Ignorant Savages

In History by Brian Koberlein5 Comments

The supreme court of Hawaii has rescinded the construction permit for the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). This has understandably made some people quite angry. But when I hear some scientists referring to TMT opponents as ignorant savages, it makes me very ashamed.

The Thirty Meter Telescope is an ambitious plan to create a large telescope in the northern hemisphere. It was intended to be the flagship of American astronomy, and was destined to make some amazing discoveries. As an astronomer I would love to see the telescope built. Part of that is my own childish desire to have my scientific toys now. Life is short, and I want to understand as much of the universe as I can, sooner rather than later.

But science is not simply a race to gather all the facts. It is a process through which we gather knowledge, and its a process that never ends. When science is done well it fosters a bit of humility and instills in us an ability to see the larger picture. Following that path requires a willingness to recognize that all of us descend from a barbarous past. Standing on the side of science does not automatically give us the moral high ground. Many scientists have not lived up to the scientific ideal. We’ve stolen the data of others, claimed discoveries for our own, and bullied people to promote our own scientific agenda.

Science is not a hammer we can use to bludgeon the views of others.

As a friend of mine once said about TMT debate, you can’t tell someone how to feel. Much of the debate on either side is about our feelings and the priorities that drive those feelings. In the face of opposition we can look the the feelings of the other side and try to build bridges of understanding. We can seek out alternatives when barriers are placed in front of us. We can strive to be better than our past, and try to create wisdom from hard won scientific knowledge. We can recognize that we won’t always succeed.

If the TMT is delayed, then its wondrous discoveries will be revealed to the next generation of scientists. If it is cancelled then we can inspire the next generation to create different observatories and better scientific tools. If we are humble and patient–if use our passion for science as inspiration to be better than our past–then in the long run our scientific understanding will continue to flourish and grow.

But if we simply condemn those who dare to feel differently, it is we who will remain ignorant savages.


  1. It’s all about tolerance! The TMT planners have worked years to make the instrument unobtrusive and eco-friendly and are eager to involve locals of all cultural backgrounds. The TMT haters just hate, no matter what – they’ve said so very clearly. If the telescope is built nobody and nothing is harmed and humanity gains on many levels, If it is not built human culture as a whole suffers.

  2. Let’s not also forget that the U.S. astronomy community is deeply divided, with two competing camps on what the next big telescope should be. Their inability to agree on a single ~30m telescope plan is a severe hindrance to progress in astronomy. While the key proponents in each camp may not be ignorant savages, they seem to come across as pig-headed egotists …

    I feel this should get much more coverage than it has, to date (see a recent article in Scientifc American for details).

  3. I, too, feel shame as I read some things that some people have written about the matter as it comes through my Facebook news feed. I think this issue says more about the proponents than it does the opponents. Every time I read that it’s about superstition winning over science or that it’s just a few people who hate science… no, I don’t think that’s it. Yes, there is a kind of superstition involved, but it doesn’t mean that they hate science. It’s the bullying and the lack of respect that they hate and I can’t blame them. I understand the resentment that the astronomy community feels too, though. They’re not personally responsible for the long history that is holding this telescope hostage and who wants to own up to that history? It’s a tough cookie to swallow.

  4. Allow me to repeat that important line:

    It’s the bullying and the lack of respect that they hate and I can’t blame them.

  5. Maybe it’s time to think of an even bigger and better telescope on a different mountain. Mauna Kea isn’t the only 14,000 ft mountain in the Northern Hemisphere.

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