Features

Fiction versus fact

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This story appeared as an illustrative feature. To enjoy it in its full glory, please visit our pdf version of this issue. This story appears on pages 13 to 15.

When you think of a velociraptor, what image comes to mind? You're probably envisioning a powerful, man-sized reptilian creature, built like a small tyrannosaur. This is the image of the velociraptor you have seen your entire life, in movies, television and books-- and it is completely wrong.

Velociraptor mongoliensis was about the size of a dog, its stiff tail taking up half of its body length. It most likely used its sickle-like talons to pin down small prey in the sands of the Mongolian desert. The velociraptor's appearance was likely quite striking, as it was coated in downy feathers, with larger true feathers on its arms. These feathers had only been a hypothesis (albeit a widely accepted one) until quill nubs were found on a well-preserved fossil in 2007, proving their existence.

This small, avian desert-dweller is radically different from what most people think of when they picture a velociraptor. Why is that? It would be easy to place all of the blame solely on Jurassic Park for introducing these misconceptions, but that does not explain why we have refused to correct the movie's mistakes decades after its release.

Despite no grounding in scientific fact, the fictitious version of the velociraptor has thrived in the media. Even in books and television meant for children and intended to be educational, this dinosaur is continually presented as something it was not. Popular culture has a tendency to propagate misconceptions, resulting in many urban legends as viewers struggle to parse fact from fiction.

Due in part to this common urban legend phenomenon, 41 per cent of American adults believe that humans and dinosaurs coexisted, according to the California Academy of Sciences. Dinosaurs are the victims of many misconceptions, but they are not the only ones. Media often bend or completely disregard the properties of objects in space, blurring the lines of where imagination and scientific fact lie. For example, when depicting the removal of an astronaut's helmet in the vacuum of space, sometimes the astronaut's head explodes and sometimes the astronaut only suffocates. Evolution is also a topic that suffers from inaccurate representation in media, leading to false notions-- the idea that humans evolved from monkeys. In reality, humans and monkeys evolved from a shared ancestor and each adapted to fill a certain niche.

The lack of respect and attention paid to science in popular culture is upsetting, yet it is far from being the only thing responsible for the velociraptor's plight. Media tend to only survive through giving people what they want. The art we consume is a reflection of ourselves, and it is clear that this disregard of science and refusal to let go of misconceptions is a fairly widespread attitude.

A recent example of this general unwillingness to accept change was the reaction to Pluto's reclassification. When the International Astronomical Union redefined what it means to be a planet in 2006, Pluto only met the criteria to be considered a dwarf planet. Due to its small size and location within the Kuiper belt, it has not cleared the path of its orbit, making it one of the five dwarf planets.

Public reaction to Pluto's change was unprecedented. The decision to reclassify Pluto was viewed by the public as an attempt by scientists to 'take Pluto away.' People wrote songs in Pluto's honour and signed numerous petitions to try to reinstate it as a planet. Most people did not even know why it was being reclassified, and most people did not care. All that mattered was that Pluto was no longer what they thought it was.

But why did that matter?

Before Pluto's news broke, the amount an average person thought about Pluto was likely not significant. The former planet was rarely discussed, and was commonly ignored by popular culture and media. Yet people refused to accept that what they once thought was fact had changed. This is because we are continually fed these baseless scientific misconceptions, though if media did show established scientific facts, we would likely reject the true representation anyway. We deny even the smallest of changes, clinging to an unchanging, immutable fantasy world.

If we as a society are unable to let go of these small misconceptions, how will we ever let go of the big ones? There have been many false claims throughout history that used to be supported by science-- women being inferior to men, certain races being superior to others and homosexuality being unnatural.

All of these claims have been invalidated hundreds of times, yet the attitudes associated with them continue to plague our culture. Sexism, racism and homophobia are still rampant around the world, and there seems to be no end to these problems in sight. They permeate our society, normalizing the oppression and violence that happens all around us.

Our world would be a better place to live if we all rejected these attitudes, for all they do is hold humanity back. Yet we cling to them as if our existence depended on their survival, as if our world would collapse around us if they were removed.

