We must work hard to negate conspiracy theories

We must work hard to negate conspiracy theories

 Buzz Aldrin walking on the Moon in 1969. (AFP)

We do not have any surveys on this subject in the Arab world, but if we judge by the opinions expressed on social media, the number of Arabs who doubt that American astronauts walked on the moon between 1969 and 1972 has been growing alarmingly.

The first time I encountered this issue was in 2001, after Fox TV broadcast a documentary titled “Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon?” and I started receiving emails asking me whether I agreed with that, and if not what were my counterarguments. I then started giving a talk titled “Did NASA fake the moon landing — or are we miserably failing to educate the public?” so I had a chance to witness the impact of the “moon landing hoax” claim on people. They were really impressed with the arguments that the US flag could not be waving on the moon (due to the absence of air) as it seemed to be doing in the photos, the absence of stars in the pictures, the impossibility of traveling through the lethal (Van Allen) radiation belts, and others. The good news back then was the fact we didn’t have social media.

A few years ago, I set up a YouTube channel, “Ta’ammal Ma’I” (“Reflect with me”), and one of the first videos I posted was titled “The proofs of human moon landing.” Indeed, I had again been receiving an increasing numbers of queries and straight-up attacks about NASA’s moon landing claims. So I explained again how one can easily explain the above issues, and I added two solid proofs of the moon landing: The existence of close to 400 kilograms of moon rocks that have been analyzed and shown to be from the moon, and the analysis of images of the trajectory that we see the dust taking when kicked up by the moon rover’s wheels. Indeed, the trajectory that a particle takes in an environment of low gravity and no air resistance is noticeably different from the trajectory in an earthly environment.

And so I thought that I was done and would never need to come back to this issue. But, as time passed, the ratio of “dislikes” on that video rose to more than 20 percent, whereas the average of “dislikes” for the 150 videos in my channel is less than 4 percent.

In the last year, the issue exploded again when the Arabic RT (Russia Today) channel broadcast a five-part interview with Dr. Alexander Popov, who presented new “proofs” that the Americans never walked on the moon. Over more than two hours, this physicist (with no professional experience in space sciences) presented his arguments. First, that the Saturn V rocket had many problems when it was being developed, and then suddenly it could send a spacecraft to the moon, only to be retired soon afterward. Second, top secret photos show the Soviets recovering a rocket in their territorial waters, proving that the American rockets carried no people and were not being sent to the moon, but rather to the Azores archipelago (west of Portugal), where the US Navy had a big base. Third, that the Americans only shared “moon rocks” with Canadian and Australian scientists (“their friends”), never with the Soviets. And finally that there has been a huge conspiracy operation, with some American officials being retired and silenced, some astronauts getting killed, and the Soviet leadership being bribed with luxury cars, investments (a Pepsi factory), etc.

The worrisome part is that one retired scientist making mostly risible claims can be taken so seriously.

Nidhal Guessoum

All these unbelievable claims can easily be rebutted, as I’ve recently done in a new video on my channel. But the worrisome part is that one retired scientist making mostly risible claims about such a momentous and historic event as humanity reaching the moon can be taken so seriously by an important TV channel (giving it over two hours of air time) and countless people (in less than a year, that interview, despite its length, has been watched 1.3 million times and has a “like” ratio of 83 percent).

Two months ago, I conducted a poll on Twitter asking people whether they agreed or disagreed that American astronauts walked on the moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s. A total of 3,174 people participated, and the results were: 30 percent were fully convinced that they did; 23 percent tended to agree with that; 31 percent had doubts about its truth; and 16 percent were fully convinced that it’s untrue. I am fully aware that this is not a scientific survey, indeed I don’t know the demographics of the respondents, but I think this says something about what people think.

The exchanges that followed the survey presented me with a host of reasons that people cite as a basis of their doubts, such as why was the landing on the moon not repeated? First, the landing was repeated five times, indeed 12 astronauts from six missions walked on the moon, and, secondly, once the primary objective was achieved, the high cost led to the decision to discontinue the program and focus instead on satellites and space stations. Others asked whether NASA really did have the technical capability to achieve that spectacular feat in 1969, whether the moon rocks are really available for examination (yes, some are on display in public places, such as the National Air and Space Museum in Washington), and other such queries.

Indeed, one must ask why people believe in big conspiracy scenarios of this sort. Studies have shown that the belief in conspiracies correlates with: Doubting science; questioning authorities (especially the US government); overestimating what the “powers” can do; and a sense of helplessness and inability to influence the world — an unconscious feeling of “defeatedness.”

Let us, scientists, educators and the media, make a more resolute effort to educate the public about scientific and technological achievements and work hard to negate conspiracy theories and people’s tendency to indulge in them.

  • Nidhal Guessoum is a professor of physics and astronomy at the American University of Sharjah, UAE. Twitter: @NidhalGuessoum​
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