Scientific Misappropriation

In learning about Mauna Kea and the multifaceted issues that surround our mauna. Reading and listening to modern practitioners describe their relationship with the mauna is interesting, you can learn much about the old beliefs and traditional relationships with the landscape and ecosystems of the islands.

In listening to some practitioners there are some claims that keep catching my attention. Claims that just seem out of place when considering traditional practices. More than once I have just stopped mid-thought and questioned what I just heard. A mental “What?!?”, did I hear that correctly? Some of these are subtle, perhaps missed by someone unfamiliar with the complex cycles of the our world and the sky above. Other claims are obvious, claims of practices or knowledge inconsistent with the old records.

Kealoha Pisciotta testifying on religious practice on the summit of Mauna Kea during a BLNR public meeting, video from Nā Leo TV

Most recently a claim that got my attention quickly was a celebration of a 26,000 year cycle. The claim was made during testimony at a BLNR board meeting when accepting the TMT conservation district use permit.

There is indeed a 26,000 year cycle in the patterns of the sky, well known to anyone seriously involved in astronomy. It is a result of a wobble in our Earth’s rotation called precession. The effect is extraordinarily subtle, something that could not be noted in a lifetime, or even a few lifetimes of careful sky-watching.

It is notable that the 26,000 year “cycle of the universe” is commonly celebrated in many modern new-age religions. It is one of the deep secrets that can be revealed and taught as if they have some great significance. As such the concept seems to have been borrowed widely by practitioners from many different traditions, including it seems by some modern Hawaiian practitioners.

Could the ancient Hawaiian have known about precession? Certainly the ancient Pacific navigators had good knowledge of the sky, its patterns and to a certain extent its cycles.

Hawaiian astronomers for all their practical accomplishments were hampered by quite a few factors, any one of which would have made it impossible to recognize precession. Lack of high precision observations from a fixed site over a long span of time, precession takes centuries to be noticeable. The lack of a written language, and more importantly a lack of the needed mathematical knowledge to calculate the effect of precession and the length of the cycle.

Checking through the usual references on Hawaiian astronomy finds no references to precession. In complete conflict with Mrs. Pisciotta’s assertion, ancient Hawaiians appear to have acknowledged a fixed nature for Polaris, the North Star. They make no reference to the fact that due to precession this star does move, if over a very long period of time, and will not be our north star forever.

…the Hawaiian names for this star suggest its stationary appearance: Noho-loa (“Eternal”), Kumau (“Standing Perpendicularly”), Kio-pa’a/Kio-pa (“Fixed projection”), Kia-pa’akai (Biblical: “Pillar of salt”), Maka-holo-wa’a (“Sailing-canoe eye”-Johnson & Mahelona, or “Star of the sailing canoe”-Makemson)… The Polynesian Voyaging Society

Likewise the ancient Hawaiian creation chant, the Kumulipo, explicitly mentions the fixed nature of the sky with respect to both Makaliʻi, the Pleiades, and the remainder of the fixed stars.

Huihui a kau io Makaliʻi pa—ʻa
      Collected and placed with Makaliʻi; fixed fast
Paʻa na hoku kau i ka lewa
      Fixed are the stars suspended in the sky
– Kumulipo, lines 1849-1850, Beckwith translation

Was precession discovered by ancient cultures? Yes. The precession of the Earth was discovered by several cultures, notably the Chinese and Greek civilizations. Hindu astronomers not only knew of the phenomena, but managed to roughly estimate the period. These cultures had the needed tools, a long tradition of accurate observations, good written records, and advanced mathematics. In all cases they dramatically missed the actual reason for precession, ascribing the motion to the stars rather than the Earth.

Conclusion? At best the Hawaiian may have noted a drift or error over the course of centuries, but not a cycle. The 26,000 year “great cycle of the universe” is a modern understanding that has been retroactively incorporated into quite a few new-age and traditional belief systems.

Even more revealing is the claim by religious practitioners that this cycle just came to a close, and that this is somehow very significant. If you understand precession you realize there is no beginning or end to such a cycle, no way by which a start or end could be marked. Where is the start of a circle? Ascribing such an end raises questions as to the true understanding of such a phenomena.

What is the issue here?

I have previously considered the subject of cultural misappropriation here in the pages of DarkerView. I will dub this phenomena scientific misappropriation, defined as the representation that an ancient or traditional culture was aware of natural phenomena or scientific discoveries that they were not actually aware of.

Mauna Kea Star Trails
Star trail image taken from Hale Pohaku

If it seems odd that someone would make such a claim, it should not be. Many modern practitioners are quite eager to ascribe a past greatness to their cultures that may, or may not be justified. This in a transparent attempt to denigrate what they see as “modern” science and to exaggerate the purported knowledge of their ancient forebears.

In many circles this sort of ancient wisdom claim is quite popular, and quite useful to a practitioner. It serves to convince the faithful and win converts to a belief. The problem is that if you promise ancient wisdom in your teachings, you eventually need to produce. While the real accomplishments of traditional sky watchers were often quite impressive, it is never enough in this age of over-hyped media and sensationalized everything. It is easy to misappropriate discoveries from other cultures or modern science to bolster the teachings and make the claim “Of course! We already knew about that”.

