The Days of the Enola Gay
May 2, 2015 3:23 PM   Subscribe

Science Needs a New Ritual
And so transcendence can take the form of blindness to differences between people and to our own biases. We assume scientists all think and believe the same things, even beyond the unequivocal data. We are all equal as scientists if we all value the same principles. And what we value comes almost entirely from Enlightenment-era Europe. This is a troubling state of affairs if we claim to strive for all humanity.
posted by jaguar (50 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I read this article previously, and I am still surprised about the telescope issue in Hawaii. Does anybody really think this isn't just a clear cash grab? Can anybody think of have an time where a sacred space that also had a truly significant alternate, non-symbolic value (read: monetary) wasn't able to reach an accommodation?
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:41 PM on May 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Good piece. I am lucky to count among my friends many historians of science, who have introduced me to a fascinating discipline that seems to do a much better job revealing and critiquing the limitations, biases, and harms of science than the scientific disciplines themselves do.
posted by Miko at 3:42 PM on May 2, 2015 [7 favorites]

It is always open season on lands sacred to indigenous populations, let alone lands necessary for those populations to farm, or survive intact culturally. The US, according to The Constitution, cannot establish religion, but by ignoring established spiritual beliefs of native peoples, US scientists establish their beliefs as superior, thereby establishing their beliefs as law, when they appropriate sacred lands.

The Apache just had their sacred mountain appropriated for a foreign owned copper mine. Money is the official religion of the US, regardless of what we believe. Astronomy is not pure, as Astronomy is the forward prow of the ultimate hegemony, theft of planetary resources to pillage other worlds. Rio Tinto is involved with Mars exploration. There was no plan to pinpoint if there is life on Mars, life would have to waddle up and kick the tires of the rovers, and wave to be detected.

All of this in order to assure our survival, when plenty of us do not survive here. In fact, none of us survive. We are faithless pretenders eagerly walking over the sacred in exchange for gain.
posted by Oyéah at 3:47 PM on May 2, 2015 [20 favorites]

Can anybody think of have an time where a sacred space that also had a truly significant alternate, non-symbolic value (read: monetary) wasn't able to reach an accommodation?

Native American Land Conservancy
Recognition of Native American sacred sites in the U. S.
National Trust for Historic Preservation: Protect Sacred Places
USDA Forest Service: Sacred Sites Report
National Indian Law Library: Sacred Sites and Religion
Association on American Indian Affairs: Sacred Sites

These are just a few links to start with. So, yes.
posted by Miko at 3:49 PM on May 2, 2015 [11 favorites]

That's not the point, Miko.

If we discovered oil beneath a sacred spot on a Native American reservation, you can be assured that it would be drilled, and the Native American tribe would receive compensation. You know, like in Alaska.

I asked, find me an instance where that didn't happen.

The telescope will be built and someone will get paid.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:01 PM on May 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

The telescope will be built and someone will get paid.

True or not, this doesn't entail that this outcome is just.
posted by fatbird at 4:19 PM on May 2, 2015 [8 favorites]

This article is the most pernicious sort of faux liberal white guilt that there is.

Step 1: All of science is built upon oppression and genocide.
Step 2: We literally cannot do science without furthering the oppression of indigenous peoples.
Step 3: ??????
Step 4: Let us be mindful of this fact, and have a moment of silence to commemorate Hiroshima.

See, everything that we touch is the result of genocide and repression, so let's be mindful of this and reflect upon our mistakes. What -- give Hawaii back to the Hawaiians? Give the entire continent of North America back to it's indigenous peoples?

Oh ho ho HO no. No, we're not going to do that. But yes we're going to reflect and be mindful about all these things. Oh yes, very reflective. Extremely reflective and mindful, yes.

What utter bullshit.

Incidentally, this is why feel-good white liberals are treated with such suspicion in groups working for racial equality. "Let's all feel really sad about the past and agree to have good feelings about each other from now on" is not what these groups want. "Give us our fucking continent back, you fucking colonists" is what they're saying and what they want.

