What Has The Thirty Meter Telescope Already Shown Us?

What Has The Thirty Meter Telescope Already Shown Us?

by Guest Blogger,
Tyler Kokjohn, Ph.D.

The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), a 2 billion-dollar behemoth, will not see first light for years (1), but the effort to build it might have already illuminated something important.  It seems nothing for the proposal to locate the TMT on the summit of Hawaii’s Mauna Kea has come without controversy and while the state supreme court recently settled the legal issues, the situation on the mountain is now clearly deteriorating (2).

This forthcoming technological marvel will assure continued U.S. national leadership in astronomy research and be a job-creating boon for the local economy (3).  Locating this advanced concept telescope at the premier observing site of Mauna Kea will enable researchers to study fainter and more distant astronomical objects than has been possible previously (3).  However, Mauna Kea is a sacred site to some persons who feel that the construction of observatories has interfered with cultural and religious practices (1).  Unimpressed with the promised gains and unsatisfied by the legal process the elders have drawn their line.  Protestors are now blocking the start of TMT construction activities and forcing other existing installations to cease operations (2).  It is unclear how or when this dispute will end (2). 

Too Far From Home?

Mauna Kea is geographically remote for most of us.  Neither Islanders nor Astronomers, our sense of investment in this quarrel is accordingly limited.  Although this particular situation is unique, the basic story might seem familiar; authoritative official interests align promises and/or economic incentives to generate a broad-based popular consensus supporting an action or decision.  It is making a case by touting indisputable benefits combined with a subtle divide and conquer strategy spiced with a touch of nationalism.  Mauna Kea may be far away, but some similar issues as to where and how we are permitted to decide to best utilize science and technology hit us directly.          

Eat This

Reflecting consumer preferences, suppliers offer a range of food products including organically grown produce, free range chickens and fair trade products.  However, for consumers wishing to actively avoid genetically modified (GM) crops due to concerns about safety or the environmental impacts of the pesticides that must be used with many of them, the story is a little different.  Notwithstanding an often expressed deep reverence for free enterprise and the wisdom of the markets, U.S. government authorities are not making it easy for retail consumers to identify GM crop-based foods (4).  The market will meet a consumer preference to avoid GM food, but the government seems uninterested in facilitating such decisions.

Can We Say No?     

The first babies genetically engineered using the new CRISPR technology were born a few months ago.  This reckless and unethical experiment on unborn human beings was immediately denounced by most colleagues and opinion leaders in the scientific community as “substandard, superficial and absurd” (6).   Now another scientist insists such work cannot be halted and demands he be allowed to perform similar unethical experiments (6).  Hard on the heels of CRISPR DNA editing technology has come a new invention commonly known as a gene drive (7).  The ultimate double-edged sword, gene drives might allow us to control scourges such as malaria.  However, they might also exact terrible ecological tolls in the bargain.  

Scientists have birthed genetic manipulation technologies they are unable to fully control.  The new techniques could bring enormous benefits and the research community is anxious to develop the means to employ them ethically and safely.  Will ordinary citizens get a chance to express their wishes regarding the acceptable uses of genome editing methods before impatient investigators, profit-seeking private corporations or foundations keen to deploy the latest inventions for their own purposes decide matters for everyone?  Will our elected representatives heed the voice of the voters or the vested interests?  

We Are the Instrumentality

Combining tangible reality with spiritual significance Mauna Kea provides a physical focus and sharp clarity other discussions over adopting technology lack.  No hard-to-visualize scientific concepts or imagining the great things to come in the future, the site itself is the heart of this dispute.  In this case the elders have declared the limits and we can both see as well as feel what they are defending.  Perhaps a concrete example will inspire those of us silently watching from afar as events unfold to extrapolate this lesson to other situations.  The Thirty Meter Telescope situation has revealed something important.  It is now up to us to figure out how to make good use of what we have seen.       

  1. Dennis Overbye.  2019.  Hawaii Telescope Project, Long Disputed, Will Begin Construction.  The New York Times, 10 July 2019.  https://nyti.ms/2LOhJde 
  1. Alexandra Witze.  2019.  Hawaii Telescope Protest Shuts Down 13 Observatories on Mauna Kea.  Nature, 18 July 2019.  https://nyti.ms/1OyZy6p 
  1. Anonymous.  Maunakea and TMT.  The Facts About TMT on Maunakea.  http://www.maunakeaandtmt.org/facts-about-tmt/ 
  1. Anonymous.  2018.  U.S.D.A. Announces G.M.O Labeling Standard.  Food Business News, 20 December 2018.    https://www.foodbusinessnews.net/articles/13064-usda-announces-gmo-labeling-standard 
  1. George Dvorsky.  2019.  Substandard, Superficial and Absurd: Experts Slam the Science Behind the CRISPR Baby Experiment.  Gizmodo, 30 April 2019.   https://gizmodo.com/substandard-superficial-and-absurd-experts-slam-the-1834417285  
  1. Jon Cohen.  2019.  Russian Geneticist Answers Challenges to His Plan to Make Gene-Edited Babies.  Science, 13 June 2019. https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/06/russian-geneticist-answers-challenges-his-plan-make-gene-edited-babies    
  2. Megan Scudellari.  2019.  Self-Destructing Mosquitoes and Sterilized Rodents: The Promise of Gene Drives.  Nature, 9 July 2019.  https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-02087-5 

Fake News In Perspective

Fake News In Perspective

By Guest Blogger,
Tyler Kokjohn, Ph.D.

image-1What is fake news?  A simple question that is not so easy to answer.  The extreme forms featuring outright fabrications can be identified quickly, but some stories are far more difficult to categorize.  Because true and false information can be blended together easily and harnessed to serve a variety of goals, fake news in one form or another has been around for quite a while.

