Monday, July 20, 2009

Denying the Moon Landing

Forty years ago today people landed on the moon. I remember watching it on television and being utterly fascinating by what was happening. It is mildly amusing, by the way, to look back at how the New York Times reported the story in their headline the following day – “MEN WALK ON MOON – ASTRONAUTS LAND ON PLAIN; COLLECT ROCKS, PLANT FLAG.” Somehow, there’s something missing in terms of momentousness; I mean they could have done all that by landing in, say, Des Moines, Iowa, right? Still, as we watched the astronauts lumber around the moon in those big spacesuits, there was this sense not just of wonderment but also of fear and menace, too. Fine, they’re up there but what will it take to get those guys safely back to earth? That part of it, the precision and planning necessary to leave the moon on the lunar module and reunite with the mother ship, still seems almost incomprehensible to me even now. But I never doubted that it actually happened. Which means that I am not part of the 6% of the American public that continues to believe we never did get there, that it was all a hoax. This figure, by the way, is confirmed by both the New York Times and Wikipedia. Indeed, the Wikipedia entry on the “moon landing hoax” is both illuminating and extremely lengthy (126 footnotes!) suggesting, at least, that the level of interest in this subject is shockingly high. Particularly dismaying is the survey data that indicates 28% of Russian respondents do not believe that an American moon landing ever occurred.

One of the reasons I find the Wikipedia entry sort of intriguing is because it reminds me of creationist and intelligent design arguments against natural selection. Like the creationists and the intelligent design advocates, the moon landing hoax people do not offer any kind of complete or consistent argument against the moon landing. Their strategy is to reveal what they regard as little inconsistencies - pictures that don’t match properly, quotes from prominent people that suggest a cover-up, factual claims that seem to conflict. Like the creationists who cling to the argument that because the “fossil record” is incomplete, intelligent design must be a better explanation than natural selection for human origins, the moon landing deniers will seize on even the smallest piece of evidence to “prove” that something didn’t happen, when, in fact, it is undeniable, according to all existing evidence, that it did. Perhaps that will remind you of another little controversy often referred to as Holocaust Denial (135 footnotes in Wikipedia!), but let’s not get into that right now. In fact, in the Times article about this phenomenon, sociologist Ted Goertzel is quoted as saying that conspiracy theories in general are united by a penchant for accumulating facts that don’t prove anything new but seek to put little dents into the arguments of mainstream theorists. “They feel if they’re got more facts than the other side,” Goertzel concludes, “that proves they’re right.”

So is there any reason why we should care about these claims of a moon landing fraud? Probably not. But there are a couple of points worth making. First, I find it hard to believe that we can chalk up this little phenomenon to a faulty education system. That’s basically what Harrison Schmitt, the Ph.D. astronaut who was part of the last moon landing team, has suggested. A lot of the people who try to make the case the moon landing was a hoax are highly verbal, whom you would regard as well informed if you sat down and had a chat with them. They can cite a lot of studies and explain their arguments in coherent, measured ways. Actually, I doubt that any amount of education could change the minds of these people, because it is their passionate intensity about these beliefs, bordering on religious fanaticism, that comes much closer to explaining what they are about.

More interesting, to me anyway, are the folks who by virtue of years under totalitarian rule no longer trust anything, no matter what it is, that governments assert. Quite a few of these hoax advocates, it turns out, have spent years living under dictatorships (which, in part, may explain the high percentage of Russians who deny the moon landing) and have pretty much stopped believing in anything they are told “officially.” Could it be that at the root of many of these conspiracy theories is the need to deny any authority that has proved itself to be unreliable again and again? And could it be that the more we learn about the secretive and illegal practices of the Bush Administration, which constitutes one of the most appalling abuses of authority in American history, that conspiracy theories can be expected to proliferate as never before?

Who knows? In the meantime, while the vast majority of us celebrate the anniversary of one of humankind's most remarkable achievements, there will be some 18 million Americans who may spend part of their day acknowledging those who masterminded a hoax that in its audacity and sheer totality is beyond belief.

1 comment:

  1. In his recent book, 'On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not', Robert Burton creates a thesis to explain this type of behavior. Burton explains the distinction between knowledge (based on fact and analysis leading too explanation) and the 'feeling of knowing' (the sense that something is correct) and shows that it is possible to have the latter in the absense of the former based entirely on neurophysiology. I can't do justice to his argument here, but anyone who is interested in understanding how certainty can trump knowledge should take a look at this book.
    "Not ignorance, but ignorance of ignorance, is the death of knowledge." A. N. Whitehead