Shoot the Moon

Previously, I covered a couple of big conspiracy theories, and why they are generally such an impossible idea. As noted there, it’s really hard for people to keep secrets, and the bigger a conspiracy, the faster it falls, which is why we happen to know about the real ones.

But people will see and believe what they want to, and so conspiracy theories exist. Here’s another famous one that just isn’t true.

We never landed on the Moon

While this one might seem like a modern conspiracy theory, it’s actually almost as old as the lunar landings, and was first promulgated by a man named Bill Kaysing, in his self-published 1976 book called We Never Went to the Moon: America’s Thirty Billion Dollar Swindle.

Of course, the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever featured its own “Moon landing was fake” gag in 1971, and the whole thing probably caught on because it was an era when trust in government was at its lowest, what with Vietnam, Kent State and, by mid-decade, Watergate all crashing down at once. Ironically, the last one was a true conspiracy that fell apart quickly.

More fuel was added to the fire by the 1976 film Capricorn One, which postulated a manned mission to Mars that was faked by the government to avoid losing face with the USSR because the mission just wasn’t ready. Of course, the same film also hung a lantern on the biggest problem with huge government conspiracies. In order to cover it up, the plan was to kill the “astronauts” before they left the soundstage, then announce that they had died in a tragic accident upon re-entry.

Despite it being a 70s film — an era when the hero did not always win — this one did pull victory over villainy as the plot is discovered and the astronauts eventually saved, popping up at the announcement of their own deaths Tom Sawyer style to reveal the whole plot. Hell, there were even three “dead” people entering their own funeral in both.

The film definitely used the main motive that Moon Hoaxers give for the landing being faked: We weren’t ready for it, but we had to make the Soviets think that we were, and it all began when President John F. Kennedy gave a speech to a joint session of Congress on the 146th day of the new decade of the 1960s, May 25, 1961. His goal was simple: To put a (hu)man on the Moon before the last day of the decade. His motives were obvious. The Russians were already ahead of us in the “space race,” having launched the first satellite, Sputnik, and putting the first man into space. They also put the first woman in space, beating us by exactly twenty years and two days.

If you’d like to see an incredible film that documents the prequel to this speech in the days from the first attempts to break the sound barrier to finally getting our own astronauts into orbit, check out the book and/or film versions of The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe, which documents both the amazing and absurd involved in this process.

It also illuminates the true dilemma for the American space program. For a time, it looked like the USSR was getting ahead, and especially as Kennedy was assassinated and things got worse in Vietnam (which was a proxy hot war between the two sides in the Cold War) the idea of getting to the Moon first became a sort of goal for a moral victory.

Did you ever wonder why NASA’s command center for all lunar operations wound up in Houston? Look no further than Vice-President, then President, Lyndon Baines Johnson who, like JFK before him, preferred to be known by the initials LBJ… among other things. Johnson?

Did I mention that LBJ was from Texas, so that it was almost a slam-dunk that the Space Center would wind up there? As for why the launch center wound up in Cape Canaveral, Florida, there are two good reasons for it. One is that it allows for launches over a lot of open water, meaning that crashes or aborted take-offs won’t happen over land or populated areas. Second, it was (at the time) the part of the U.S. closest to the equator, and the equator is much friendlier to getting us into space.

And for everyone rightly pointing out that Hawaii is surrounded by a lot more water and is closer to the equator because it’s our southernmost state, you are absolutely correct, except that Hawaii hadn’t quite become a state yet at the time that Cape Canaveral begun operations. Note that Puerto Rico is also farther south than Florida and slightly farther south than Hawaii, but we didn’t put our launch site there either.

I’m guessing that “really freaking heavy equipment” and “transportation by ship over substantial distances” aren’t a great combo when doing a budget for a governmental program. That, and helping elected officials in territories — you know, the ones who don’t get to vote in Congress — really doesn’t bring back any benefit to Wasghington D.C.

Which really brings up another way to question the Moon Hoax conspiracy. If it was a fake, why go to all of the trouble of making sure the sites are in locations with political and scientific advantages? If it were just for show, they could have put the control center anywhere and put the launch site near D.C. or New York City or somewhere else flashy that would draw huge crowds to watch the rockets go up.

As for why people believe this theory, it’s simple. They don’t understand science or physics. There are a lot of misconceptions in everything the Hoaxers claim; way too many for this piece, so I’ll refer you to the brilliant 2001 takedown of a Fox documentary claiming that it was all true by the amazing “bad” Astronomer Phil Plait. (In fact, this particular article is the one that launched him into internet fame and success in the first place.)

But perhaps the most bizarre take on the whole Moon Landing Hoax is this: the shots on the Moon were created by none other than… Stanley Kubrick. This was another idea to fall out of the sadly challenged brain of Kaysing, but others ran with it. Someone even went so far in 2015 to fake a video they claimed was Kubrick confessing to it. Hey, easy to do after the person you ‘re besmirching has died, right?

Still, it gets even weirder, as some true believers claim that Kubrick stuffed The Shining with clues basically saying, “Hey… I confess. I faked the Moon Landing.” And yes, some people do believe it.

This theory at least achieved one good thing. It let a septuagenarian who’d actually been to the Moon (Buzz Aldrin) punch a Moon Landing denying asshole in the face and get away with it. To quote the linked article, “The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office has declined to file charges.”

That’s the best possible outcome, really. If only Buzz had said, right before the punch, “Bang! Zoom! Straight to the Moon.”

Believing is seeing: Conspiracy theories debunked, part 1

Human brains are great at pattern recognition and, in fact, it’s one of the things that has helped us survive. At its most basic, pattern recognition is simply the brain’s ability to recognize bits and pieces of the whole as the thing, whether it’s a flash of color, a sound, scent, or something else.