Of course, that's not going to happen. Absent some kind of natural or nuclear cataclysm, there is never going to be a political movement which allows indigenous peoples to reclaim Hawaii or the entire North American continent. There are, simply put, too many white people here now.

It would be better, I think, if we simply acknowledged that fact rather than belabor endless bouts of self-flagellation in the name of something that can't really be changed. It would be more honest to say "Mauna Kea belongs to the US Government now, and we are using it for science. There is no political mechanism by which this land can be returned to ethnically Hawaiian peoples. Hawaii will always remain a state of the US, because we fought a bloody war to ensure that no state can ever leave the Union." -- rather than just suggesting that a minute of silence for Hiroshima can fix anything.

I'd rather we be honest and up-front about the oppression our nation is built on than continue making empty promises that we have no ability or desire to fulfill.
posted by Avenger at 4:20 PM on May 2, 2015 [32 favorites]

Man, I'm torn. I would really like to see that scope get built, somewhere. I would realy like it to not be built on anyone's sacred space against their will. Hawaii is a unique and important location for observatories for obvious reasons, but perhaps the two cultures could interact instead of clashing, and find a way forward that's beneficial to both -- to their humanity and to all our humanity. The rights of people to live on their land as they choose is a core tenet of humanity, but science benefits all humanity collectively. It's a loss for us all, either way this goes if they can't find a place to build it that's fair & equitable to all.
posted by Devils Rancher at 4:22 PM on May 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

Alaskan oil typically lies under land that is not "sacred" except in the general sense that nature and the spirit world are connected.

But more to the point, Alaska Native land rights are granted under the ANCSA law signed by Nixon in 1971. The Alaskan tribes and communities (like Hawaiians) do not enjoy the same overt sovereignty rights as Native American nations in the lower 48. It's an entirely different legal framework, that in fact makes Alaska Natives more able to derive economic value from traditional lands than many Indian tribes or (certainly) than Native Hawaiians, who have no such settlement.

Never mind how very complicated the concept of "sacredness" gets when you start considering the many cultural and spiritual traditions of Indigenous Americans.

This is not a one size fits all situation. Not is it the first battle over a telescope.
posted by spitbull at 4:24 PM on May 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

Plenty of Native people like science too. Plenty are scientists.

This is no t really about science vs. religion. It's about respect and fairness after centuries of genocidal colonialism.
posted by spitbull at 4:26 PM on May 2, 2015 [13 favorites]

The rights of people to live on their land as they choose is a core tenet of humanity

Since when?
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 4:32 PM on May 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Part of the difficulty I have with protest stems from this quote, which is typical of several I read. "Opposing the construction of the TMT isn’t about opposing science: it’s about the opposing the system that was designed to oppress Indigenous Hawaiians."

If you want to oppose an oppressive system, I can think of far better targets (e.g., The hotel chains building mega resorts and golf courses) than the observatory. It's not like the site is pristine, there are already 13 telescopes there. Yes, the process should be respectful and environmentally aware, but the protests seem misguided to me.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 4:38 PM on May 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

Don't forget, the Europeans got pretty good at oppressing themselves before they decided to share that skill with the rest of the world.
posted by blue_beetle at 4:45 PM on May 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Takeaway: the MetaFilter community is not very well informed about indigenous rights/issues and cultural values. This is a 101-level conversation, I do not want the role of instructor here, so I am not going to continue. It's like arguing with a conservative uncle on Facebook.

Forcing an indigenous community to settle on a protracted fight they were going to lose anyway, and they know they were going to lose, is not a "cash grab." That is the pattern, and I'm afraid the rationale is force some concessions from the government that has bulldozed you, or walk away with nothing and still see your traditions and values completely disregarded.

You may want to look up Navajo water rights issues.
posted by Miko at 4:48 PM on May 2, 2015 [34 favorites]

Blackfeet vs. oil developer.

I meant to add, I think the indigenous rights piece is also causing people to overlook the point of the article, which is that scientific projects that ignore the humanistic context are inherently problematic.
posted by Miko at 4:53 PM on May 2, 2015 [6 favorites]

Since when

Oh, right. Since never.