A recent article featuring thoughts from a writer who reports on such matters suggests “the origins of ‘fake news’ go back to the 1950s when UFO newsletters from organizations like the Aerial Phenomenon Research Organization reported on alien abductions and government coverups.” Jumping from UFO groups to radio programs and beyond produces a simple straight line extrapolation leading to Breitbart News.

The UFO community has experienced quite directly the negative impacts of fake news.  Charlatans and hoaxers have prospered on fertile grounds while poisoning progress toward meaningful comprehension of the phenomena.  Misinformation and deliberate disinformation have agitated leaders and the rank-and-file alike.  Unable to establish much of anything in the way of reliable, agreed-on fact, the community has devolved into small profit center fiefdoms.

Ufology has been plagued by fake news from without and within, but that device certainly did not originate in UFO interest group newsletters.  To make such a claim is to ignore a great body of history that reveals forms of fake news have been with us for centuries.  ‘Yellow’ journalism helped drive the United States into war with Spain over a century ago as publishers William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer tried to out sensationalize each other’s news stories.  Edward Bernays wrote the book on the dark aspects of propaganda – ‘engineering public consent’- nearly 25 years before Coral and Jim Lorenzen founded APRO.  Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense, published in 1776, pushed the American colonies on the path to independence.

Fake news may be purpose built, but it can also come about through journalistic carelessness.  Experts consenting to interviews must take care to provide informed perspectives and interviewers/authors may wish to vet the assertions carefully.  It seems possible that Long John Nebel might have influenced Art Bell, but what evidence is there that chain extends forward through persons like Rush Limbaugh and beyond?  Maybe it is just as valid to postulate later day radio personalities were influenced by Harry Emerson Fosdick and the many evangelists of the airwaves who followed him.  Lacking corroboration these statements seem more akin to a conspiracy theory than an evidenced explanation of the history of fake news.

The take home lesson is clear; fake news is pervasive, some of it may not be intentional.  Manage it by honing your critical thinking skills.

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Do Lawyers Dream of Shocking Sensitivity?

Do Lawyers Dream of Shocking Sensitivity?

by Guest Blogger,
Tyler Kokjohn, Ph.D. 

labScientists are developing sensitive devices to reveal DNA or proteins from genetically engineered organisms in complex environmental samples (1).  This technology may give investigators an unprecedented ability to track engineered genes and their protein products through ecosystems.  Genetically modified (GM) Bt-corn plants express toxin genes originating from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis that kill certain insect pests.  Although widely adopted, assessing the environmental effects of Bt-corn agriculture has been challenging.  An ability to trail toxin genes and proteins flowing through the environment might help ecologists detect any consequential impacts linked with Bt-corn farming.  Because the new genetically engineered product detection devices will be adaptable to many situations, they might become a standard part of both risk assessment and compliance assurance processes.

chickensThe management of GM farming operations can be complicated undertakings demanding proactive actions to minimize the unintentional dispersal of modified plants or their products such as pollen (2).  Despite the efforts, GM farms and ‘organic’ food growers sometimes coexist under tense conditions.  Concerns over spreading GM materials have already induced neighboring organic food producers to launch lawsuits alleging economic losses due to contamination (2).  The deployment of new, highly sensitive detection tools could turn out to be a double-edged sword that renews concerns over product purity.  Let’s assume the new detection systems reach the scientist’s stated goal of revealing 3 copies of a specific target DNA molecule in a one milliliter liquid sample (1).  Would finding that level of GM DNA in or on a certified organic food item mean it is impure?  The problem may be that highly sensitive analysis methods might reveal GM materials are widely dispersed in our environment in places we never dreamed they would be and do not want them.

The emerging situation might be similar to what we face with radioactivity.  Consumers would reasonably reject food products they knew to be radioactive.  It might seem to be a simple matter to issue regulations forbidding the sale of all radioactive foods.  The problem is that if the appropriate detection tools are sensitive enough they will reveal that all food items are slightly radioactive due to the universal, low-level presence of carbon-14.  That forces regulators addressing such issues to craft rules with care and precision.

It will be scientifically important to use new, sensitive detection tools to confirm how far things like Bt toxins are now flowing quietly through our environment and establish valid thresholds to justify any future actions taken to protect ecosystems.  However, it will be interesting to see what happens if someone tests their free range chicken and finds Bt toxin DNA all over it.  Notwithstanding legal judgements regarding the safety of GM products, consumer concerns or outright refusal to purchase items they deem contaminated could create economic havoc for organic food producers.

GM foods have a contentious history and a sensitive new analytic technology is now advancing rapidly in a regulatory vacuum.  This might turn out to be a lawyer’s dream come true.

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(1)   http://news.rice.edu/2016/10/10/eco-detector-will-hunt-gmos-that-escape-to-environment/
(2)   https://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2015/11/23/myth-busting-contamination-gmo-farms-halo-effect-often-protects-organic-farms/