TMT Support and Opposition by the Numbers

Hawaiian TMT opponents are quick to claim the mantle of representing the Hawaiian people, making the implied claim that all Hawaiians oppose construction of the TMT. It is theme I have seen repeated over and over, repeated by the leaders of the movement.

TMT Rendering
An overhead view of the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope, credit TMT Observatory Corporation
I have had reason to question that theme, it just does not make sense, it does not agree with what I encounter in the community. The problem has been that real numbers have been unavailable to settle the issue. It has mystified me that no one had done a proper poll of the local population until now. There have been numerous online polls, petitions and other useless counts of support or opposition. We now have such a poll, and the numbers do not look good for telescope opponents.

62% of Hawaii residents support construction of the TMT, while 29% oppose construction. If one considers only the island of Hawaii the numbers are 59% in support and 39% in opposition. Notably a strong 88% of residents think that culture and science can share Mauna Kea. The statistics of the sample size and sampling method determine a ±4% error possible in the results.

The poll was commissioned by the TMT corporation. To insure that it was conducted in an impartial way the Honolulu based professional polling firm of Wade Research, Inc. was hired to perform the polling. A random sample of over 600 people were contacted by telephone, both landline and cell phone to ask about support or opposition to the telescope project. The respondents are a representative sample of island residence, race and economic background with an even split of male and female respondents.

Reaction to the TMT polling numbers from the opposition has been swift and vociferous. Many deny the poll has any validity. There is even a Facebook group specifically to oppose the poll with over 500 members!

This reaction is no surprise as the poll numbers conflict with the narrative that opponents have tried to tell, that “Hawaiians do not want the TMT”. This tale may play well to those who are inclined to believe this, but it conflicts with reality. Those who call the islands home are very much split on the issue. It is also apparent that race is not a overriding factor in support or opposition.

Personally I think the numbers shown in the poll results are correct. Why? The numbers agree with my own personal observations and conversations with many local residents over the last year. Living and working in the shadow of Mauna Kea the issue has been the subject of many conversations. Of course most I talk with know that I work at an observatory, despite this I have had many openly tell me they oppose TMT, this is a small town and people feel free to air their opinions in private conversations.

TMT Poll Results
TMT Poll Results from Ward Research
On the other hand many in this conservative community do not feel comfortable expressing their opinions in public. Everyone has a reputation to worry about here, they must consider relationships throughout the community in everything they do and say. This is a small town, or a small island rather, where personal relationships and reputations are very important. Public personas are carefully managed, it is only in private that you get close to true opinions on a controversial subject like this. The very vocal telescope opposition has made it difficult for many to express their own opinion.

The same goes for those in the native Hawaiian community I know, opposition and support are very split. The numbers in the poll indicate a 49-44% opposition to support result, with the opposition having a few percent majority, quite in line with my own observations and by no means a decisive balance of opposition. TMT opponents can not make the claim that they represent the will of the Hawaiian people.

Of course polls can be biased in interesting ways and this poll was commissioned by the TMT Corporation. How the questions are written and setup, how they are asked is important. Push polls designed to generate a specific result are all too common when a controversial subject is being argued in the public sphere. Is that the case with this poll? We can see for ourselves as the script for the telephone poll has been released along with the results, open for review by anyone truly curious in how the poll was conducted.

Statewide TMT Poll Script and Results

Reading the script while looking for polling bias reveals very little of note. The closest to bias in the questions might be found in Q3 where the TMT project is very briefly described in positive terms as “an international project that will build one of the world’s most advanced astronomical observatories in the world”. Unless they have been totally off-the-grid, it is unlikely that poll respondents would be unfamiliar with the issue. Indeed, that is all Q3 is asking, are you familiar with the issue, and only 8% of respondents indicated that had not heard of the TMT situation. Not surprisingly 37% were “somewhat familiar” and 33% were “very familiar”, representing a total of 70% of the participants. I would expect that of those 70% most have long ago decided their position on the issue and indicated such in their poll responses.

Telescope opponents will continue to downplay these poll results, the numbers do not agree with their version of the issue. For everyone else the numbers simply reflect what we already know, the community has been split by this controversy. It is nice to see a strong majority of our fellow residents support the project. Perhaps a solution is possible.

Author: Andrew

An electrical engineer, amateur astronomer, and diver, living and working on the island of Hawaiʻi.