A recent decision (already contested, however) to downgrade Pluto to ‘dwarf planet’ status has once again raised an issue almost as old as the classification system in which the former planet was comprised. The decision was taken by majority vote at the most recent assembly of the International Astronomical Union (IAU), a manner of proceeding which many scientists, and among them many astronomers, have hastened to describe as unusual, if not entirely alien to the correct procedures of science. “Science is not democratic”, says Franco Pacini, former president of the IAU, because advances in science are not achieved through discussion followed by a vote.
Of course, nature could not care less what we think about her; and not only because what we fear as the worst of misfortunes – a fatal disease – is welcomed by the pathogenic agent as the best of opportunities, but also because nature does not bend to our endeavour to manipulate her. On this view, nature is certainly not democratic, in the sense that it takes absolutely no account of the will of the majority, especially if this is a majority consisting of a minority of the living beings (the human species) that belong to nature. In short, Pluto is entirely indifferent as to how we classify it.
May we therefore conclude that science cannot be democratic when it seeks to describe nature? Is it for this reason that science must not be democratic? This obviously raises a false parallel. If science is what we think about nature – a statement, I believe, difficult to dispute, unless one wishes to argue that our thought processes have a performative capacity on natural phenomena which they certainly do not possess – then there is no need to posit a correspondence between how we interpret the workings of nature and the workings of nature itself.
Science may consequently be also democratic if this attribution is understood as deciding by majority vote what should be thought about nature. But it may also be undemocratic if it is decided to assume an oligarchic or monarchical or, why not, dictatorial decision-making procedure.
What matters is that science should proceed by taking decisions, sometimes consensually, on other occasions after prolonged and even violent conflicts. Thus science uses a typically human form of action so that it can function, but this has nothing to do with how nature works. The Pluto affair highlights that a widespread and deep-rooted belief prevents recognition that science is a purely human activity, with all the implications, for good or evil. Realizing this fact can only be to the benefit of science and to how its role is interpreted in the wider social context.