This essay is indebted to Mary Jo Nye’s scholarship spanning the history and philosophy of the modern physical sciences, particularly her efforts to situate scientists within their social, political, and cultural contexts. Beginning in the second half of the twentieth century, members of the Hawai‘i astronomy community found themselves grappling with opposition to new telescope projects stemming from the rise of environmental and indigenous rights movements. I argue that the debate over the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) can best be understood as an exemplar of “neocolonialist science.” For indigenous groups who object to science on sacred lands, science has effectively become an agent of colonization. As the TMT controversy illustrates, practicing neocolonialist science—even unknowingly—comes at a high cost for all parties involved. Although scientists are understandably reluctant to equate their professional activities with cultural annihilation, dismissing this unflattering neocolonialist image of modern science has both ethical and practical consequences: Native communities continue to report feeling victimized while scientists’ efforts to expand their research programs suffer social, legal, and economic setbacks.
This essay is part of a special issue entitled THE BONDS OF HISTORY edited by Anita Guerrini.