February 16, 2023 | David F. Coppedge

Planetary Science Evolves to Fit Failed Predictions

The scientists may consider correction a benefit,
but why were they so wrong for so long?


Scientists are among the few professionals who can keep their jobs when proved wrong. If engineers build a bridge that collapses, they can be held accountable or sued. Some scientists, though, just rearrange their ignorance to fit new data. This is common in the historical sciences, like evolution, where Darwinists believe in the Stretch and Squish Theory of Evolution (14 Dec 2004). When complex organisms are found earlier than thought, no one gets fired; they just tweak the rate of evolution.

In planetary science, one might think experts would be at risk when spacecraft explore worlds that look very different than expected. But no; sometimes they just let their silly-putty theories morph to fit the new findings, and carry on with their jobs as experts.

Four classes of planetary systems (University of Bern, 14 Feb 2023). How many decades have planetary scientists taught in textbooks and college courses that the Nebular Hypothesis explains the arrangement of planets in our solar system? The leading theory explained why we have rocky planets close to the sun, and gas giants farther out. Indeed, our solar system had to evolve this way because of the “frost line” that burned away volatiles close to the sun (leaving the rocks) and put them out into the outer orbits.

This arrangement was dramatically falsified when the Kepler spacecraft began tallying up exoplanets with very different arrangements. So many stars were found with “hot Jupiters” (gas giants close to their star), our system began to look unusual. Others had similar-sized planets arranged like peas in a pod. Indeed, this press release admits, “our planetary system is quite unique in this respect.”

In our solar system, everything seems to be in order: The smaller rocky planets, such as Venus, Earth or Mars, orbit relatively close to our star. The large gas and ice giants, such as Jupiter, Saturn or Neptune, on the other hand, move in wide orbits around the sun. In two studies published in the scientific journal Astronomy & Astrophysics, researchers from the Universities of Bern and Geneva and the National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) PlanetS show that our planetary system is quite unique in this respect. 

The experts were wrong. Any sign of regret for having taught false ideas for decades? Not at all. They just rearrange their ignorance and reclassify everything to give the impression of expertise and trustworthiness. Watch this:

“More than a decade ago, astronomers noticed, based on observations with the then groundbreaking Kepler telescope, that planets in other systems usually resemble their respective neighbours in size and mass – like peas in a pod,” says study lead author Lokesh Mishra, researcher at the University of Bern and Geneva, as well as the NCCR PlanetS. But for a long time it was unclear whether this finding was due to limitations of observational methods. “It was not possible to determine whether the planets in any individual system were similar enough to fall into the class of the ‘peas in a pod’ systems, or whether they were rather different – just like in our solar system,” says Mishra.

Therefore, the researcher developed a framework to determine the differences and similarities between planets of the same systems. And in doing so, he discovered that there are not two, but four such system architectures.

Dr Mishra “discovered” not that he was wrong, but that there’s an exciting new way to account for the data: concoct not just one system architecture, but four of them! It’s like having predicted that planets are always arranged in red, green, blue and violet (RGBV) because of the Rainbow Law of Planetary Architectures (a made-up law for the sake of illustration), but then finding actual planets in VBRG order, or GRBV order, or in BGVR order. If Dr Expert then brags that we now have four laws instead of one, is he to be applauded?

We [who’s ‘we,’ paleface?] call these four classes ‘similar’, ‘ordered’, ‘anti-ordered’ and ‘mixed’,” says Mishra. Planetary systems in which the masses of neighbouring planets are similar to each other, have similar architecture. Ordered planetary systems are those, in which the mass of the planets tends to increase with distance from the star – just as in our solar system. If, on the other hand, the mass of the planets roughly decreases with distance from the star, researchers speak of an anti-ordered architecture of the system. And mixed architectures occur, when the planetary masses in a system vary greatly from planet to planet.

Look how flexible this new classification scheme is. It can account for any arrangement!

Thinking people want accountability. Why should we trust their expertise when they were so wrong for decades? Mishra punts any theoretical explanations for these arrangements into futureware, and boasts about how the new scheme opens up opportunities for more storytelling. “Now, for the first time, we have a tool to study planetary systems as a whole and compare them with other systems.” He gets to keep his job.

Planets of our solar system to scale.

Solar System formed from “poorly mixed cake batter,” isotope research shows (Carnegie Science, 26 Jan 2023). The experts were wrong about how the Earth got its volatile elements (elements with a low enough boiling point that should have vaporized in the presumed dust disk orbiting the sun before planets formed). These Carnegie guys challenge a leading theory, which is commendable. But they were part of the expert class that concocted the wrong theory to begin with.

For years, Carnegie Earth and planetary scientists have worked to reveal the origins of Earth’s volatile elements. Some of these elements may have been transported here all the way from the outer Solar System on the backs of carbonaceous chondrites. However, since the pattern of pre-solar potassium isotopes found in non-carbonaceous chondrites matched that seen on Earth, these meteorites are the probable source of our planet’s potassium.

