4. Why do Astronomers Object?
In this section and the next, I’ll explain some of the reasons why astronomers are so strongly opposed to the star naming business.
4.1. Multiple registers
As I explained in Section 1, the names assigned by the star naming companies are not, and never will be, recognised by astronomers. To read the IAU’s statement on the subject, see www.iau.org/IAU/FAQ/starnames.html . Obviously, they have no scientific value whatsoever; at least some of the companies are honest enough to admit this.
Nor do their “registers” or “catalogues” have any kind of “official” status. This is also obvious, from the fact that a dozen or more competing companies are each producing their own “registers”; the names assigned by each company are recorded only in that company’s “register”, and nowhere else.
Nor is there any guarantee that the name bought by any given customer will be uniquely allocated. Each company promises that your chosen name will be unique within its own “register”, i.e. that it will never allocate more than one name to the same star – but there’s nothing to prevent two or more different companies applying different names to the same star! In fact, this is not only possible, but likely; suppose that two companies each use the same astronomical catalogue – say the Guide Star Catalogue – as their source, and both simply work through it in numerical order…
4.2. Why pay for what you can do for free?
A few years ago, I wrote to the UK’s Department of Trade and Industry about the star naming business; in fact, I was leading a campaign to have the trade banned in my country. Not surprisingly, I was told that nothing can be done about it, as the companies are not actually doing anything illegal.
The letter which I received from a gentleman at the DTI included the following statement:
“Anyone can name a star anything they like. For example, it has occasionally ( such as in wartime ) been customary for soon-to-be-parted lovers to name ‘their own’ star, and to feel a link when viewing the star from separate parts of the Earth. The question is whether such a name means anything beyond the needs of the christeners, or needs to go through a process.”
Of course, this statement is true! There is no reason at all why a pair of lovers can’t choose, between themselves, to regard a particular star as “their star”, and associate it with each other in their own minds. But the point is - they don’t need to pay anyone for the right to do so!
A name which is “bought” from a star naming company has exactly the same validity and status as that assigned by the lovers in the above example – in other words, none whatsoever. It has some special meaning to the two people concerned, but means nothing to anyone else. So what’s the point of paying for something that you can do yourself for free?
Furthermore, people who make such a “private” association would naturally choose a bright and prominent star, which they can see simply by looking up on any clear night. ( The fact that such a star already has a traditional name dating back centuries is irrelevant; the fact that two individuals choose to rename it in their own minds is of no consequence to astronomers or anyone else. ) But in return for paying someone a fee of $50 or more, you get your chosen name assigned to an obscure star which can’t be seen without a telescope – which is pretty useless for the lovers’ purpose!
It can of course be argued that a commercially assigned name does have a certain degree of meaning, in that it is recorded in a register, and therefore recognised, to some extent, by the thousands of other people whose names are similarly recorded. Whether this is worth the fee, I leave to the reader to decide.
4.3. Misleading advertising
While the practice of naming stars for cash is not itself illegal, some of the companies involved use deliberately misleading advertising, which at least borders on trades descriptions violations. Their advertising is carefully worded, so as to give the impression, without actually saying so, that their “registers” are in some way “official”, and have some kind of status or validity, which they don’t.
I must point out at this point – as I don’t want to hear from their lawyers! – that the above description does not apply to the original and biggest star naming company, the International Star Registry. On its web site, ISR now clearly acknowledges that its register is not recognised by the scientific community, that the names it assigns will be recorded only in its register and the company’s records, and that naming a star is “a symbolic gesture, and not a scientific venture”.
Some of its competitors, however, are much less honest. Some are simply “economical with the truth”; they don’t explicitly claim that their names have any official status, but carefully avoid admitting that they don’t. Others do acknowledge the truth, but bury it towards the bottom of a FAQ page, in the hope that customers will go ahead with their purchase, without ever reading it.
But a few of the companies – which I’ll refrain from naming – are guilty of blatant dishonesty and deception. One uses a name which is clearly designed to give the false impression that it’s some kind of government agency. Another claims on its web site that its catalogue was “created by the prestigious Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory”, which is most certainly not true! ( It may be that this company assigns its names to stars which are listed in the SAO Catalogue, but that is hardly the same thing; their claim is clearly and deliberately deceptive. )
One British-based company, a couple of years ago, used in its advertising the name of Sir Patrick Moore, Britain’s foremost astronomy populariser – presumably to fool the public into thinking that Sir Patrick was endorsing their service. Sir Patrick is, in fact, vehemently opposed to the star naming business, so it was obvious that the company was using his name without his permission. It turned out that Sir Patrick wasn’t even aware of this; upon being informed of it ( by me! ), he immediately asked the company to remove any mention of his name, and threatened legal action unless they complied.
4.4. Exploitation of the bereaved
In his letter to me, the aforementioned gentleman from the DTI stated:
“Most people will regard this as a novelty purchase. No doubt it’s the thought that counts.”