Aight to be is what I meant.
posted by Devils Rancher at 4:57 PM on May 2, 2015

Miko is right, and it's a point I've made here before.

We do so well on so many social justice issues here. But the subject of indigenous rights is basically still in the "I'd hit it"-equivalent era on MeFi.
posted by spitbull at 4:59 PM on May 2, 2015 [13 favorites]

Humanity is not in itself a social institution and has no "tenets."

Societies have tenets. Ironically, one that matters a lot to modern western states is territorial sovereignty, the basis of modern international relations. Hypocrisy all the way down.
posted by spitbull at 5:01 PM on May 2, 2015

Oh, great. An uncharitable characterization of a poorly phrased comment. My favorite part of MetaFilter. How should I have said that? "Our common humanity?" Sorry if words failed me.
posted by Devils Rancher at 5:10 PM on May 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

CheeseDigests, the Native Hawaiian sovereignty and rights movement has devoted a great deal of attention to "hotels, mega-resorts, and golf courses." Your implication that they are hung up on a silly telescope while ignoring other affronts to their rights is incorrect.

Devils Rancher, appeals to "core tenets of humanity" is pretty specifically implying such things exist outside of a legal and political framework.

Our "common humanity" doesn't seem to produce justice that I notice. For that you need law.
posted by spitbull at 5:12 PM on May 2, 2015 [6 favorites]

The Enola Gay bombings certainly might not have happened when they did without the Marman Clamp,invented by the youngest of the Marx Brothers.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:36 PM on May 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

I was just at the summit of Mauna Kea a week or so go. The public astronomy presentation included a discussion from a scientist, a Native Hawaiian, who spoke about Hawaiian understandings of astronomy and navigation. It was interesting and a nice compliment to the stories of the familiar constellations of the Zodiac. I wonder if the talk was part of an effort towards respect for the observatory's presence on the traditional territories of the Hawaiian people. I imagine some protestors would think that such efforts merely pay lip service to respect and consultation.

There was also signage protesting the new telescope leading up to the summit. Such protest signs were scattered around the Big Island.

At first, I took the view that "a telecope with a view to the heavens can't be all that bad", particularly given the landscape-changing pipelines, dams, and other development projects that indigenous groups have to oppose where I am from. But, without knowing much of the history or context of the Hawaiian islands, I've come to realize that this view was naïve — disenfranchisement is disenfranchisement, regardless of whether the purpose of the telescope has some purported "common humanity" or seems otherwise benevolent. This pithy paragraph from the article does a good job of explaining the point:
The debate now about the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea is not just about the specific location. It’s about a resurgence of Hawaiian culture and self-determination after more than a century of oppression. Telescopes were a part of that.
Even if it is true that the telescope will eventually be built, as some have commented above, the process of consultation with the original stewards of Mauna Kea remains ever important. While we all share in the stars, it is humans who carve out the constellations in the sky, assigning them names and ascribing them meaning. Which names have prominence and which do not? Who gets to assign meaning to the skies, and whose stories are left out of the dominant narrative?
posted by ageispolis at 6:23 PM on May 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

A lot of modern physical anthropology draws upon our origins, as a way to scientifically quantify racial differences in intelligence and provide foundations for the eugenics movement to perfect humanity. This is a history that every physical anthropologist is aware of, and thinks about, and what a lot of current research is reacting to - many of the most vociferous critics of A Troublesome Inheritance, for example, are physical anthropologists. Coming to terms with our intellectual heritage is an important part of growing as a discipline. Stand on the shoulders of giants, but clean up where they walked destructively.
posted by ChuraChura at 6:35 PM on May 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

Astronomy is responsible for exactly zero of the ills of the world. On the other hand, opposition to astronomy by religious fanatics (e.g. the Church suppressing Galileo) has historically been one of the greatest impediments to the progress of mankind. The author overreaches when searching for even one single act of imperialism in astronomy, it is worth noting that Robert Peary was not an astronomer.

