Saturday, May 07, 2005

Jesus denial and the Moon Hoax

The first time I heard of the idea that NASA faked the Apollo moon landings in a television studio, it was my debating partner Ryan who alerted me to it -- but not as his own argument. Far from it. He gave me some articles refuting the idea, though I can't remember why. The moon landing is a beloved topic of mine from childhood through the present day, but he did not know that. As soon as he gave me the articles I protested, and reminded him that I was the space-lover in the office, who was always sharing with him famous photos of the planets and stories about NASA's unmanned space program. Perhaps that meant nothing, because one of the peculiar things about Moon Hoaxers is their claim that human beings cannot survive a trip into deep space, but that unmanned voyages, as well as manned programs that stay in low earth orbit, really do happen; Moon Hoaxers have a fixation on the achievement of Apollo, for some reason.

I think somehow this goes back to my debate with Ryan about environmentalism. He accused me of dogmatically believing that global warming was man-made; I accused him of denying common sense; and we both said that the power of logic and scientific evidence would persuade us to change our minds if need be. I don't know which of these themes was at issue, but one day he called me and asked if I believed that we had ever landed on the Moon. Feeling playful I said, "Hmm -- doubtful." So he gave me these essays, refuting the Moon Hoax. I read them and reflected on how in our debates, I had sometimes found myself defending my arguments with abstractions rather than evidence, particulary where it came to discussing economics (which was relevant to discussing the Kyoto Protocol and other environmentalist proposals), a field he focused on in college, and practically the only field I didn't study in college. So I replied by affirming the logic of the articles and offering what I thought were similar arguments from a work I had read years before, John Meier's volume on the historical Jesus -- religion having been my college major, and Ryan's weakest subject by his own admission. I also gave him some arguments from general biblical scholarship, and presented all these as examples of logical arguments similar to those used in support of Apollo's historicity, but used to support the basic core of historicity behind some Biblical stories. He said nothing in reply, and several weeks later we were off on our first debate about the Bible, which if you look at my very first post, is practically what got this whole blog started!

Perhaps Ryan can correct my memory of this exchange about the Moon Hoax, but that's how I remember it. And I do recall clearly thinking that the refutation of the Moon Hoax used logical thinking that reminded me of Father Meier's work -- not in subject matter, of course, but in a style of argument that appreciated and respected human psychology (as I will describe below). I could be the only person in the world who has connected these two subjects this way, but then there may not be many people who read both Meier's work and that of Philip C. Plait, an astronomer known partly for refuting the idea that we never went to the moon (he may have written some of Ryan's articles). His site, Bad Astronomy, is one of my favorites; its larger purpose, quite apart from refuting the Moon Hoax, is to challenge all pseudo-scientific or unscientific thinking. So in a sense, even though its subject is always astronomy, it's about how to get good knowledge and to recognize bad thinking (including conspiracy theories), a subject of potential interest to anyone. He has a page tackling the bad science behind the Moon Hoax.

As I said, it was psychology that figured in both the refutation of the Moon Hoax and in biblical scholarship. One of the articles Ryan gave me asked why NASA's "fabrication" included the near-failure of Apollo 13, and either the articles or my own mind wondered also about Apollo 1. The question is, why did NASA admit the deaths of the Apollo 1 astronauts in a fire on the launch pad, and undergo a grueling existential crisis because of it, if the space agency cared so much about public relations and the potential glory of a moon landing that it was willing to mount a decade and more of fabrications, lies, and cover-ups? This is not a scientific argument against the Moon Hoax, but a psychological one, even a historical one. The gist of it is that people who care only about glory and their public image do not make up stories in which they appear in a bad light. This is true about even the best of people, so that with some confidence we can wonder how the authors of the Bible can admit that their people began in slavery, or that they endured the permanent shame of crucifixion, unless these tragedies were true (these were the arguments I gave Ryan). Still less do ambitious people make up stories in which their own ambition and self-image, like NASA's, is faulted in some tragedy. Even when such tragedies are real and not made-up, people who do not care about human life cover it up, along with all their lies, which goes some way toward explaining why the inhuman system of Soviet communism covered up all the failures of Moscow's space program. There have rarely been any endeavors more open and public than Apollo, which just stands in huge contrast against the NASA which must have existed in order to put together six fabricated moon landings. As I've said about Jesus, too, if there had been a fabrication we would surely have heard evidence of it from the enemies of Christianity, just as surely as the Soviets would have publicized it widely that no ships had been detected on their way to the moon; and in this case the entire U.S. media, and the vast inquiry into the Apollo 1 fire, would have to be regarded as either a part of the cover-ups or unable to detect them.

Naturally, the Moon Hoaxers charge that the Apollo 1 fire really did kill Ed White, Roger Chaffe, and Gus Grissom, but that NASA killed them because they were about to leak Apollo's grand cover-up to the press. I wrote in my first post that whenever something real is denied, suffering is denied, because history always involves suffering. The Apollo moon program is unusual history, and I do not regard it as having undergone the kind of everyday suffering, such as poverty and violence, that I meant with that statement; yet even such a priviledged and successful enterprise as Apollo endured real pain, not to mention sacrifices of a more ordinary variety, all of which appears wholly maligned in the Moon Hoax idea; and the Soviet program, we now know, suffered far more than NASA. I might add here that as in Jesus denial or Holocaust denial, whenever something real is denied, some people are necessarily called malicious or immoral.

