Fifty years on, our fascination with the first manned landing on the moon endures – as does the dogged belief of thousands of Kiwis that it never happened.
A 2008 study of 6000 Kiwis found just over one in five thought Nasa faked the moon landings – and one in seven said they weren’t sure.
When Victoria University psychology researchers Professor Marc Wilson, Samantha Stanley and John Kerr followed this up a few months ago in a survey marketed as focusing on science, they found the figures to be much lower, at 9 per cent and 7 per cent respectively.
Still, Wilson, who has been tracking conspiracy theories among Kiwis for more than a decade, suspected the true proportion would lie somewhere where between 9 per cent and 21 per cent.
And he figured there’d be a spike as the world marked the landing’s 50th anniversary today.
Contrary to quips about tin-foil hats, he said it wasn’t automatically silly to believe in conspiracy theories, as some could indeed be based in truth.
“Many of us believe at least one thing that might be considered a ‘conspiracy theory’ but few of us, perhaps less than 5 per cent, can be thought of as ‘conspiracy theorists’ – people who believe in a bunch of conspiracies,” he said.
“While the stereotype of the conspiracy theorist suggests they’re paranoid loons, there’s not a lot of support for that.”
Among the reasons suggested for believing in conspiracies was the idea that they were a way of dealing with reality – or “making sense of crappy things that feel outside of our control”.
“One of the reasons I think this conspiracy will continue to be current is that it’s a long time ago,” he said.
“If we could do it 50 years ago with computers less powerful than my cellphone, why haven’t we done it since?”
Another scholar, Waikato University’s Dr Matthew Dentith, said it wasn’t unusual to question whether the mission took place.
“One of the reasons people are suspicious about the Nasa-led space programme generally is that it seems to have fizzled out quite quickly,” he said.
“The reality is that the space programme in the 60s and 70s was a literal moonshot promised by a president whose death at the hands of an assassin – an event host to its own conspiracy theories – meant it was pursued partially to honour JFK, but also in part to display American cultural supremacy.”
After all, Dentith said, the US was in a Cold War with the USSR, and thus it was not surprising that once the Apollo missions were shown to be successful, and the Cold War over, going back to the moon turned out to be not much of a priority.
Wilson saw a link between belief in a moon landing hoax and the denial of human-induced climate change, in that each sometimes stemmed from a distrust of people in positions of authority.
Add to that any other example, like the efficacy of vaccination or Earth being a spheroid, where an overwhelming scientific consensus simply wasn’t good enough.
As with many conspiracy theories, those involving the moon landing were often obsessively specific, with claims about everything from inconsistent angles and colours in the photographs taken, to assertions the astronauts couldn’t have survived radiation from the Van Allen radiation belt.
Some were singled out in the widely viewed Fox documentary Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon? – and Nasa and other agencies have been forced to painful lengths to address them.
Scientists have continually had to point out the evidence: the thousands of photographs, the eyewitness testimonies, the data record, the stacks of research papers, the lunar samples brought back, and the scientific instruments that were installed and which could still be used and seen on the surface today.
One recent Oxford University paper offered a simpler response.
Any such plot would have been revealed within four years, given that large groups of people sharing in a conspiracy would very quickly give themselves away.
In the case of the moon landing, about 411,000 people would have had to be in on the act – incidentally, a similar number to the so-called climate hoax.
Sadly, Wilson suspected that none of that would matter to die-hards.
“One of the things about conspiracy theories is that evidence can always be explained away as part of the conspiracy.”
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