Since the days of the earliest humans observing the movement of the stars, people have built structures to observe the heavens, it is the fundamental force of progress of all sciences, from primitive mathematics up through the most advanced physics and cosmology.

And of course it is also the source of all religion. I had to look it up, but of course, the indigenous Hawaiian religion is a solar religion, with creation myths about the night and the day, and the foremost of their gods is a sun god.

Are these two things so hard to reconcile? If you want to consecrate Mauna Kea, I would think that putting the world's most powerful telescope would be ideal. Astronomers believe it is a sacred spot too, the best spot on this Earth to place our most powerful scientific instrument, with ideal weather and as far as possible from all other human activity. It is a small spot on the face of this planet that is devoted to observing our place in the universe, and our place on this Earth.
posted by charlie don't surf at 6:35 PM on May 2, 2015 [6 favorites]

I don’t know how to deal with a community that won’t acknowledge its colonialist and white supremacist past and present, thereby insisting on a colonialist, white supremacist future.

I don’t know how to deal with a community full of people who can hear a Native American woman and a Black woman say that the community discourse about an experiment is hurting them and not have a large number of people stop and say, “wait, let’s rethink what we’re doing here.”

I don’t know how to deal with a community where Native American students can bravely challenge a racist e-mail, only to be told by their classmates that their anti-racist stance was embarrassing to the community.

I don’t know how to deal with a community full of people who don’t understand that what they are demanding of us is that we assimilate to their sensibility of what’s “true” and “fair” in science.

I don’t know how to deal with people who do understand that it’s a demand for assimilation and think that it is ethical.
posted by ChuraChura at 6:49 PM on May 2, 2015 [11 favorites]

Astronomy is responsible for exactly zero of the ills of the world.

There are some indigenous communities in places remote from Europe whose lives, cultures and futures were irreversibly changed for the worse by the use of sextants and such, who may disagree with you.
posted by Thella at 6:51 PM on May 2, 2015 [6 favorites]

citation needed

You understand that they too were observing the skies?
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:12 PM on May 2, 2015

Astronomy is not the same as astronomers, physics is not the same as physicists, etc. "Science" has never actually done anything. Scientists have. And as scientists are people, they have biases and blind spots like everyone else, and they are part of a culture that has its own biases and blind spots. By recognizing that one's context and being humble about one's own knowledge, scientists can likely expand the universality of science, rather than keep it culture-bound.
posted by jaguar at 7:25 PM on May 2, 2015 [7 favorites]

Astronomy is the forward prow of the ultimate hegemony, theft of planetary resources to pillage other worlds.

Good luck with that. Maybe we'll be able to steer a few asteroids here, but escaping the surface of other planets takes serious energy. Going to other solar systems would be a project that would take longer than recorded human history. I seriously doubt corporations that can barely see to the next quarter are capable of that level of foresight.

Interstellar travel is a pipe dream promoted by those who want to use this planet as a toilet and then pretend we won't have to live with the consequences.
posted by benzenedream at 7:36 PM on May 2, 2015 [5 favorites]

I mean, I think it's pretty goddamn glib to say that "a big ol' telescope is sacred to scientists" as "Mauna Kea is sacred to its disenfranchised native inhabitants" are somehow equivalent statements. Does this make my deck the equivalent of, like, some minor saint's grotto or wooded grove?

More pressingly–if, probably, fruitlessly–of course "science" has done things, if as a narrative and explanatory category. Astral knowledge has always obviously been involved in Western state-power from the Alfonsine tables to Spanish and (later) BEIC surveyors in the Americas and India. To say nothing of being on the edge of techniques of world-quantification, which, like, let's face it, have given rise to transnational capitalism, scientific racism, and massive global warming. Of course scientific knowledge will have a role in fixing these things, if we can make it there, but the way we understand the world and the way it and its people been made exploitable have always been tied up. Stories have to make sense.
posted by The Bridge on the River Kai Ryssdal at 7:46 PM on May 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


I get (& sadly, distressingly recognize) a lot of the quotes from Chandra's piece about the culture of science as it's practiced, but do you, (or anyone) know what this was about?

