SHARON SHANKS | The Cosmos Moon hoax theory sets off many alarms
I normally don't watch "scandal tv" programs, but I made an exception this past week when Fox rebroadcast "Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon?" So many people had asked my opinion of the program after it originally aired in February that I felt obligated to see it for myself. I wish I hadn't.
If you were lucky enough to miss it, the program rehashed an old conspiracy theorist claim that NASA faked all six Apollo landings on the moon to save face when they realized that sending people safely to the moon and back just couldn't be done.
Disclaimer: Even though the program started off with a disclaimer that "the theories expressed are not the only possible explanation," the program was extremely unbalanced in favor of the hoax and used unsubstantiated claims of two primary sources, including one gentleman who wrote a book on the "moon hoax" and stands to profit from the publicity.
I don't want to spend time or space stating the conspiracy theorists' arguments and rebutting them -- excellent rebuttals can be found on the Web. The best page, if you want to check out just one site, is Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy site at www.badastronomy.com/bad/tv/foxapollo.html. Another excellent site is from the United Kingdom; go to http://www.redzero.demon.co.uk/moonhoax/.
Thinking skills: Two weeks ago I touched on the need to learn science and math and acquire something we like to call "critical thinking skills." The moon hoax story is a timely illustration of that need.
"Why do I have to learn match/science?" our kids ask. I wrote that the blunt truth was that they don't -- and I was wrong. I forgot about tabloid television and supermarket scandal sheets.
Knowing the carbon cycle in plants IS important. If a scandal sheet blares that "Tree grows $100 bills," kids will know from basic biology that this simply can't be true. They'll question what they read, and they'll practice critical thinking.
But it's not just today's students; it's everyone. We're all exposed to the tabloids, and in ever-increasing doses: on television, through the Internet and Web, and in print. The explosion in information that is the ugly duckling of the Internet has every type of media competing for our attention, and as intelligent, educated adults, we have to be able to sift the good from the bad, the truth from the lies, the fact from the fiction.
Major issues: Apply critical thinking skills to the "Did We Land on the Moon?" program, and several major issues pop up immediately. A lot of the "proofs" offered by the conspiracy theorists have to do with the action of materials (dust, the waving of the US flag) on the moon. Their only basis for comparison is similar actions on Earth.
First critical thinking alarm: There's no atmosphere on the moon. The surface of the moon exists virtually in a vacuum, and materials don't act the same in a vacuum as they do in an active atmosphere.
Second alarm: The gravity on the moon is one-sixth that of Earth's gravity. Actions there will be different. Both of these facts are basic science.
Light factor: Sunlight and shadows in photographs are more "proofs" offered by the hoax proponents. For an excellent discussion of sunlight in lunar photos, check out a page by Ian Williams Goddard at http://users.erols.com/igoddard/moon01.htm and another by Jim Scotti at the University of Arizona at http://pirlwww.lpl.arizona.edu/~jscotti/NOT_faked/.
Hoax theorists like to point out apparent anomalies in the reflections of images in the astronauts' face plates.
Third alarm: The face plates aren't perfect mirrors; they're convex. Look in a fun-house mirror, and this basic science fact, that images reflected from convex surfaces are distorted, becomes perfectly clear.
Let's apply critical thinking to an area other than science: basic journalism. The program presented long segments from their two main sources and rather short segments from a NASA spokesman.
Alarm four: How much of the statements are we getting in rebuttal? Is the spokesman's entire interview being used, or is the program presenting only snippets of words that put NASA in the worst possible light? Is what we're seeing fair and balanced, or is it heavily weighted to one side?
Good journalism: In a controversial story, good journalism calls for interviews of people in authority who are close to the source.
Alarm five: There were no interviews of Apollo astronauts. Critical thinking says that the program should have interviewed astronauts who actually walked on the moon. They were conspicuously absent, and the program didn't even provide a statement to the effect that "We attempted to contact astronauts who claimed to have walked on the moon, but they declined to be interviewed."
In the same vein, there's no discussion of lunar samples -- the hundreds of pounds of rocks brought back from the moon. That's alarm six.
Critical thinking arms us against get-rich-quick schemes, hucksters, miracle weight loss pills, and all the other ways that less than moral marketers devise to part us from our money.
Gives us tools: Critical thinking skills also give us tools to deal with astrology, pseudoscience and religious fanaticism. There's no way we can change the minds of people who believe in these areas because their thinking is based on belief, and the very nature of belief supersedes proof or question. We can look at their statements, however, and choose to believe or disbelieve.
Evidence up there: One statement made by the program is very true, however. The evidence to prove or disprove the moon hoax theory exists on the moon. It will take going back to the moon to prove that people did walk there (and left evidence behind).
As much as I'd like to see NASA return to the moon, we shouldn't do it just to prove the hoax proponents wrong. Besides, they'd probably claim that a return to the moon was just another elaborate hoax.