False Discoveries and True Science

Last month the science sections of various media were ablaze with the “discovery” of a ninth planet in our Solar System. Or at least, that’s the impression one could get when skimming the titles. Some less reputable media I saw in print even had it without a doubt: “New planet discovered in solar system,” trumpeted The Sun.

To be clear, no such planet was discovered. A discovery, especially of a planet in our solar system, would entail photographs or data indicating its existence with a very high degree of certainty. There was no such solid proof. Instead, Professor Mike Brown and Dr. Konstantin Batygin, researchers at Caltech, have published “evidence” that there could be a very large object at the edge of the Solar System (5,000 times larger than Pluto).

Artist impression of Planet Nine (source: Wikimedia)

Artist impression of Planet Nine (source: Wikimedia)

The word “evidence” was used in a recent phys.org article about the possible celestial body, and it’s not wrong. But it was not a “discovery.” The two researchers published a mathematical article detailing mathematical modelling that could indicate the presence of such an object. Personally, I wouldn’t call it “evidence” either, but it seems like solid science—even if it turns out they were wrong. Some doubts have already been formulated by other scientists.

The principle of their calculations is that the elliptical orbits of six large objects in the Kuiper Belt (the outermost region of the Solar System, full of small and large icy debris) are all aligned at one end in a highly improbable way. Their orbits are also tilted (with respect to the plane of the other eight planets in our system) in the same way. After trying out several models, they found that a large object traveling a particular elliptical path 13–26,000 billion km from the sun, is a stable model to explain these observations… in a computer.

Projected orbit of the supposed planet. By nagualdesign (via Wikimedia)

Projected orbit of the supposed planet. By nagualdesign (via Wikimedia)

I don’t want to take away from the science these researchers have done. They seem to have done a decent work, and they are making predictions that can be tested and verified. It won’t be easy to find such a darker object on an orbit that may take 20,000 years to rotate around the Sun, but it is doable. Researchers will be searching for it with the Subaru telescope in Hawaii, and may use other means of direct detection as well. Furthermore, now that the paper is published, other astronomers will vet it, possibly finding errors or corroborating the calculations. That is exactly how science works and how it should work.

It is therefore a bit sad to see media running away with words like “discovery” and “evidence.” The articles would be just as interesting with “calculations show that” and “possible evidence,” and they would at the very least be correct and could avoid the possibility of disillusioning lay readers with unrealistic expectations.

All this reminds me of the early 2000s, where there was talk of a Planet X (there were still nine planets at that time) which didn’t materialise. (Nor did it show up for its first projected appearance in 1995, or subsequent predictions by mystics and conspiracy mongers who claimed it would arrive in 2012, 2013, 2014, or 2015.) Those calculations didn’t take a lot of confounding factors into account, including that the mass of said planet could be distributed around the Sun in the Kuiper Belt. On the other hand, we could have the same situation as when the discovery of Neptune was predicted in the 18th century, or as in 1930, with the prediction and discovery of Pluto—although it later turned out it was a lucky find and didn’t match the calculations. Only time and decent science will tell.

About Bruno Van de Casteele

Philosopher by education, IT'er by trade. Allround Armchair Skeptic, History Enthusiast, Father of Three. Twitter @brunovdc Personal website: www.puam.be
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20 Responses to False Discoveries and True Science

  1. I agree with most of your thesis, but I urge caution concerning the concept of “evidence”.
    I propose a definition along the line of:
    Evidence: information that might rationally affect one’s assessment of the relative merit of rival assertions (hypotheses it you like}.
    In this example the assertions of some of the less competent media plainly are nonsense, and what is more, I do not believe that the perpetrators even are competent to understand why they are nonsensical. And what is more, they don’t care because they are not equipped to care. I don’t believe that you even could explain to them why YOU care!
    However, the observations are evidence for *SOMETHING* being where we had had little or no suspicion of anything special being. To be sure that that hypothesis is correct, and if so, whether the “thing” is or is not a planet, we need more evidence (more relevant information) but the fact that we cannot yet give details does not mean that we have no evidence, just that we still have very little.

    • Well, I don’t disagree with you. The article wasn’t meant to be a philosophical treatise on the nature of evidence. In this case it’s mathematical evidence, and that is really fine evidence.

      I still wouldn’t use it. If you write “evidence”, it quickly becomes “discovery”. I would, as indicated, have used other words that are just as fine.

  2. MBDK says:

    “After trying out several models, they found that a large object traveling a particular elliptical path 13–26,000 km from the sun, is a stable model to explain these observations… in a computer.”