We will never be able to truly advance as a species if we cannot let go of these dated ideas. Until we can abandon the little lies, we won't be able to leave behind the big ones.

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Comments

Disparaging Pluto huggers is what is small. The IAU\'s Executive Committee ramrodded the resolution that was crafted to exclude Pluto from the family of classical planets. One IAU member stated publicly that he was threatened with the destruction of his career were he to vote to keep Pluto a planet. Many planetary scientists signed a formal petition protesting the vote, a vote without proper vetting or notice, held on the last day of the 2006 IAU General Assembly in Prague. I suggest you hear from both sides of an issue before you disparage one side in the future if you want people to think you have one iota of journalistic integrity, something that does not seem to be of much concern to you, given the strident nature of your rant. Earth has 19,500 asteroids, thus should not be a planet, either, according to the absurd definition of 2006. Alan Boyle wrote a book called \"The Case for Pluto.\" I suggest you read it.

Unfortunately, Sean Willett picked the wrong example by using opposition to the \"reclassificaiion\" of Pluto as a sign of public resistance to change and belief in wrong information. The 2006 IAU decision was a political action, not a scientific one. It was done by only four percent of the IAU, most of whom are not planetary scientists, in violation of the IAU\'s own bylaws, and it was opposed in a formal petition by hundreds of professional astronomers led by Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of NASA\'s New Horizons mission to Pluto.

The notion that an object must \"clear its orbit\" to be a planet represents one of two competing and equally scientific legitimate views of the definition of planet. Specifically, it represents the interpretation of dynamicists, who focus on the effect celestial objects have on other objects rather than on the individual celestial objects themselves. To dynamicists, the important issue is where a celestial object is located. If it is located in a belt of objects, even if none of those objects are spherical or anywhere near its size, the object in question cannot be a planet.

In contrast, geophysicists focus on the individual celestial items and therefore, use a broader definition to determine what is a planet. If an object orbits a star and is large enough and massive enough to be rounded by its own gravity--a state known as hydrostatic equilibrium--it is a planet, regardless of whether it dominates its orbit. In other words, the object\'s status is determined by what rather than where it is.

Objects in hydrostatic equilibrium are significantly different than those not in hydrostatic equilibrium. The former are worlds with geology and weather. Many of them are differentiated into core, mantle, and crust just like Earth is. Even the smallest ones have processes and compositions similar to larger planets. The latter are rocks or iceballs shaped only by chemical bonds, not layered or geologically complex. To blur these two classes of objects is just as much bad science as is portraying humans co-existing with dinosaurs.

Ironically, the person who first coined the term \"dwarf planet\" is Dr. Stern. However, he intended for it to represent a new class of planets in addition to terrestrials and jovians, small planets large enough to be in hydrostatic equilibrium but not large enough to gravitationally dominate their orbits. He never intended for dwarf planets to not be considered planets at all. The IAU essentially misused his term. Classifying dwarf planets as a subclass of planets is consistent with other uses of the term \"dwarf\" in astronomy, where dwarf stars are still stars, and dwarf galaxies are still galaxies.

By focusing so completely on where an object is to the exclusion of what it is, the IAU definition could result in the absurdity of the same object being called a planet in one location and not a planet in another. If Earth were in Pluto\'s orbit, it would not \"clear that orbit\" either. Therefore, the IAU definition is inherently biased against planets further from their parent stars, which have larger orbits to \"clear.\"

Willett demeans and insults those who reject the IAU definition by painting us with a broad brush and saying most of us don\'t even know why Pluto was \"reclassified.\" This completely ignores the fact that the IAU definition was rejected by hundreds of professional astronomers with PhDs and thousands of amateur astronomers who do understand the issues at stake and have spent a lot of time studying astronomy.

Ultimately, what is and isn\'t science cannot be imposed by decree or fiat. The media has done a major public disservice by portraying the Pluto controversy as a done deal when that is not the case. Referring to Pluto as a planet is not a \"false\" claim or \"fiction.\" It is based on an alternative, equally scientific way of understanding the solar system. It is disappointing that Willett views acceptance of a decree from \"on high\" by a tiny number of people as the equivalent of scientific knowledge. It is not.