Scientific project at odds with indigenous culture

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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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.


2 responses to “Scientific project at odds with indigenous culture

  1. Follow the discussion on Twitter hashtags #WeSupportTMT and #TMTShutdown

    There are good Native Hawaiian arguments in favor of building the Thirty Meter Telescope.

    Over the past seven years, there have been more than 20 public hearings. Mostly, the Native Hawaiian population has not participated. Some court cases have been decided in favor of the Thirty Meter Telescope. Native Hawaiian protests started on the day that construction of the TMT was to start.

    Some of the discussion is ugly, with proponents of TMT being called “racist” and promoting “ecocide,” “genocide,” and “cultural genocide.”


    • As I understand it, the current situation around the TMT is complicated and is about something that is not often talked about: the cultural imperialism and single-mindedness of astronomy and science more broadly.
      If the discussion is ugly, I think it’s because ugly things may well be going on, and probably have been for a while now. A broad discussion needs to be had: should the search for scientific knowledge always supplant local, historical, traditional knowledge.


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