As the protests on Mauna Kea continue those of us caught up in events attempt to make sense of it all. How has the controversy swelled to this extent?

NOTE: pick the correct link

It is clear that a deep discontent on several issues has found root on the mauna. This growth is fueled in large part by social media allowing the spread of information and allowing the protests to organize with surprising effectiveness and size.

For those who have followed events closely there is a disturbing part of the protest movement: a huge amount of misinformation about the Thirty Meter Telescope or the existing telescopes. While the core of the anti-telescope movement is driven by the issues around traditional rights and control of land, it is clear that misinformation about the telescopes also contributes to a large segment of the protest. The misinformation allows the telescope protest to gain support from groups with other mandates such as environmental or governmental reform issues.

This poses the question: How much of the protest is driven by this misinformation?

Last week a CNN Entertainment article by Marianne Garvey appeared. In the article she interviews movie star Jason Momoa. Momoa has spent a couple weeks on and off in the encampment on the Mauna Kea Access Road, where his celebrity status guarantees him access to the core of the protest movement, as such we routinely see photos of him with key leaders.

Momoa has access, but not having been involved with the many hearings and the contested case he has probably learned much of what he believes about TMT recently, and from the same key leaders. As such what he claims in the CNN interview is particularly revealing about what many in the movement believe.
 Momoa is quoted as saying “Most of them are outdated and they’re not as big. They’re just up there and they promised to remove them and they never have. It’s just another one of those promises … and we’re done. We’re over it.”

He also says, “They’re mostly non-functioning.”

A screen shot from a CNN report on Jason Momoa at Mauna Kea, August 2019. CNN

One of the most common myths repeated is that most of the 13 telescopes on the summit are outdated, obsolete, or non-functional. Protesters often describe the summit as a graveyard of rusting telescopes. There is no question this is a myth, very easily disproven, yet one of the most pervasive we see in objections to astronomy on Mauna Kea.

There is a nugget of truth here: There is a grand total of one telescope that is being taken down as it has completed its operational life. One. Even that telescope, the CalTech Submillimeter Observatory, is not rusting or abandoned, it is in the process of an orderly decommissioning and removal.

One other telescope, the small Hoku Kea, should be operational, but is now a victim of the deal to remove five telescopes. An empty dome sits on the summit, a nicely refurbished dome ready for use, the new telescope for that dome sits in storage while the university looks for another site.

The remaining 11 telescopes are operational, well maintained, and doing science. To comply with the court’s demand to remove five telescopes, three other useful, operational telescopes will have to be removed.

Setting The Record Straight

The list of common myths found in the TMT controversy is long: TMT will be the largest building on the island, most of the telescopes are non-functional or abandoned, TMT will drill into the water table, it is illegal to build on conservation land, the existing telescopes were built without permits, the telescope will be obsolete before completion, and many more. Some of these are complete myths, many have a kernel of truth that has been distorted beyond any reason.
 It is easy to understand how these myths get started.

Start with a kernel of truth — there is one telescope being decommissioned — combined with the public perception that anything over a few years old is obsolete, a common thing in our disposable society. Mix in a strong desire to paint the enemy in the most negative way… done.

A myth that sounds believable to anyone not familiar with astronomy and observatories. Despite how easy it is to check and disprove this myth, those who want to believe will not bother to check.
This broken telescope myth, once established has a real effect on the conversation.

Consider what happens as this myth is repeated in the protest community: Combine the idea that the summit of Mauna Kea is littered with broken telescopes with the very true commitment of the university to remove and restore the sites of telescopes once decommissioned and you get an even more destructive myth. That the university has broken its promise, when in fact it has not.

The protest community has become a stew of misinformation, which mutates and evolves with each re-telling. Those who have watched and often attempted to counter this swirl of misinformation have observed the process in action.

“How much of the TMT protest is driven by misinformation?”

This misinformation is then widely retold by people who have not taken the time to learn the facts, have not read the many documents, or have simply chosen not to believe official sources they believe corrupt.
And this is the real harm being done here.

A large segment of the protest has been taught, or has chosen to believe that the state and the university are simply lying. Social media and local media comment sections are replete with accusations of such lying. This distrust then undermines any possibility of a solution, no negotiations are possible.

The protesters simply cannot trust a government that they see as discredited to honor any negotiated agreements.
There are real issues to discuss in this controversy. The relationship between a traditional culture and the majority culture in the islands and the rights of those who hold to the traditions are valid concerns.

There are questions of land use and public benefit from the land. These real issues are lost in a morass of misinformation that stirs up hate and emotion that further rips at the community of our small island.

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About the Author

  • Andrew Cooper
    Andrew Cooper is an engineer who works on Mauna Kea.  He has watched, and occasionally participated in the entire Thirty Meter Telescope approval process from the first public hearings. You may often find him on the mauna, hiking, photographing, or spending a night under the stars alone with a small telescope.