EDIT: After I let her know that I’d mentioned her, Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein replied to me on Twitter to point out that I was a fair way off target in my assessment of the TMT. She pointed out that what is happening on Mauna Kea is an issue of sovereignty and respect. The discussion around the TMT is ongoing, but what is clear is that racism and disrespect for alternative viewpoints is common in that astronomy community, and without acknowledging it, these issues will continue.
As such, the post below is not really about the TMT. It is a much less specific thought-bubble about the intersection of different kinds of knowledge. I will try in the future to avoid making a similar mistake again.
You may have heard recently about the Thirty Metre Telescope (TMT) currently being built on Mauna Kea, a mountain in Hawaii. Construction has at least temporarily been stopped by protests about the telescope’s location: the mountaintop that is supposedly ideal for the scientists also happens to be sacred to some Native Hawaiians. They have been protesting about this for years, and from the outside everything happening is rather confusing.
I don’t want to wade too deeply into territory I don’t fully understand, but I want to point out that there is a fascinating clash between those focused on producing new scientific knowledge, and those focused on preserving historical knowledge. I have two topics that raise questions for me:
- Prioritising knowledge: should we sometimes forgo scientific knowledge to preserve other knowledge of value? Is one form of knowledge any more valuable that any other?
- Recognising science doesn’t function in a vacuum: How do we progress science while respecting the people, places and history of the locations of our work? Do we need to recognise the history of mistreatment of indigenous people by science before any further work proceeds?
I’m sure that the scientists and the protesters both have reasonable answers to all of these questions (or at least I hope they do!). Rather I think this is a concrete example that shows us that science, for all its supposed universalism and cultural neutrality, is still a cultural exercise as much as a knowledge-based one.
We’ll wait and see what happens with the TMT and Mauna Kea, but we are surely learning lessons for future projects too.
I want to mention Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, an astrophycist who first brought this issue to my attention on Twitter. She tweets as @IBJIYONGI.
A news article about this, one among many, is here: Amid Controversy, Construction of Telescope in Hawaii Halted – ABC News.