Tabloid television offers a lesson in uncritical thinking
The price of liberty is, in addition to eternal vigilance, eternal patience with the vacuous blather occasionally expressed from behind the shield of free speech. It is a cost worth bearing, but it does become exasperating, as when the Fox Broadcasting Company aired its highly advertised special “Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon?” NASA, viewers were told, faked the Apollo missions on a movie set.
Such flummery should not warrant a response, but in a free society, skeptics are the watchdogs against irrationalism — the consumer advocates of ideas. Debunking is not simply the divestment of bunk; its utility is in offering a better alternative, along with a lesson on how thinking goes wrong. The Fox show is a case study, starting with its disclaimer: “The following program deals with a controversial subject. The theories expressed are not the only possible explanation. Viewers are invited to make a judgment based on all available information.” That information, of course, was not provided, so let’s refute Fox’s argument point by point in case the statistic at the top of the show — that 20 percent of Americans believe we never went to the moon — is accurate.
Claim: Shadows in the photographs taken on the moon reveal two sources of light. Given that the sun is the only source of light in the sky, the extra “fill” light must come from studio spotlights. Answer: Setting aside the inane assumption that NASA and its co-conspirators were too incogitant to have thought of this, there are actually three sources of light: the sun, the earth (reflecting the sun) and the moon itself, which acts as a powerful reflector, particularly when you are standing on it.
Claim: The American flag was observed “waving” in the airless environment of the moon. Answer: The flag waved only while the astronaut fiddled with it.
Claim: When the top half of the LEM took off from the moon, there was no visible rocket exhaust. The LEM instead leaped off its base as though yanked up by cables. Answer: First, the footage clearly shows that there was quite a blast, as dust and other particles go flying. Second, without an oxygen-rich atmosphere, there is no fuel to generate a rocket-nozzle flame tail.
Claim: The LEM simulator used by astronauts for practice was obviously unstable — Neil Armstrong barely escaped with his life when his simulator crashed. The real LEM was much larger and heavier and thus impossible to land. Answer: Practice makes perfect, and these guys practiced. A bicycle is inherently unstable, too, until you learn to ride it. Also, the moon’s gravity is only one sixth that of the earth’s, so the LEM’s weight was less destabilizing.
Claim: No stars show in the sky in the photographs and films from the moon. Answer: Stars don’t routinely appear in photography shot on the earth, either. They are simply too faint. To shoot stars in the night sky, even on the moon, you need to use long exposures.
The no-moonie mongers go on and on in this vein, weaving narratives that include the “murder” of astronauts and pilots in accidents, including Gus Grissom in the Apollo 1 fire before he was about to go public with the hoax. Like most people with conspiracy theories, the landing naysayers have no positive supporting evidence, only allegations of cover-ups. I once asked G. Gordon Liddy (who should know) about conspiracies. He quoted Poor Richard’s Almanack: “Three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead.” To think that thousands of NASA scientists would keep their mouths shut for years is risible rubbish.