Distanced from Reality

On Monday I tuned back into the TMT contested case hearing, it is a soap opera that has become rather addictive over the last few months. I will often keep the video feed up in the corner of my monitor, attempting to pick up the more interesting bits through the day.

Michael Lee
Michael Lee testifies at the TMT contested case hearing Jan 24, 2017
Mr. Lee claims to be a papakilohoku, a star priest, I tuned into his testimony with some interest. As an amateur astronomer who has spent countless nights under the stars observing with hand made telescopes, or simply my unaided eyes, I am very familiar with the sky. I hoped he would relate some interesting Hawaiian sky lore while on the stand, a new legend or two. What I heard instead was a mangled version of astronomy that would embarrass any ancient Polynesian navigator.

Mr. Michael Lee was offered as a witness by Harry Fergerstrom, one of the more extreme participants in the ongoing contested case hearing. It is no surprise that this witness would espouse some of the more interesting claims made against the TMT project. I expected some wild claims, I was surprised at just how wild.

I was unable to listen to the majority of it while at work, I had to go back and listen to the archive to really see if I had heard what I thought I had heard.

The claims were some of the most impressive we have seen in this contested case hearing, at this point it takes some truly imaginative ideas to top what we have heard so far. I suspect Michael Lee may mark the high point in exaggerated claims made against the TMT project and astronomy in general.

How wild do you ask? Just check this out…

Apparently the Kanaka, the native Hawaiians, came from the region of the Veil Nebula in Cygnus 50,000 years ago. He has apparently been able to photograph this nebula in the daytime and displayed this photograph in the hearing. Would love to see it, it is not in evidence, I am pretty sure that it is not a photo of a 7th magnitude deep sky object in the daytime.

Mr. Lee makes the claim that he can name a thousand stars using the traditional Polynesian names. With my practical experience of finding my way amongst the dimmer stars visible I realize that keeping a thousand stars memorized by location and name is a near impossible task, I seriously doubt it is possible. A few hundred… Maybe. After that the stars get too dim and too numerous to chart without instruments.

Mr. Lee goes on to claim that he can name three thousand stars by their Hawaiian names. The claim is interesting as less than twenty Hawaiian star names appear in the usual references. Indeed, the claim is flatly impossible. From practical experience I know that this is just not going to happen without instruments and charts. The swarms of very dim stars needed to reach such a total, just on the edge of human vision will defy any unaided eye skywatcher. The best pre-telescope sky charts, requiring decades of painstaking work, recorded just over a thousand stars. Three thousand? Yeah… No.

It gets better…

Gemini Moonrise
The full Moon rising behind the Gemini North telescope
Apparently he uses the “Moon Illusion”, a natural magnification that occurs near the horizon due to water, to view the sky better than with a telescope. He claims that this effect provides five times magnification and that the star priests like himself were aware of all the nebula not normally visible without a telescope. The problem is that the Moon illusion is just that, an illusion that is entirely psychological.

I have often attempted to observe near the horizon, it sucks. Looking through a hundred miles of thick air dims and distorts the image badly. You can barely see the brightest of stars, dim nebulae just vanish as they near the horizon. What you can see becomes a smear of color as atmospheric refraction distorts the colors. There is certainly no appreciable magnification provided by the water, or refraction, or any other effect.

Apparently the magnetic field of Mauna Kea will be blocked by TMT and the other telescopes. This will lead to the diminishment of the Earth’s magnetic field resulting in the stripping of the Earth’s oceans by the solar wind and the death of the planet. Due to TMT our world will become like Mars.

The Thirty Meter Telescope
An artist concept of TMT at night, with the laser guide star system illuminated.
He repeated all of the usual opposition canards… The existing telescopes are all obsolete, TMT could easily be built in space, he implied it was a military installation. I do not think he missed one. Of course the wrath of Pele will destroy the telescope if built, he was very emphatic about that.

Yeah, there is a lot more in this testimony, listen for yourself.

I often enjoy listening to the cultural witnesses. There are legends about the mauna I have not heard, tidbits about cultural practices and Hawaiian traditions in general that you do not find in the books. I did not learn much this time.

It does not surprise me that there is someone so invested in their alternate view of reality that they can calmly put this forth on the stand under oath.

An ancient ahu (shrine) at 11,000ft on Mauna Kea
Mr. lee has taken a smattering of scientific jargon and a few poorly understood theories, a lifetime of religious teachings, and woven them into a fabric of belief that is simply stunning to examine like this. I am sure he truly believes what he espoused on the stand, under oath, and will vehemently react to anyone who challenges those beliefs.

The truly surprising thing was the acceptance of this distorted view of reality by all of the other opponents in the room. Each of the other parties came up and cross examined Mr. Lee. During this questioning none made a comment about the unbelievability of what he was saying. These demonstrably false claims continued, one after another, in answer to their questions and everything was calmly accepted as fact.

We all have our media bubbles, we surround ourselves with sources of information that fit our belief system, our personal narrative of how we see the world. The difference is that some of us acknowledge this and make an effort to seek out information that may challenge our worldview, something to check ourselves against. If you do not do this occasionally your personal belief systems can become ever more distanced from any objective truth. The results of this process are truly scary and examples are all too readily available.

Even more scary is when a person who has such a detached worldview is put in a position of authority, and readily teaches pseudoscience to willing students. With modern communications technology it is easy to surround yourself with a community of like thinking individuals where the interaction simply reinforces these errant worldviews.

The TMT opposition is, in part, the result of this sort of effect, we have seen the misinformation this community preserves and teaches repeated over and over again despite our best efforts to provide the correct information. This misinformation is not just found in Facebook comments, but from witnesses in a formal legal hearing determining the fate of this project.

Author: Andrew

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

3 thoughts on “Distanced from Reality”

  1. I saw the testimony and could not objectively disagree because I am not so familiar with the sky as you are. Thanks for the informative post. Now Mike Lee’s testimony is in its proper perspective.

    1. You can not argue the cultural stuff, that is always in the eye of the believer. But when you start making specific physical and scientific claims that are demonstrably false, I have to object.

    2. Dear Richard,

      I know you’re not a physicist or astronomer, but there’s a simple experiment even you can do to show that Lee’s testimony is utter nonsense. Use a simple magnetic compass to find North. The needle will be deflected away from North if Mauna Kea has such a powerful magnetic field. I think you’ll find the compass works as advertised and therefore there’s no reason to go any further, such as trying to explain how the TMT or other observatories could block such a field.

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