Lost in space: Telescopic vision eclipses facts

We would like to respond to the column written March 12, “Telescope benefits eclipsed by tainted truth.” It says the astronomy department claims Laderman “ma(de) no effort to examine both sides of the issue or to verify facts.” Such a statement relies on flawed logic and, quite frankly, remarkable arrogance on their part.

The astronomers suggest that because Laderman opposes the Large Binocular Telescope project, he must have failed to consider “both sides of the issue.” It is apparently incomprehensible to the astronomy department that Laderman might have considered their “side” (as with most issues, there are more than two “sides” to this debate) and found it severely wanting – thus leading to his opposition to the project. Laderman clearly disagrees with their support of the telescope project, but certainly examined many sides of this issue.

The astronomers wrote, “If Laderman had done his homework, he would have found that many of the statements in his piece are erroneous. For example, he claims ‘a considerable portion of the mountain’s virgin spruce forest would be destroyed.’ (T)he LBT building has already been built, and the telescope site and access roads only take up a grand total of 8.6 acres of the 1,300 acres of land above 10,000 feet.”

We would like to respond to this. Ignoring at this time the silly comment about Laderman not having “done his homework,” this is the first of Laderman’s alleged factual errors that the astronomers cite. But other than a relatively trifling comment over the status of the construction, they do not identify any factual errors.

They seem to disagree with Laderman’s use of the term “considerable,” as they presumably believe that “a grand total of 8.6 acres of the 1,300 acres of land above 10,000 feet” is not “considerable.” This is a difference of opinion – one to which they are of course fully entitled – but it does not render Laderman’s statement “erroneous.”

The astronomers also wrote, “Laderman also says building the LBT on Mount Graham would ‘gravely impact the habitat of several kinds of plants and animals, especially the endangered red squirrel.'”

Actually, what Laderman wrote in the column is that “independent biologists claim the observatory would gravely impact the habitat of several kinds of plants and animals, especially the endangered Mount Graham red squirrel.” The astronomers apparently chose to excise the first portion of Laderman’s sentence, which is rather important. In his original
statement there is nothing factually incorrect, as independent biologists have claimed as much. The astronomers are again confusing differences of opinion – in this case between experts – with factual errors.

Later they write, “In his second point, Laderman says a 1984 National Optical Astronomy Observatory study indicated that 38 sites in the United States were better suited for such a project. However, this study was based on maps and weather data, not on-site studies of actual ‘seeing’ conditions. Also, this study was primarily intended to produce a list of potential new observatory sites. On-site studies take two to three years, and no decision can be made without them. When the detailed ‘seeing’ studies were made on Mount Graham, it turned out to be an excellent site.”

Our response to this is that the astronomers identify no factual error on Laderman’s part – the NOAO study drew the conclusion he claimed in his column. In the paragraph above, the authors again mistake a difference of opinion with a factual error, as their later comment about “the inaccuracies in Laderman’s first two points” (see below) implies.

We hate to begrudge the point, but they use Laderman’s alleged factual errors – which were not actually factual errors – to smear the rest of the column when they subsequently write, “Given the inaccuracies in Laderman’s first two points, we feel some skepticism is warranted regarding the rest of his piece.”

The “rest of his (column),” for the most part, addressed the sacredness of the mountain to the Western Apaches. In writing what the authors did, they seemed to imply that the arguments concerning the mountain’s cultural significance might be suspect.

As a final point, Laderman did not dispute in his column that the LBT offers great scientific potential or that access to the LBT would be beneficial to members of the astronomy department. In fact, the words Laderman used to describe the astronomers’ motives in gaining access to the LBT – “both understandable and commendable” – were quite sympathetic, in our view.

But the question that we believe must be addressed, which the authors do not, is why their desire for access to the LBT on Mount Graham should be considered worthier than the long-held spiritual beliefs and rights of the Western Apaches.


Joel T. Helfrich is a graduate student in history. Sraddha Helfrich is a student in the Medical School. Jill Doerfler is a graduate student in American studies. Send
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