I can’t agree with this. Certainly, when someone buys a star name as a birthday present for his wife or girlfriend, it’s quite possible that he regards it purely as a novelty, whether or not he is aware of astronomers’ disapproval. But the same can’t be said of people who buy names as memorials for deceased members of their families! I find it impossible to believe that anyone would pay good money for a “memorial” to a deceased loved one – and especially so, as has often been done, for a dead child – if they were aware that their purchase was nothing but a worthless novelty item. Clearly, people do so, because they have been led to believe that they are establishing a genuine and everlasting memorial, with some kind of official status.
This view is borne out by the experiences of many astronomers, whose observatories have been visited by people who wish to be shown the star which they genuinely believe to have been named in honour of their lost relative. This aspect of the business presents a very real practical and moral problem to astronomers; see Section 5.
Many star naming companies actively encourage and promote the naming of stars as memorials. In my opinion, this amounts to nothing more or less than callous and cynical exploitation of the grief of the bereaved. It may not be illegal, but I definitely consider it immoral.
4.5. TV has a lot to answer for!
A few years ago, the star naming business received a huge publicity boost in the UK, in a manner which was particularly annoying to astronomers. The country’s most popular TV soap opera, Coronation Street, had a storyline in which a character bought a star name for his girlfriend – thereby bringing the idea to the attention of millions of people, many of whom may not have previously heard of it.
What infuriated astronomers about this was that the character in question was actually supposed to be an amateur astronomer! Had the scriptwriters bothered to research the subject properly, they would soon have found that no amateur astronomer would ever do such a thing! This ridiculous story must have left many people with the completely false belief that astronomers actually approve of the business.
Of course, it’s quite possible that there are a few astronomers who disagree with the majority view, and do approve of the business – but if so, I’ve yet to meet one. As I’m not personally acquainted with every astronomer in the world, I can’t speak for all of them with certainty. I am, however, acquainted with a couple of hundred, both amateur and professional, and can honestly say that I don’t know a single one who condones the star naming business.
A far more plausible story would have been as follows: The well-meaning but naďve girlfriend buys a star name for her astronomer boyfriend. He is then faced with a dilemma; his principles won’t allow him to accept the “gift”, but nor does he want to upset his girlfriend by telling her so. I wonder how many times that scenario has happened in reality…
4.6. Sued for telling the truth?
Almost all astronomers, when asked by members of the public about the star naming business, will tell them more or less what I’ve said in this essay, and advise them not to waste their money. Sky and Telescope, the world’s leading astronomy magazine, is also strongly opposed to the trade, and has frequently condemned it. Many before me have set up web sites to tell the public the facts – but some have fallen foul of the star naming companies and their lawyers.
One astronomer, the Director of an American university observatory, posted an FAQ page on his observatory’s web site, condemning the trade in pretty strong terms, referring to it as a scam. The International Star Registry responded by threatening to sue both him and the university, unless he removed such words as “scam”, and other such defamatory language.
Whether or not the trade is a scam is very much a matter of opinion. Astronomers’ complaints to trading standards authorities have usually been met with the response that the companies are doing nothing wrong – which means that ISR were probably justified in their action. However, even after the astronomer complied and removed the offending language, the university administrators ordered him to delete the page entirely; they were apparently afraid of taking the risk of being sued, even when there no longer was any such risk! Effectively, the astronomer was robbed of his right to free speech, by his own employer.
Several other astronomers, after being threatened with lawsuits by ISR, have also been “gagged” by their employers. One was even ordered not to discuss the matter verbally, with members of the public who enquired!
This state of affairs is completely unacceptable. I fully accept that if someone makes statements about a company which amount to libel or defamation, then the company has the right to take legal action – but I object most strongly to the concept of people being prevented from telling the truth. Some astronomers, who carefully avoided using any defamatory language, and stated nothing but the indisputable facts, were nevertheless prevented from doing so, by their employers’ fear of becoming involved in any legal argument with a multi-million-dollar business.
Let me clarify what I mean here. Certainly, referring to someone’s business in the media by such terms as “scam”, without legal justification, amounts to defamation – and I don’t condone it. But saying that “most astronomers don’t approve of the business” is a simple and accurate statement of fact – a fact which can easily be verified, by conducting a poll at any gathering of astronomers. It’s also a fact that the IAU is opposed to the business, and doesn’t recognise the companies’ “registers”. We should all have the right to publicly express our opinions on the matter, as long as we don’t say anything untrue.
While the general consensus of legal authorities is that the star naming business is entirely legal, one precedent was set in 1998, when the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs issued a violation against the US branch of ISR, for both “deceptive advertising” and “engaging in a deceptive trade practice”. A spokesman for the Department described the trade as “fraudulent”. Why this department disagreed with its counterparts in other states and countries, I don’t know; perhaps ISR was found to be violating some clause of the law, which is unique to the state of New York.
More recently, ISR has modified its advertising – perhaps in response to the New York action and/or to astronomers’ criticisms. Its web site now clearly states that naming a star is merely a “symbolic gesture”, and will not be recognised by astronomers ( see Section 4.3 ). Whatever we think of their business, at least they now deserve top marks for honesty.
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