“It is only recently that scientists challenged a once long-held belief that the conditions in the solar nebula that birthed our Sun were hot enough to burn off all volatile elements,” Shahar added. “This research provides fresh evidence that volatiles could survive the Sun’s formation.”

Why don’t they admit they participated in the long-held belief? Why don’t they apologize personally? They pretend as if somebody else had the long-held belief, and now, like white knights, they have arrived to set things straight. Never fear, gullible public: they are here to guide you to enlightened knowledge, so don’t even think of sending them packing. They have work to do.

More research is needed to apply this new knowledge to our models of planet formation and see if it adjusts any long-held beliefs about how Earth and its neighbors came into being.

Once again, they do a quick lateral pass of the hot potato to unspecified dupes who held “long-held beliefs” that were wrong. Oh, but you can trust the speakers now. They have new knowledge. They will tell you how Earth and its neighbors came into being.

Puzzling planetary rings, and more — this week’s best science graphics (Nature News, 15 Feb 2023). This update on the unexpected ring around minor planet Quaoar (9 Feb 2023) contains an infographic showing the odd nature of its ring discovered to be far outside the Roche limit.

This beautiful graphic explains and compares planetary rings: disks containing small chunks of ice and other materials that orbit a larger object. Rings tend to be found within a critical distance of their host known as the Roche limit — the distance at which the gravitational field tends to prevent material in orbit from aggregating into moons. Most of the rings around the giant planets (Saturn, Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune) are within this limit, and the rings of Chariklo and Haumea (objects in the outer Solar System) are close to the limit.

But a paper in Nature now reports the discovery of a ring that doesn’t follow this rule. The ring around Quaoar, another object in the outer Solar System, lies far outside the Roche limit, posing a challenge for standard models of planetary rings.

Notice the sleight of hand in the way the challenge is worded. It is a challenge to the models, not to the experts! This eliminates accountability to the human beings who made up the models. Don’t they deserve to be called to account for being wrong? Doesn’t the public have a right to know whose models have been challenged? If the models were wrong, shouldn’t new experts be hired to come up with new models, even if non-standard? Would you give the same job in industry to someone whose bridge collapsed, and invite him to make another bridge?

We want to be charitable to honest, fallible scientists. We realize they can’t know everything a new spacecraft will discover. It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future, quipped Yogi Berra. How were they supposed to know that Quaoar had an anomalous ring? How were they to know that other planetary architectures existed before the Kepler spacecraft took a look? It’s a fair objection to our call for accountability.

But they have been so wrong about so many things! Planetary science has been a mess. Look at 22 years of articles right here on CEH. They were wrong about Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter and its moons, Saturn and its moons, Uranus and its rings and moons (especially Miranda), Neptune and its rings and moons (especially Triton), and most recently and spectacular, flabbergasted at the images of Pluto and Charon. I personally could share about two hours of Powerpoint slides with quotes about expectations in the solar system and how surprised the experts were when spacecraft took a look. These experts bend physics to believe that Io and Enceladus have been erupting for 4.5 billion years, and that thin, ephemeral rings at Saturn and Jupiter (and Quaoar now) also last that long. They keep finding liquid oceans under the ice crusts of tiny moons, most recently Mimas.

Here’s what we have a right to see: some humility, some apologies, and some transparency about assumptions. Planetary scientists are very smart and well educated in physics and math; that’s great. I know some of them and worked alongside some of the best; as people, many of them are very nice and pleasant to be around. (The unsung heroes of the space age are the engineers who build the craft and the navigators who fly them; those experts employ intelligent design and rest on the shoulders of God-fearing giants like Kepler and Newton.) But for once, planetary science experts, stop telling the press offices “we now know” and “we understand” and “all scientists agree.” Show some humility.

State your expectations up front, and when reality doesn’t fit, be honest; say you were wrong. Don’t sweep falsification under the rug. Stop saying in passive voice, “More research needs to be done” or “mistakes were made.” Stop dodging blame by cheerfully saying things like “This opens up exciting opportunities.” Don’t pass the hot potato to unknown bearers of “long-held beliefs.” If you held those wrong beliefs, fess up.

And please be more transparent about your worldview. Tell the public if you are a materialist, atheist and evolutionist. Maybe a majority are these days in academia, but state your worldview assumptions anyway; they could be impacting the way you look at the world and think about origins. Do you think reality is a consequence of amoral laws and chance with no design or purpose? Do you believe your thinking is done with a material brain that resulted from a long series of accidents?

And when the data don’t fit, say so. If you want to generate more public confidence in science, these suggestions may go a long way. Another huge step toward trust would be to stop marginalizing and censoring those who believe in design and purpose.

For those of you in the press offices, stop working to make the experts look good. Use some critical thinking. Don’t swallow everything your profs say. Ask questions, like “How do you know that?” Get outside opinions. Avoid thinking that the consensus is right. Tell the truth.

Unfortunately, this may get you fired. Good luck.



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