It’s easy to be critical of ‘politically correct’ language. On the other hand avoidance of derogatory terms can help overcome derogatory attitudes.
That’s why I wish there was a bit more political correctness in some of the reporting of the Phoenix Mars mission.
One reason for the interest in the discoveries being made by Phoenix is that for the first time we are investigating the soil on another planet. The resulting information has implications for the question of existence of non-terrestrial life in our solar system. And it will also tell us a lot about the evolution of the Martian landscape.
But why do scientific reporters sometimes use the derogatory term dirt for soil? Even the Pheonix Mars Mission Blogs and the Emily Lakdawalla’s Planetary Society’s Weblog. Many photo captions refer to dirt samples. And there are references to “descent thrusters clearing dirt from a smooth patch of either ice or rock.” Even now reportage of detailed Martian soil chemistry will sometimes use the word ‘dirt.”
Never treat soil like dirt
The New Zealand Soil Science Society used to have a slogan – “Never treat soil like dirt”. This had real meaning. A country whose economy depended on primary production needs to protect its soil. We need to nurture that soil, prevent it’s erosion, protect it from contamination and not treat it as a repository for society’s wastes. An environmentally conscious society, wishing to protect the planet and conserve life needs to respect that environment. We often forget this, but the soil is a vital part of our environment. It deserves respect.
I am sure that every time we send a vehicle to the moon or another planet we take care to prevent it carrying contamination. We do this partly because we don’t wish to compromise the research (how can we search for life if our space vehicles carry terrestrial life). But we also do not want to contaminate these new environments.
Calling the Martian soil dirt conveys the wrong message. And it implies a derogatory attitude towards the new environment which should have no role in this sort of research.