In last week’s column, I attempted to rationally examine (using the SEARCH method) both a conspiracy theory and its counterclaim. The particular conspiracy theory I critiqued last week was the claim that the World Trade Center collapse was a government-engineered event. My objective, as always, was to discover the truth. My litmus test, as I am comparing the theory and the counter proposal, is to ask the essential question: which proposition provides the better explanation of the phenomena in question. But what constitutes “the better explanation?”
The better explanation is the one that gives us the most understanding. Before you accuse me of arguing in circles, let me suggest what I mean by “understanding.” We can comfortably say we “understand” something when we believe that our theory systemizes and unifies our knowledge as measured by our criteria of simplicity, conservatism, scope, and fruitfulness.
Let me put it more simply: like a jury, we are on sound rational footing when we are able to evaluate competing theories by determining which one is supported by credible evidence. To illustrate my point, let’s look at another famous conspiracy theory.
Decades before the infamous World Trade Center conspiracy theory, another outrageous proposition made the rounds and actually gained considerable popularity. This one had the added benefit of being popularized by a movie starring Dustin Hoffman. The movie was Wag the Dog. Its main proposition was that the moon landing was a Hollywood-staged event designed to garner political support for the President.
As we did in the World Trade Center case, let’s take a closer look at the claims and counter claims of the moon landing debate.
First the Conspiracy Theory: Our landings on the moon never happened and were staged in a movie studio. All the events that we seemingly witnessed on television never occurred because NASA did not have the technology at the time to pull it off. In fact, the entire Apollo program was a fraud. The purpose of the hoax was to gain funding and to “win” the space war against the Soviet Union.
Basis of the Conspiracy Theory: 1) In the lunar pictures there are no stars in the sky, which we would expect to see in the blackness of space if the pictures were genuine. 2) The video of the astronauts planting an American flag shows it fluttering as if blown by the wind, yet there is no wind on the moon. 3) The shadows cast by objects on the lunar surface should be parallel but many of them fall on non-parallel angles like they would in a studio. 4) In a photo of an astronaut standing next to a moon buggy, the letter C is clearly visible on a nearby rock, perhaps a marking made by a props department.
The Counter Argument: 1) Stars aren’t visible because camera exposures were set for brightly lit lunar scenes and these settings would prevent faint objects like stars from showing. 2) The flag flutters because the astronauts pushed and twisted the flagpole into the lunar surface, causing the horizontally supported flag to wave back and forth. 3) The nature of the visual perspective causes the shadows not to be parallel even though there was only one source of light-this phenomenon exists not only on the moon but on earth as well. 4) The letter C was not on any original photograph and the best explanation is that it is the result of the print making process (perhaps a hair or something to that effect).
After closely evaluating both explanations, the conspiracy theory fails miserably when exposed to our four-pronged yardstick of simplicity, conservatism, scope and fruitfulness.
The weakness of the moon landing conspiracy theory becomes clear when we look at the number of dubious assumptions it requires us to accept on faith:
A) It assumes that thousands of people could work on the Apollo project without anyone revealing that it was a fraud.
B) In a similar vein, It assumes that such a massive fraud could be perpetrated without one whistle-blower (thank goodness for whistle blowers), disgruntled employees or conspirators exposing the conspiracy.
C) In the decades since Apollo, no documents, files, videos, or witnesses have surfaced to reveal the “conspiracy.” Of the thousands of scientists and engineers who have since reviewed the Apollo data, not one has even suspected a fraud.
D) The Soviet Union itself did not expose the United States for committing what would have been at the time the biggest con job of the cold war.
E) No country could figure out that the radio waves they received at the time of the various Apollo landings were not coming from the moon.
Utilizing all four criteria, we can reasonable say with confidence that the alternative theory that we actually did land on the moon is the better theory. There is overwhelming and convincing evidence that these missions actually happened. Telescopic images, videos, photos from earth satellites, as well as data collected from the spacecraft and testimony of the astronauts and scientists involved (and don’t forget the moon rocks) all establish that the official version is simpler, more conservative, has wider scope and is more fruitful than the conspiracy theory. Therefore, as rational creatures, we must reject the “Wag the Dog” narrative.
Now that we have rather easily dismissed two major conspiracy theories in the past two weeks, you might wonder, given the overwhelming evidence against most conspiracy theories, why would anyone embrace them in the first place?
As I’ve pointed out in weeks past, the answer is quite simple. The world is a confusing place, marked by senseless suffering, major social upheavals, bad actors, random events and often cruel endings. Conspiracy theories soften that reality by providing an easy explanation of why things happen as well as the responsible parties. Within the orbit of a conspiracy theory, formerly random and unconnected events now form the basis of a master plan. More importantly, the answer as to why bad things happen to good people can be answered easily: the conspirators did it. The true believers can take comfort in knowing not only what the problem is but also how to fix it. Like an old-fashioned western, their worldview lacks nuance. There are only bad guys and good guys, white hats and black hats. If you don’t believe that anyone could actually think this way in 2020 just read any of the daily tweets from our national chief executive.
If we are to progress as a species, it is essential that we remain skeptical of theories whose agenda is to divide us and promote hate against an individual or group of individuals. What’s at stake was so eloquently described by the late Carl Sagan when he observed, “skeptical habits of thought are essential for nothing less than our survival…” I couldn’t agree more.