Nov 11 2009

Moving the Goalpost on the Moon Hoax

The moon hoax – the claim that the US never sent people to the moon but rather executed a ridiculously elaborate hoax – persists as a monument to human cognitive frailty.

In some surveys as many as 25% of respondents doubt the Apollo missions to the moon ever happened.

It is a spectacular demonstration of the human ability to form beliefs for ideological or emotional reasons – or just out of certain habits of thought – which not only are not based upon the evidence, persist despite the evidence.

Primarily the moon hoax and other grand conspiracy theories are an exercise in cherry picking evidence that can be made to seem anomalous or sinister, without being able to formulate a coherent explanation or account for all evidence.

Of the many logical fallacies that conspiracy theorists commit, one that has recently manifested in dramatic fashion is the moving of the goalpost. For years moon-landing deniers argued that we should have been able, with some telescope or probe, to take pictures of the Apollo landing sites on the moon. When it was pointed out that no telescope or probe had enough resolution and was pointed in the right direction, the response was a dismissive, “how convenient.”

Of course, we all knew the day would come when we would have pictures of the Apollo landing sites – it was inevitable. We also (by we, now, I mean skeptics) knew that the moon hoaxers would do two things: they would simply declare the new photos fakes (part of the conspiracy) and move the goalpost – ask for better pictures, even those these two claims are somewhat contradictory.

Well, we have been seeing for months now wonderful pictures from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) of the Apollo landings sites. Phil Plait has been keeping us up to date on this. And predictably we are seeing exactly what we expect – the stuff left behind by the Apollo missions right where they should be, and matching up to pictures taken by the lander after lift off from the Moon.

Even better, and something I had not considered, we can see the paths that the shuffling astronauts took across the surface of the moon. It really is amazing.

As predicted moon hoaxers are not impressed. At “Professor Sargent” makes the following statement:

It appears to be nothing more than a few pixels of white and dark light lumped together. This sort of editing can be done in Microsoft Paint – a program that gets shipped with every version of Windows. If NASA had really wanted to dispel the hoaxers with photos, then the LRO should have been equipped with more powerful telescopic lenses.

Nice – NASA faked it, and why aren’t the pictures better. He then goes on to show “satellite” images from Google earth of high res picture of a car parked on a street, not realizing that Google earth uses the best images available, including those taken by low flying planes.

Regardless – sending a probe to the Moon is different than putting a satellite in Earth Orbit, and the LRO has the resolution it has. The purpose of the LRO – despite the Professor’s claims – was not to disprove moon hoaxers but to survey the moon. The Apollo landing site pictures are an added bonus.

Further, as the LRO works its way into lower orbit, it is taking closer and better pictures of the landing sites. You can see the orbiters left behind, their landing pads, equipment, and the astronaut foot paths.

Moon hoaxers have actually been rather quiet about the LRO images. While no one expects them to disappear entirely, they seem to be waning. Perhaps they feel they can just duck and cover for a while, and wait out this whole LRO images thing.

Further, I wonder what effect the LRO images are having on public opinion. Conspiracy theorists are hopeless – but public opinion is not. If Google is any indication, people seem to be having more fun shooting down the conspiracy theorists than anything else. Maybe it’s the Mythbusters phenomenon – Adam and Jamie took on the moon hoaxers and demolished their favorite arguments in an outstanding episode.

Perhaps the Mythbusters and the LRO images, combined with the tireless debunking of science bloggers like Phil Plait, have finally hammered this one down. Maybe it’s just too embarrassing to be a moon hoaxer these days.

A skeptic can dream.

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