16 March 2012

On Moon Landing Evidence and the Dangers of Conspiracy Theories

2010 marked the year of extensive lunar mapping thanks to the launch of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, and as a result scientists and regular science loving people were quick to come out and use some of this new lunar photography to thwart an old foe, stuck firmly in the popular imagination: the Moon Landing Hoax conspiracy theory.
Back in September of last year images of the Apollo moon landing sites were released, which showed not only the remains left behind from the lunar landers, but also the tracks left by the astronauts themselves (as the moon has no atmosphere to disturb them after 40 odd years).

Then again last week another announcement was made which had one article boasting “refute this hoax lovers; more proof men totally walked on the moon”. This was in response to more images made public which show moonwalkers Pete Conrad and Alan Bean’s tracks from their sojourn to the Surveyor 3 probe while on the moon as a part of the Apollo 12 mission.
Now I love science as much as the next guy, and yes if I meet someone who entertains the idea of a moon landing hoax, I am quick to get an argument going (if only a friendly one). But it seems a bit odd to be touting this new evidence as being in any way convincing to those in the conspiracy theory camp.
After all, they are willing to dismiss photos apparently taken on the moon back in the 60’s-70’s; so why should we feel confident in debunking their theories with photographs taken remotely? Not to mention the more important fact that these new images were produced in the modern age of Photoshop and computer generated imagery. If anything, the release of these images is something that would have been long expected by any forward thinking hoax claimer. Of course NASA and the shadowy government conspiracy (which must be staffed with a lot of very old men these days) would have the ability to fake photos from satellite; after all they even placed laser reflectors on the moon to support their lie.
I wouldn’t even be surprised if when future people return to the moon, and the Chinese explorers there tour the remains of a once mighty America’s space efforts, that there would be people who still maintained that the landing was a fake, and any subsequent evidence was a party to this.
This is always going to be the case, as with most conspiracy theories there are pervasive elements at work that undermine our mental faculties. They are driven by wants and desires; generally of the kind where we don’t want something to be true. We don’t want to believe that an influential person like JFK, who seemingly had such a steadfast place in history set out before him, could be so easily taken from the world by the actions of a lone gunman. So we push our reasoning slightly aside, and delve into the conspiracy theory box to pull out something that agrees with how we want the world to be.
Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes once said “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts”, which seems to capture the general idea, except that in this case the conspiracy theorist twists the facts to their theories when the alternate theories seem too impalpable.
This abandonment of rational thinking is a dangerous thing, as once you get rid of the tenets of evidence and logical thinking, you will find self referential confirmation and verification all too easily.

It reminds me of that other great conspiracy theory. The one that states that after we die we don’t actually cease to exist, but rather there is some obscure secondary existence awaiting us. Something that is hidden from the world as we know it, but nonetheless must be out there, because if it wasn’t, then we would have to live up to uncomfortable realities.
And the best part about conspiracy theories (and yes, religions too), is that it takes relatively little effort on our behalf in order to ascribe to them, and reap the mental benefits of believing our world is just that little bit better.
It is easy to assert that man didn’t walk on the moon, as you don’t have to give up anything, except perhaps the respect of a few more discerning people.
The problem with conspiracy theories, as with religion, is that you can evoke your powerful external force in order to explain away any objections to the theory. In the Moon Hoax example the external force is some form of government body who are either working to keep the lie undercover, or else have simply succeeded in their goal of fooling the world, and are now inactive.
In the case of most modern religions, the external force is much more potent, as any god can generally be said to have controls over reality, and thus any contrary evidence to the god’s theory can be explained away through magic. This is akin to how people used to claim (and some still do today) that the fossil record is a work of the devil, put there to fool man. The external powerful force at work.
Clearly the work of the devil
Once you start entering in these agents with seemingly limitless abilities, you can work your way around almost any rational argument, or contrary evidence.
This is the crux of the Flying Spaghetti Monster’s theology, where any experiment or evidence which appears contradictory to the word of the Pastafarians only appears so due to the diligent manipulations of ‘his noodly appendage’.
So in closing, though I like these new images being produced from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, I don’t think it is wise to use this evidence in an argument against conspiracy theorists. Their bag of magic tricks can explain away anything that could be used as proof, especially now that the thing we are talking about is set firmly in the past, and beyond direct investigation.
Rant complete.

P.b. (post bloggedum) 
I also note that Russia has announced plans to get a cosmonaut to the moon by 2030. I guess second place in the space race is still quite an achievement, even if it would mark sixty years since the yanks beat them to it.
Then again, it might get crowded up there, what with the Chinese and Indians hoping to beat the Ruskies to it in 2025 and 2020 respectively.

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