I don’t know how to deal with a community full of people who can hear a Native American woman and a Black woman say that the community discourse about an experiment is hurting them and not have a large number of people stop and say, “wait, let’s rethink what we’re doing here.”

posted by lalochezia at 8:35 PM on May 2, 2015

I'm fairly confident that if you speak like this to people who are native to the land, they will want you to get the fuck off their land and never come back.

There is no reasoning with religious zealots.
posted by charlie don't surf at 8:54 PM on May 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

I don't, I'm sorry!
posted by ChuraChura at 9:24 PM on May 2, 2015

Tycho Brahes' nose suffered.
posted by clavdivs at 9:58 PM on May 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Man, I'm torn. I would really like to see that scope get built, somewhere.

I want to see it built in orbit. Post Hubble, there is no way we should be building ANY damn telescope at the bottom of hundreds of miles of optically insensitive, dirty atmosphere.

Now if you'll excuse, me, I'm off to tear down the Vatican for a new particle accelerator, never mind the protests of the silly superstitious natives.
posted by happyroach at 9:59 PM on May 2, 2015 [6 favorites]

Yeah, the heart of Rome that has been continuously inhabited since time immemorial is exactly like the uninhabitable cinder pile atop a dormant volcano, at 14,000 feet where there is 40% less oxygen than sea level.
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:54 PM on May 2, 2015 [5 favorites]

they will want you to get the fuck off their land and never come back

Turns out it's not actually their land anymore...
posted by thedaniel at 11:50 PM on May 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

It's true, we should completely disregard the wishes and interests of the people we economically manipulated, subjugated, lied to, and colonized.
posted by ChuraChura at 4:47 AM on May 3, 2015 [6 favorites]

Miko, I'm not arguing for nuclear conflict, and sure Nukes definitely give a bad light to humanity, but if you look at it from the perspective of the military strategists towards the end of WWII, it could very well have costed us, as a nation, as well as for the Japanese side, many more lives, had we invaded Japan by sea and land, amphibiously. In fact, that was our original plan, when we were island hopping.

Another example, again not to justify, but on which to shed light as to certain up-sides: the MUA of the Cold War actually prevented a nuclear holocaust. In a sense, it was the very thing that could've destroyed all the world, that ended up saving it.

That being said, there are often times other options, but that's not an absolute case on which to depend.

I would say that chemical weapons are poor man's nuke arms, and shouldn't be allowed.

Other than that, while our bombing by nukes of Japan did so much incredible damage, sometimes more consistent dropping of non-nuke payloads can do just as much damage - thinking back to Dresden of WWI.

I could've sworn I remember having read about a library in Dresden, with all of its academia having been destroyed. I think it was called Amber Library, or something like that. At the moment I can't find it for reference, sorry.

Anyway, with war, there are costs you have to decide whether or not they are worth it, versus the benefits. Science also created several other monstrosities, that is why we must be careful with how we utilize it. You can't "undiscover" or "uninvent" something.

I'd say, though, that Enola Gay and the payloads, Fat Man and Little Boy, were nothing compared to mega-ton and hydrogen/thermonuclear attacks, or ICBMs.

The bad part is that the Atom bombs destroyed the Bikini Atoll's population, more or less.
posted by Grease at 8:08 AM on May 3, 2015

The bad part is that the Atom bombs destroyed the Bikini Atoll's population, more or less.

And hundreds of thousands of deaths as well as lingering environmental and genetic damage. Those count.

I don't think anyone's arguing that scientists should stop doing science. But there likely should be a recalibrating of what factors are considered important in making what may seem to be cut-and-dried "scientific" decisions. A greater emphasis on reflection as part of a greater awareness of one's own culture is a step toward doing that.
posted by jaguar at 8:19 AM on May 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

I wasn't implying that. I was making my own point about it. Also, yes, no doubt they count. That was what I had meant by the population. Japan was destroyed too, but my use of the Bikini Atoll was more of acknowledging a far less-remembered island's destruction in the mix.
posted by Grease at 8:26 AM on May 3, 2015

It seems like we should be mindful of past mistakes, so that we don't keep making them.
posted by Joe Chip at 8:38 AM on May 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

Science is increasingly owned by blind capitalism. Scientists are muzzled at the state level where I live, all speak comes out of state PR, you do not cross business 'tound here.

