Star Votes

Aside from science, my major intellectual interest is in psephology, the study of elections. It’s not often I get to combine the two. Science, as a general rule, is not a democracy. Questions are decided on facts, not opinions.

However, some matters can never be settled entirely on evidence. One such is the definition of objects such as planets, galaxies etc. The demotion of Pluto from planet to dwarf planet aroused such angst because there simply is no right and wrong answer. Facts are relevant – the fact that Pluto is a lot smaller than was thought when first discovered, the detection of several other objects of similar size – but there really is a lot of opinion in it too.

Pluto’s status was determined by the 400 astronomers who happened to be there on the last day of an international conference, and many of those not present were every bit as annoyed as the general public.

Personally I support the decision on Pluto – even before the vote I described it as a trumped up Kuiper belt object. But I also value process, so I appreciate the efforts being made by Professor Duncan Forbes of Swinburne University and a German colleague to engage a wider audience in the next such decision. The question is how we define a galaxy. We know the Milky Way and Andromeda are galaxies, that’s easy. Not too much of a problem to include the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. However, there is increasing evidence that Omega Centauri, previously considered the largest globular cluster circling the Milky Way should be considered a galaxy in its own right.

The pair have produced a paper considering the merits of five different ways of drawing a dividing line between galaxies and clusters, some of which have Omega Centauri on one side, some on the other. Rather than coming to a conclusion, he’s created a website to allow anyone who wants to to vote. However, unlike those silly polls run on media websites, he does ask that people make an informed decision, ticking a box saying they have read the paper.

The vote has no binding power, but astronomers may well choose to take it into account when they get round to settling the question. If nothing else it will encourage people to talk about astronomy more, which is no bad think in my opinion.

If you’re interested: go vote.

One quibble though – the ballot is just first past the post, no preferential voting allowed (although you can cast equal votes for several options). As an Australian Forbes should have known better.

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About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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8 Responses to Star Votes

  1. Putting up a vote that’s open to anybody is an interesting way to do things. I’m glad it’s not binding though and I really hope that nobody screws it up by encouraging large numbers of people to vote a specific way (even without reading the paper itself) – I can see somebody with a lot of Facebook/Twitter followers and a lack of sensibleness who encouraged a certain vote could easily sway something like that by a huge margin basically by the power of their personality.

    But then with something like this where there’s no single “right” answer I guess it’s generally done by a cult of personality anyway, except that it’s usually the scientists who “vote” (by using a specific definition in their writings, etc.) rather than anybody who wants to. I’d like to think that a bunch of scientists would make a more reasoned decision than a bunch of lay people, but I know too many scientists to actually really believe that’s true…

    I may be becoming cynical in my old age 😉

  2. Certainly something like this is vulnerable to a sort of stacking, but somehow it’s hard to imagine anyone being passionate enough about the issue to try to rig the vote. Although I guess some troll might do it for the Lulz, rather than because they support any particular position.

  3. How do you always manage to get your comments posted with a weird apparently random number as your “name”? Anyway yes, it was mostly the “for the lulz” crowd that I was thinking of, being that I have friends on 4chan 🙂

  4. The question is not how I manage to do it, but how can I stop it. I can’t get wordpress to log me in under my name – instead it insists on using this as my user name, which looks pretty silly.

  5. Do the things at http://en.support.wordpress.com/change-your-username/ work – seems that it should be a display name issue…

  6. Oh my god, it worked. Thanks. As I have noted before, there is no contradiction between being a science journalist and being totally incompetent with communications technology. None at all.

  7. Pingback: aMAYzing Australasian Science | Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats

  8. Pingback: Omega Centauri Come On Down | Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats

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