The ancients did discover many truths of our world… Several ancient cultures understood the earth to be a sphere, most understood the patterns of the Moon and planets moving across the sky, used the sky to measure the seasons, could predict eclipses, and much more. The great seafaring traditions could use the stars to estimate latitude and to keep a course across great oceans. These things were tremendous achievements, but are just not impressive by modern standards. Many people today do not understand that the skill and knowledge needed to do what was once hard, and is now considered easy or commonplace.

Examples of scientific misappropriation are rife. Claims that ancient cultures understood genetics and DNA, were capable of building flying machines, or understood the deep secrets of the universe.

A very clear example of this…

We recently saw a more extreme case of this in the contested case testimony of Michael Lee. Mr. Lee is a recognized papkilohoku, or Hawaiian star priest, and was brought forward to testify in the Thirty Meter Telescope contested case hearing as a witness on religious practice upon Mauna Kea.

I truly enjoy learning about the history of astronomy and the accomplishments of the ancient sky watchers. I made a specific effort to watch Mr. Lee’s testimony that day as I had hoped to add to my knowledge of Hawaiian star lore from a papakilohoku.

Papakilohoku Michael Lee testifying about the Moon illusion at the TMT contested case, video from Nā Leo TV

In his hours of testimony under oath Mr. Lee made a number of very specific claims about knowledge of the sky and how that knowledge can be obtained. You do not usually get this last part… How the knowledge could be obtained is usually glossed over in some metaphysical equivalent to “we just know” or “it was revealed to us”.

It is notable that several of the more specific claims Mr. Lee makes are simply false. A particularly interesting bit on the moon illusion I have made available in the video clip here, or you can go watch the entire testimony on NaLeo TV.

The Moon illusion Mr. Lee expounds upon in this video clip simply does not work. The Moon illusion is just that, an optical illusion, one of the many ways you can fool the human visual system. The root cause of the illusion is simple… Place the Moon near objects for which you have a conceptual size and it appears large. Once high in the sky there is no context surrounding the Moon, just empty space, the Moon then appears smaller.

As a skilled sky watcher myself I have often watched the Moon and planets rise. I am a member of a large community of folks who commonly watch the sky and are extremely familiar with the many beautiful phenomena our universe can produce. Someone unfamiliar with the sky may be fooled by this claim, we are not.

Mr. Lee specifically mentions the nebulae and the rings of Saturn as being visible, both in the clip I included above and in other parts of his testimony that day. This just does not work, been there, many times, looking ten degrees above the horizon simply sucks. There is no magnification, there is no way to see something fainter than 7th magnitude using an unaided eye. The image is badly degraded by atmospheric distortion, refraction, and haze.

Some of his other claims are also interesting… Looking at the Sun with a bowl of water to see sunspots? That might work, need to try it sometime. Though there would be no magnification as he claims, thus welders glass or solar eclipse glasses probably work better. Small features on the Sun may be difficult to see, but there are occasionally sunspots large enough to be seen without magnification.

The person we see on the witness stand is not a humble seeker of knowledge, rather he strikes an arrogant tone, one of cultural superiority. This attitude is all the more striking when considered against the charges of arrogance and exclusion often leveled against modern science. Mr. Lee displays the motives for scientific misappropriation so clearly here.

This is the greatest harm… Clearly some of what Mr. Lee relates is authentic ancient Hawaiian star lore. What we see is that ancient traditions mixed with lies and exaggerations to the point you can not tell what is real and what is not. The effect is to discredit everything Mr. Lee teaches. As one who values knowledge and loves the ancient traditions this is a serious offence against tradition I simply cannot forgive.

The Harm

I find it truly troubling when modern practitioners exaggerate the ancient knowledge and attempt to appropriate modern discoveries into their lore, claiming this knowledge as ancient. While this may be convincing to one who is unaware of the true history of where these ideas come from, to those with a knowledge of scientific history it is transparent and serves only to discredit the practitioner in the long run.

Mauna Loa Milky Way
The Milky Way erupts from the summit of Mauna Loa

One of the ideals of modern scientific method is giving proper credit to the discoverer, be it a person or a traditional culture. To remember where knowledge came from, to honor those who wondered and explored, who struggled to understand. Such egregious violations of that ideal are more than troubling.

I have no issue with incorporation of modern knowledge of the universe into religion, you are free to do as you please with personal beliefs. It is the false claim that this knowledge is somehow ancient wisdom that I have issue with. It denigrates the true discoverers of that knowledge. It also denigrates the true wisdom of those ancient sky watchers who did discover many of the cycles and patterns in the sky, the ability to navigate vast oceans using the stars. It dilutes their real knowledge in a sea of confused metaphysical claims that are quite false.

False claims of ancient wisdom discredit the speaker and discredit those ancient beliefs they claim to represent. Yes, I have a great deal of trouble with that.

Author: Andrew

An electrical engineer, amateur astronomer, and diver, living and working on Mauna Kea, Hawai'i.

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