The mining, chemical, energy, and engineering industries that design for them answer to no one, because they have bought out the top. The foxes run the chicken coop. What really disturbs me, is they import foxes and allow them into the coop, and because of how these heirarchies work (how the money and the shit flows) no contrary interest stands a chance. Now the Utes and the Navajos have to contend with Russia, with regard to Uranium mining on their lands. The mining companies place mining propaganda in Utah classrooms, and environment is a subversive issue.

The patronising tone with regard to Native American land art, sacred sites, and traditional ways, stems from the local religious belief that Native Utahans are of the lost tribes of Israel, and they will come around ultimately, get off the res and assimilate. The state has even paid for research that places the most ancient art, (at potential oil exploration sites) at two thousand years of age, rather than the eight thousand year mark established long ago, that makes artifacts of the Fremont culture more precious, and protected. The two thousand year mark, makes them in line with local theologies, one being Jesus of Nazareth walked the American West, and two, oil exploration and money trumps the whole thing.

The war on reality and the meek who might still have the skills left, to inherit the Earth, is a full time endeavor of scientists who work for those who will ultimately charge us for the air we breathe. Just you wait, when we are in shelters from the war no one started, we will pay for air of a first, second or third quality.
posted by Oyéah at 9:08 AM on May 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

If only something could be done to stop these rampaging legal fictions.
posted by benzenedream at 11:24 AM on May 3, 2015

I think I missed something here. Just how many astronomers were in the Manhattan Project?
posted by charlie don't surf at 11:37 AM on May 3, 2015

You'll notice the name of the article is "Science needs a new ritual," not "Astronomy needs a new ritual," and that the article brings up the Enola Gay, as well as other scientific endeavors. I have no idea why you're stuck on the idea that this is exclusively about astronomy or astronomers.
posted by jaguar at 2:45 PM on May 3, 2015 [4 favorites]

I think I missed something. Are they proposing to drop atomic bombs on Mauna Kea?

I like the current ritual of science, you discover something monumental and then yell "Eureka" to let the entire world know nothing will ever be the same.
posted by charlie don't surf at 6:43 PM on May 3, 2015

It is not so hard.
There is a strong temptation here to say, these things were not done by us! Ahnighito was stolen by one man, long dead, not by us. The bombs were created two generations ago, not by us. But we scientists take credit for the good. We found a cure for smallpox, and eliminated it; we invented the computer and fiber-optics and through them connected the world; we discovered the expansion of the universe and our place in it by analyzing the light of galaxies. The authority of science, the pride we take in our tradition, the claim that we create good in the world comes from these things. There is a “we” that did them. We, now, are attached to them because those people are our intellectual ancestors.

But those ancestors are exactly as close to us as the others are, those who created evil. If it was we who discovered the expansion of the universe through the redshifts of galaxies, then it was we who stole Ahnighoto. If it was we who understood the nature of the atom, then it was we who bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If it was we who cured smallpox, then it was we who ran the experiment at Tuskegee. We can’t choose our heritage, but we can choose how we live with it. In that respect, I think that we cannot in good faith take pride in the light if we do not also take responsibility for the dark.
posted by ChuraChura at 6:58 PM on May 3, 2015 [8 favorites]

Hey hey, we're on your side, we're not like those bad scientists. Can't you see this is totally in your benefit? Sure your land, power, culture, and autonomy may have been taken, but can you blame us for just doing the science? #notallscientists
posted by halifix at 12:51 PM on May 4, 2015 [4 favorites]

Mod note: Comment removed. If you want to have another better go at a comment that got deleted, kicking your do-over off with a complaint about moderation is shooting yourself in the foot and wasting both our time.
posted by cortex (staff) at 3:52 PM on May 4, 2015

« Older A Strangely Funny Russian Genius   |   "The creative process ... was slightly disastrous... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments