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Saturday 25 July 2009

A Ramble on the Moon

Moon DreamsImage by jurvetson via Flickr
I write this at a time when many are celebrating the 40th anniversary of the moon landings. Like many moments in the 1960s the moon landings were one of those events where, apparently, you would always remember where you were when Neil Armstrong allegedly fluffed his lines “One small step for man [crackle, crackle, interference], one giant leap for mankind [more interference]”. Of course, the line was supposed to be “One small step for a man...”, and like many events in history there is some debate as to whether or not the first man on the moon actually did blow this famous speech or whether the “a” was clouded by interference. If only this were the only dispute about this truly impressive landmark in world history. Sadly a by-product of postmodern times is a totally illogical desire to believe in a totally ridiculous alternative to accepted factual evidence, and doubting the fact that Apollo 11 landed on the moon has been a persistent conspiracy theory since 1969.

Interestingly enough the first time I really began to doubt popular conspiracy theories (as opposed to actual conspiracies) was at a dinner party, the place many refer to when urban legends and such like pop up. My antagonist was a typical upper-middle class individual who clearly enjoyed enthralling his audiences with this particular topic. I am guessing it was a new topic for him, as a documentary putting the “moon landing hoax” idea forward was airing around that time. We were all chatting about something that was not directly connected to the lunar exploration, but he somehow saw his opportunity and nonchalantly dropped his conversational boarding bridge with the line “...and they try to fool us that the Americans landed on the moon”. I had heard the conspiracy theory before, but never really paid it much attention – I often I wonder whether this really is the healthiest thing to do. My response wasn’t overtly sceptical, just a light-hearted statement to confirm what was being said, “You believe the moon landings were faked?” Perhaps I unconsciously hinted at the fringe nature of his opinion, as if to imply “oh you are one of those blokes”.

His response certainly sounded like that of a besieged and persecuted minority, desperately defending his status in society. He was immediately and disproportionately aggressive, the kind of defensive anger one expects from an adulterer caught in the act. He immediately spouted off a list of points about the moon landings I believed or hadn’t even considered prefixed with the venom tinged words “You mean to say that you believe that...”

I tried not to further the argument. I adopted the same passive stance I had done with my friend who believed that the New World Order employed JFK’s driver to shoot him, with the relation who thinks oil companies have secretly assassinated numerous private mechanics who figured out how to run hydrogen car engines or other acquaintance who thinks the world will end in 2012. I was completely non-confrontational. I didn’t agree with him, I just said “That’s very interesting” and tried to change the subject as soon as I was sure he was happy to leave his soapbox and hobby horse, while I pondered both absurdity of his claims and the psychology that led him to them.

Their must be something in my personality that attracts these types. When I was kid it was religious zealots trying to convert me to their church, as I grew up it has been conspiracy theorists. Interestingly the latter exhibit exactly the same form of obsessive fanatical belief, confirmation bias, selective reasoning and aggressive desire to influence others as the former. It is this forceful nature that initially repelled me from them early on and also prompted me to automatically go to the default conversational tactic “Do not argue with ignorance or a drunk”. And yet this weird postmodern idea of jumping to the most ridiculous conclusions and holding onto them no matter how much empirical evidence proves these conclusions to be wrong has ebbed its way into our popular literature. Beyond pulp non-fiction, as Damian Thompson explains in his “Counterknowledge”, pseudohistory is pushing its way under the bookshop sections normally marked for serious historical studies. Worse still, a type of perverse and illogical “moderate” idea has arrived, which lends weight to thoroughly debunked theories under the guise of giving balance.

Here is an example of this type of light-hearted “moderation”. “That’s Bollocks” looked like and was promoted as a fun pocket book separated fact from fiction in the world of urban legends and conspiracy theories. It is not. The book is written by Albert Jack who, like many of us, has a keen interest and affection for urban legends. However, this affection seems to deter him from seriously investigating the legends he reproduces in his book. In his introduction he tells his readers that most of the conspiracy theories and urban legends in the book are probably false. That would be fine, if it were just a list of urban legends and maybe an obvious tongue-in-cheek remark to relay the convincing manner they were originally told. However, this is not the way the book is promoted. There is little in the way of consistency, with some legends being reproduced verbatim, others having a sceptical opinion cast over and others, the real offenders, actually implying serious consideration. Worse still, conspiracy theories tend to fall under this category. And it is here we find the apparent “Moon Landing Hoax”.

Albert Jack says:

“I also have my doubts when I look at the famous flag photo of the Lunar Module, astronaut and apparently fluttering US flag. For a start we know there is no atmosphere on the moon, so where does the wind come from?”

Psst... Albert, the flag isn’t fluttering. Footage alongside that particular photo show the flag is being manually moved.

“Also, the light, shadows and lack of visible stars are suspicious, and we can see the moon’s surface clearly and it certainly doesn’t look like cheese to me”.

Humour noted, Bertie, but just to put the record straight here is “Bad Astronomy” author, Phil Plait’s answer:

“I'll say this here now, and return to it many times: the Moon is not the Earth. Conditions there are weird, and our common sense is likely to fail us.
The Moon's surface is airless. On Earth, our thick atmosphere scatters sunlight, spreading it out over the whole sky. That's why the sky is bright during the day. Without sunlight, the air is dark at night, allowing us to see stars.
On the Moon, the lack of air means that the sky is dark. Even when the Sun is high off the horizon during full day, the sky near it will be black. If you were standing on the Moon, you would indeed see stars, even during the day.
So why aren't they in the Apollo pictures? Pretend for a moment you are an astronaut on the surface of the Moon. You want to take a picture of your fellow space traveler. The Sun is low off the horizon, since all the lunar landings were done at local morning. How do you set your camera? The lunar landscape is brightly lit by the Sun, of course, and your friend is wearing a white spacesuit also brilliantly lit by the Sun. To take a picture of a bright object with a bright background, you need to set the exposure time to be fast, and close down the aperture setting too; that's like the pupil in your eye constricting to let less light in when you walk outside on a sunny day.
So the picture you take is set for bright objects. Stars are faint objects! In the fast exposure, they simply do not have time to register on the film. It has nothing to do with the sky being black or the lack of air, it's just a matter of exposure time. If you were to go outside here on Earth on the darkest night imaginable and take a picture with the exact same camera settings the astronauts used, you won't see any stars!”
I won’t go any further into the ins and outs of the evidence that better supports the mainstream fact that the moon landings did happen. Much more qualified individuals have done a better job than me on this one Buy Phil Plait’s book “Bad Astronomy” for a fun read and a comprehensive rebuttal on the whole “Moon Land Hoax” conspiracy theory.

Aside from my intuitive response to fanaticism there were a few other pretty big points that made me assume the position of doubt when the moon landing hoax conspiracy theory was first launched at me. I have the advantage of having worked within various cultures and subcultures of people, living all my life in the media industry and having a background in the life of the travelling circus, a business that has often been linked with deception as a means for entertainment. Think Phineas T. Barnum! My experiences in martial arts have also exposed me to a variety of charlatans and mystical acolytes. This has provided me with some pretty intuitive senses for what is commonly referred to as “bullshit”.

On the circus there is little room to confuse the show you put on with the hard realities of, well, “real life”, it isn’t long before you start smelling the proverbial hot caffeine drink. Unlike perhaps many other areas of showbusiness, the circus man and woman has little time to become absorbed in their onstage persona when they are out of the circus ring. Magic and fantasy is the furthest thing from their mind when they are trying to put up a Big Top on a muddy field in the freezing rain. It is little surprising that the modern scientific sceptical movement counts many magicians in their ranks. Being experts in deception, the magician is trained to understand how most real deceptions work, or don’t as the case may be. A conspiracy is quite simply as strong as its flakiest member and the more people involved – and every fashionable conspiracy theory requires the involvement of numerous people – the less likely it will remain secret for very long. This is something history has taught us time again. The history of the Roman Empire, for example, is full of conspiracies. Their success and failure was often very dependent on the number of people involved and the degree of complexity required. For anyone who wants to see case studies of conspiracies in a time before the Freedom of Information Act and worldwide multimedia, then a study of ancient Rome is definitely in order.

Having worked on many film sets I know how hard it is keep people from discussing the shoot. Many who follow the “Moon Landing Hoax” idea haven’t really set foot on a proper film set, which explain why it is easy for them to believe the story that the whole thing was filmed in the Nevada desert. The Nevada desert idea probably appealed to the originators of the story because many a criminal has gotten away with quite literally murder out in the vast no-man’s land. However, what they fail to realise is that by setting a shoot up so far away from civilisation would make it even more difficult to do than if the whole thing had shot it in a regular studio. This would mean the film set would require far more people than a regular shoot. And no matter how much money, power and influence you have, it would be nigh on impossible to keep all the camera crew, runners, prop-builders, drivers, riggers, special effects people, stunts, caterers, make-up, costumers, actors, all their suppliers, their couriers and all the families and friends of the aforementioned from blabbing until the day each of them died.

Today, the film review website, “Ain’t It Cool” regularly demonstrates just how easy it is to find out about any film in pre-production. Way before the days of the internet George Lucas tried every trick in the book, as did many others directors, to keep his projects under wraps. “Return of the Jedi” was even famously filmed under the codename “Blue Harvest”. It didn’t stop the man playing Darth Vader, David Prowse, from blabbing about the death of his character before the film’s release. This is with confidentiality contracts in place and plenty of financial sponsorship.

As for the threat of being killed, I can’t help but think of the extensive amount of information we now have available on the history of organized crime. Much of this came from old time, old country “loyal” Cosa Nostra soldiers like Joe Valachi who had sworn the oath of Omerta (the mafia code of silence). We have only to look under the whole sub-section of “True Crime” autobiographies in your local mainstream newsagent to see a whole host of “tough” guys spilling the beans on their criminal pasts. Even OJ Simpson couldn’t resist having a go at “If I Did It”. The human capacity for keeping secrets is, quite literally, the stuff of legends!

Kathryn S. Olmsted has written a brilliant new book, “Real Enemies” that discusses the whole psychology behind growing public mistrust and why our discovery of actual conspiracies in high places from World War I onwards has helped fuel our fantastical belief in far flung conspiracy theories. It’s a great accompaniment to David Aaronovitch’s “Voodoo Histories”

I was not even thought of when the moon landings occurred. The baby boomers were beginning to come of age and the whole event, a grand spectacle that evened the USA’s score with the Russians in the space race was watched on the device that defined the boomer generation: the television set. However, some from my culture, the circus world, told me that they felt the moon landings were a bit of an anti-climax. Most were not going to buy into the conspiracy theory, but mainly because many of them simply didn’t care. I have been told stories of an entire show trying to cram into a wagon to watch the only TV set any of them owned, only to see some very grainy looking photos, to hear distorted voices and then to listen to what seemed like an endless stream of padding as dull experts discussed the whole lunar mission.

My mother never really was a fan of the TV set and she left the wagon with a shrug of her shoulders. The life of the circus had been threatened by emergence of such in-house entertainment, which is why my family left to tour South Africa for three years in the mid-60s. The circus life was one of hands-on excitement coupled with hard work to perform and to move whole shows from town to town. The circus person enjoyed the spirit of community. The moon landings to them were just abstract blurred images on a machine that was robbing them of their livelihood. I understand the point and maybe it touches on the psychology we find in those who doubt the moon landings.

The lead up to moon landings can be traced back through centuries of wonder. From the first time man looked up to the stars he has wondered, speculated, woven myths and believed stories about them. This wonder would be taken to revolutionary scientific levels in different ages by the likes of Copernicus, Galileo and Stephen Hawkins. The physics that actually got us to the moon can be traced back to Sir Isaac Newton, a man who will be remembered more for his science than his religious ideas, but probably wrote more on the latter than the former. Then there were always the fantasists that sparked the imagination of the audiences. People like Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and Arthur C. Clarke may irritate many in the scientific community because of their speculation, but I often feel this is a case of a scientist forgetting his childhood. Fantastical wonder at possibilities draws the future scientist in, just as many a legend can draw a future historian. I often check myself for scoffing at pulp non-fiction, as this is the stuff that got me reading criminal history in the first place
Today, I teach realistic self defence and promote martial arts scepticism, but I regularly remind myself that the reason why I got into martial arts in the first place was down to two fictional ninjas in the GI Joe comic-strip.

Unfortunately there are many people that fall between the cracks, who never truly get to make that jump – and therefore make the proper distinction – from “this is a great story” to “and these are the real facts”. Instead they are more content working on a confirmation bias to prove that the moon is made of cheese, the earth is flat and so on rather than to discover the reality. As it turned out the moon landings little resembled HG Wells’ “First Men on the Moon” fancies. I guess it didn’t help that the landings occurred in a decade that followed the science fiction craze. After all those movies, books and TV shows the moon expedition produced no aliens, no monsters, not much actually.

However, the moon landings were a tremendous achievement. They were the actualization of a dream and a proud mark of human achievement. We can sympathize with those who just don’t see the point in all the fuss and, in the interests of furthering education, we can give those who may be swayed by the conspiracy theories a few simple places for good research, but I wouldn’t spend much time with those who genuinely believe in the unbelievable – or want to believe, as I think the case often is. You may find it odd that often those who do buy into the hoax conspiracy also buy into ufology, alien abductions and so on. Very strange, that they cannot grip the hard science that is available for our own space travel and yet they are more than willing to make a giant blindfolded leap into the implausibility of another race making it over a ridiculous number of miles through the known and unknown universe!

By paying compliment to the fantasist without falling into the realm of conspiracy, I think wonderment is not a bad place to temporarily sit. My dear friend Nell Stroud’s father, the television director Rick Stroud has written a book that addresses this superbly. “The Book of the Moon” is a wonderful book that looks at both the mythology of the moon and the hard facts about it. It provides inspiration for personal endeavours and almost literal meaning to such motivational clichés as “shoot for the moon, even if you miss you will be up there with the stars”.


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