How Should We Address Science's Selective Memory?

Illustration for article titled How Should We Address Science's Selective Memory?

At Slate, Ben Lillie reflects on the ongoing battle between those who would build a colossal, $1.5-billion telescope atop Hawaii’s Mauna Kea and the native Hawaiians who regard the dormant volcano as a sacred place. The conflict, says Lillie, is emblematic of a larger, and largely unspoken, truth about science: that many of its milestones hinge on atrocities and abuses committed in the name of discovery.

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Photo Credit: Sacred Mauna Kea Hui - Fanpage / Facebook: sacredmaunakea, via BuzzFeed

Scientists, Lillie observes, are quick to acknowledge and celebrate scientific advances that have saved lives, or redefined our understanding of the universe—but they are less inclined to claim responsibility for the dark parts of science’s history. Science’s selective memory, says Lillie, is a problem worth addressing; and he has some ideas on where to start:

Perhaps I am naive, but I think we are capable of great feats of spirit as well as engineering, and I want us to attempt them. I want us to be as great in our generosity as we are in our ambition. I think I know how to plant the seeds from which new giant dreams might grow.

We have created rituals of celebration and analysis and communication, and we are very good at them. What we, as scientists, haven’t done is to create the rituals of darkness. We have no rituals of reflection, of repentance, of atonement.

So here is my thought. What if we took a few days each year to reflect on the dark parts of our history, on the terrible things that were done, and are still done, that benefit our science? What if we took this time to read and talk with the people who know of these things? (They are many.) What if we took this time to ask what harm we have done, what we can do to correct it, and what we can do to make sure it never happens again? We constantly reflect on and try to minimize the errors in our data; we should do the same in ourselves.

Read Lillie’s full essay at Slate.

DISCUSSION

Will Holz

I’m probably going to be seen as on the wrong ‘side’ here, but I really do have a fundamental issue with the idea of chunks of land being locked up for ancient religious purposes.

I’m not saying people should be jerks about it and I do think conversations should be polite, rational, and respectful...but at the end of the day if the science is pointing to us using a particular site then I think the end result should be the site gets used and the rational players on both sides of the issue go away happy. It’s not like this is the first sign of civilization these guys have seen.

Isn’t science supposed to trump superstition and dogma? Isn’t that what this is?

I really think we need to stop letting the guys who can’t act like rational adults control the debate, especially over chunks of dirt.