope you now understand that this campaign was about processes and not just planets. We also teach five oceans in our class, and last year the class voted to include UB313 in our planetary line-up. Teaching children that it is acceptable to question and debate is a good thing.
Needless to say, Van Horn (a scientist by trade) was none too impressed with this 2nd attempt to democratize science.
The anthropomorphism in what the paper quoted you saying (Pluto is an inanimate object, not a “little guy” to whom school children really can or really should relate.) and your immediate ratcheting up to emotionalism (“uneducated rants”) upon encountering my comment indicates to me that perhaps I was even more on the mark than I suspected.
The appropriate time to teach about government — and thank God, so to speak, we do not live in a “democracy” — is civics class. Likewise, the time to teach science is in science class. A scientific congress is not a government and the government has no business attempting to dictate scientific consensus. You have not only confounded two disciplines (science and civics), but you have failed to teach a good lesson in either.
Science — and I mean the process of finding evidence and logically evaluating it — is supposed to teach us about the universe; the consistency of the concepts (e.g., “planet”) we form with reality is a fact not subject to majority vote. Government is the only social institution that can legally wield force. Studying this institution should make people aware that it is a blunt instrument suited and properly used ONLY to protect citizens from having their individual rights violated.
The scientific congress that “demoted” Pluto was not, furthermore, composed of elementary school students or even their teachers, but of scientists. Just to vote on this matter (and any review of scientific history would show that scientific debate really isn’t settled by a quick vote anyway) required something you should educate your students about or better yet, help them become better able to earn: qualifications.