When I first heard of Jesus denial the first things to come to mind were Holocaust denial and the Moon Hoax (which you might call Apollo denial). I said in my Biblical debate with Ryan, and still believe, that denying the Holocaust is less rational than denying Christ's existence, and that denying the moon landings is the least rational of all. By all this I don't mean to say that there's anything rational in a positive sense about denying the Holocaust or Jesus, unless we generously grant these denials to have started in the innocent spirit of curiosity or skepticism (impossible to believe for Holocaust deniers, but possible to believe about those who wonder why Jesus has, for instance, no contemporary biographers). None of these theories offer positive alternative scenarios that make any sense; I have shown, in an essay where I attempted to overthrow Jesus' existence by logical means, that the theory of nonexistence must proceed into endless denial upon denial, without a good place to stop, in order to work, and then fails all the worse; all this is true for anyone seeking to deny a well-established event. Perhaps I will post that essay on this blog, but here I only mean that the positive evidence for the Apollo landings is so iron-clad and abundant that denying it is a more extreme exercise than denying the Holocaust, and more extreme than denying Jesus and early Christianity. I have said how the life of Jesus was both ancient and marginal, but the Holocaust suffers from the fact that some of the most iron-clad evidence was destroyed by the Nazis or the war, and that the whole project was designed as a cover-up and a secret. So even though the Holocaust was probably a larger event than Apollo in physical size, I have to think of Apollo as the lesser temptation for those who are given to denying history or to seeing conspiracies everywhere. I can hardly think of an event more documented, public, and famous than Apollo -- unless perhaps we were to talk about 9-11. But let us definitely leave that for another post.

In a general sense, I cannot draw up a long list of parallels between Jesus denial and the Moon Hoax, because both motives and targets are very different, at least when you leave behind generalities like conspiratorial thinking and get into the details. There is only one parallel in the details that I find impressive, and I'll finish with that.

On Phil Plait's site, he starts the debunking process by tackling the first bit of "evidence" used by the Moon Hoax -- something the Hoaxers believe is so startling and simple that even a child can be made to doubt the moon landings. Let me excerpt this in full, because it really brings up interesting questions about common sense and knowledge.

Bad: The first bit of actual evidence brought up is the lack of stars in the pictures taken by the Apollo astronauts from the surface of the Moon. Without air, the sky is black, so where are the stars?

Good: The stars are there! They're just too faint to be seen.

This is usually the first thing [Hoax Believers] talk about when discussing the Hoax. That amazes me, as it's the silliest assertion they make. However, it appeals to our common sense: when the sky is black here on Earth, we see stars. Therefore we should see them from the Moon as well.

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.

Plait then explains a little bit of photography. The essence is that a camera must limit itself to a very brief exposure if astronauts in white suits, and the bright surface they're standing on, are going to appear in photographs clearly and not like white, overexposed blobs. Such a brief exposure will not capture stars, which are too faint.

When I first read this explanation, I trusted it completely, as I distrusted the Hoax completely, and actually did not bother to read the details about photography too carefully -- so complete a waste of time did I believe this contest to be. I got the gist about the exposure, but I'm admitting here that my eyes and mind let some words pass rather quickly, without trying to understand the concept perfectly, still less to memorize it. I have since become an amateur photographer -- which happened when I bought binoculars and started doing astronomy -- and I take a deeper interest in astrophotography issues now. But at the time I didn't, and that's actually where the problem lies: the truth requires that you exert your mind at least a little and take interest, because common sense will often allow you to be led astray. As Plait notes, common sense about our night-time skies on earth can kind of make you wonder about those Apollo photographs. A lie is often easier on the mind than the truth, because in some way it's presented itself as simpler or more "intuitive", when its actual implications are anything but simple and elegant, in the way that the truth is.

This talk of common sense does remind me that Ryan handed me these articles refuting the Moon Hoax and highlighted himself the theme that "the Moon is not the Earth." It seemed important to him to get across that insight about the problems with common perception. I have my own argument to build on that insight.

The first argument that Jesus deniers tend always to bring up is that Jesus left behind no physical evidence -- no coins with his image, none of his belongings, no depictions of his person, no contemporary biographies. This is the natural place to start if you're going to look for, or deny, any historical person, and it appeals in a very strong way to common sense.

So let me ape my favorite astronomer, and forgive me if I'm being a little predictable.

I'll say it here and I'll say it again, the ancient world is not the modern world. The evidence you expect for a modern person is probably not going to be there for an ancient figure, and what you do find may not meet your expectations. Conditions in the ancient world were different, both in the physical conditions of people's lives and in the fact that the ancients did not share many of our basic suppositions, interests, or ways of speaking about history and peoples.

I would let that parallel stand for its general principle, with the strong caveat that the differences between two planetary bodies, especially bodies so radically different, are far greater than differences between any two points or times on earth -- but only when it comes to air and rocks!

The differences on earth, of course, are what interest me when it comes to Biblical scholarship. So I'm working on a post which will list all the basic ways in which ancient writings differ from modern ones, with an emphasis on how easy it is to misunderstand the theological mode of expression used by the Bible and early Christian writings.

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