    Perhaps I am missing something, but I would think a large object 13-26,000 km from the Sun would be rather noticeable.

  3. Daniel Morrow says:

    The problem is related to our current culture of attracting readership in an increasingly competitive information society. If the headline were to be factual, “May have found evidence,” no one would bother to click over and see the more important financially beneficial details, for the website publisher.

    “Discovered” is used to describe the objective method by which they could find the next gas giant, regardless of it’s existence. Trimming of headlines into as few bytes as possible meant they discovered a new planet, instead of the path towards that ultimate discovery.

    I am interested in the probability of objects in the outer solar system, learning more about our own Sun, than the planet itself. If such a planet could exist out that far, then there’s potential for more. We only know a fraction, (a smaller than 50%), of our solar system, with much more to come.

  4. Vere Nekoninda says:

    Nice article, Bruno. I will only dispute one sentence in it, and that is not an important one. But since you covered the important things well, I’ll take on the trivial.

    There are already nine known planets in our solar system. Or ten, if you are an Eris partisan. We know vastly more about the ninth one than we did a year ago, or at any time in the past. The Pluto-Charon binary planet system is fascinating, and worthy of the study that will be directed toward it in the coming decade.

    Bruno says, “there were still nine planets at that time”. This indicates that he accepts one of the stupidest and most dishonest terminology-changing decisions made in a corrupt fashion by a fraction of an unqualified scientific organization during the last decade. It’s an astounding PR victory, that a tiny group of roughly 200 people, within an organization of several thousand members, that is not focused on planets, was able to change the definition of a planet in a rigged vote, and get other people to accept it. International Astronomical Union (IAU) never even allowed their own membership to vote on the new definition proposal. Their new definition doesn’t work in relation to the other eight planets, and has to be clarified in a footnote, whose logical foundation basically amounts to “because we say so”. In spite of all of this stupidity, both the press and many other organizations that should know better, use the new, flawed planetary definition. This whole definitional debacle is a good fit for Bruno’s excellent title, “False Discoveries and [versus] True Science”.

    Nine (or ten) known planets still exist. “Plan Nine from Outer Space” also exists. But that’s another story (movie, and video game).

    • Macky says:

      The terminology-changing decision re Pluto as outlined by Vere, and the apparently corrupt manner it was carried out creates confusion not only among scientists (those who may object to said decision) but also non-scientists such as myself who view anything that is sufficiently large to assume a near-spherical shape, and which orbits the Sun directly, should be called a Planet, plain and simple. Ceres also should be called a Planet. Same as Eris.

      Further confusion arises with the term “Plutoid” as a “dwarf” planet orbiting further out than Neptune. Sometimes Pluto is nearer the Sun than Neptune, so is Pluto not a plutoid during those times ?

    • The story about the classification is a bit more sturdy than you mention it (I have it from a friend who was in those meetings – including the vote!). But still, I wouldn’t have minded if Sedna, Ceres, … had become planets in their own right (even if they didn’t “clean out” their neighbourhoods).

      On the other hand, I’m sticking with the scientific definition, for clarity and communication. As a historical precedent, Ceres was initially also called a planet, and demoted later on. I understand the reason why people still prefer nine (or ten, or …) planets and again I wouldn’t mind if it were, but for the moment the scientific consensus is fine for me. It even works to help explain how science works (in a good way!)

      • Macky says:

        Understand and agree entirely.

        In a simpler world one could even perhaps count Pluto as a double or binary planet, rather than dwarf planet and moon, since Charon and Pluto orbit each other with their barycenter outside either body.

  5. Jaap says:

    I’m inclined to think (as a non-mathematician, I’m not able to check the calculations) that the math they did is OK, so there very probably is something that influences its surroundings gravitationally. The work done by Prof. Brown and Dr. Batygin will surely inspire the people that will do the actual discoveries. I hope to live and learn the explanation.

    • Jeffrey Patten says:

      Part of the problem is that we have only recently started discovering Kuiper belt objects. We know there are so many more out there that it is virtually impossible to determine what percentage of them our discoveries constitute. Consequently, the fact that a lot of the ones we’ve discovered so far have orbits consistent with gravitational attraction from a particular direction may have more to do with the small size of the sample with which we are working, versus the actual gravitational attraction of an actual object.

  6. Mudguts says:

    I think it may have been mentioned. The paper appears an an accessible pdf in archives..


  7. richard1941 says:

    The unknown object might NOT be a “planet”. True skepticism requires the consideration of other possibilities. For example, it might actually be an alien artifact. Since there is no evidence to the contrary, we must assume that is exactly what it is.

    Now I’m going to tune in to George Noory.

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