This is how infants learn to recognize first their mothers, and then other people. It’s how early humans learned to spot predators and prey. And it’s how modern humans get into trouble or just wind up looking stupid when their pattern recognition turns into pareidolia, which is the phenomenon that makes people see ducks or camels in the clouds, or Jesus on toast.

This ability, however, can extend outside of just things that we see — and we’ve all seen “faces” in inanimate objects, although we’re usually aware that’s what they are, and that any pattern of two circles over some sort of vertical object, with or without another circle or arc or line below, all make us think “face.”

Some people go on to find patterns in things like information, actions, and data, and make connections that aren’t really there. Just like your bath-tub taps and faucet aren’t really two eyes and a nose, the connections these people pull out of their “research” really don’t exist. But don’t tell them that.

There’s one simple problem with all conspiracy theories, and Benjamin Franklin said it best. “Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.” This is especially true if it’s a really juicy secret, like a big conspiracy. Even if someone involved doesn’t run right to the authorities to confess, they’re still going to mention it to… somebody. We all have that one friend or family member that we would tell anything. Of course, it’s because we trust them to keep our secret.

But here’s a yardstick on how long true conspiracies last. Between the Watergate break-in and Nixon’s resignation was a span of two years, a month, and a couple of weeks. Any conspiracy is a leaky sieve, and we’re currently seeing examples of that in real time.

Yes, conspiracies do exist, but we also know the truth about quite a lot of them now since, by their very nature, they can never remain secret, and a lot of people know this. So there’s a nice hint — the older an unproven conspiracy theory is, the more likely it is to be completely false. So you can give up on the Illuminati, the Rothschilds, the worldwide Jewish conspiracy, etc. If they were real, we’d know it by now. If they were successful, they would have worked by now.

Or, as more than one friend of mine puts it, “If the Jews secretly control the world, why am I not rich?”

Oh, right. That’s the other part of why true conspiracies are so far and few. Not only can a large group of people not keep a secret, they can’t work very well together to pull something big like this off. If you work or go to school, look at the people around you, especially the ones who are supposed to be in charge. Now, ask yourself, “Would they be competent enough to run Conspiracy X?”

Guess what. People in government or high executive positions with major corporations are ten times less competent than the people you mentally looked at.

So here are a pair of wild conspiracies that just… aren’t.

The government controls the weather!

The High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) was a real thing that ran from 1990 to 2014.  And really, U.S. government, you didn’t have the guts to call it HFAARP to make it sound funny? (Although, really, high-frequency should be hyphenated, so they’re more right than wrong.)

But this project was designed to study Earth’s ionosphere, which is a very important thing to know about if you’re, oh, I don’t know… about to commercialize GPS satellites for everyone, and the ionosphere could definitely have an effect on the information coming from them. That’s the difference between your grandma successfully getting to her bingo game on Sunday and up driving off of a cliff. This was also about the time that satellites became the primary means of transmitting television programs around the world.

And yet… the stupidest conspiracy theories sprang up around what was basically a giant transmitter and receiver way up in Alaska — because they were aiming at the aurora borealis, which happens up there as solar radiation hits the atmosphere. HAARP was basically doing this in reverse. Keep in mind, though, that while the Sun is a gigantic ball of fusion about 864,340 miles in diameter constantly shooting ionizing radiation down at us 24/7, HAARP was a simple array of 180 radio antennas over 33 acres. In comparison, the surface of the Sun is 1.5 quadrillion acres and even though we’re only facing half of that at one time, HAARP is still greatly outmatched in screwing up the atmosphere.

Or, really, doing anything except what it was designed to do. The utter stupidity of the conspiracy theories is staggering, including things like HAARP being designed to change the weather (warning: actual conspiracy theory link) or burn a hole in the atmosphere or even control minds just being laughable through the math in the paragraph above. If HAARP could do any of these things, then the Sun would have done all of them long ago. And even the radiation HAARP was sending up was nowhere near the full spectrum we get from the Sun.

So, no. The government was not controlling the weather or minds or creating earthquakes or any of the other bunch of stupid ideas to come out of misunderstanding what was basically a government and university funded space weather station.

Chemtrails

Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird. It’s a plane. No it’s… a super-secret government conspiracy to spray y’all with stuff and achieve (insert evil villain goal here.) And what are “chemtrails?” Simple. They’re contrails as seen by people who don’t do physics. Basically, they’re ice crystals from water vapor in engine exhaust that instantly freezes at high altitudes. If you live anywhere near an airport or under a flight path, you’ve seen them.

They start as two thin white parallel lines, one behind each outer edge of an airplane’s wings, and depending upon the weather below, they either stay fairly persistent or quickly fuzz out into a less defined pattern. If you happen to be near an airport, like I am, with frequent flights to particular destinations, then you’ll see repeated contrails going the same direction throughout the day if it’s cold enough up there. If you’re in flyover country between major airports in various cities, then you may see a sort of crisscross pattern of these lines going north-south and east-west — which conspiracy theorists absolutely see as a sign that they’re right, but they’re wrong.

What you’re not seeing is the government spraying chemicals on you and, again, it comes down to a total misunderstanding of science. Anything released that high up in the atmosphere — around seven miles — is not going to make it back down here. There are cold temperatures and strong air currents to contend with, both of which would wreak absolute havoc on any kind of chemical or biological weapon.

Not to mention the other little detail: Who would be putting these devices onto commercial planes and getting the crews to shut up about them? Because these are the only jets leaving trails in the sky. Still, people believe otherwise.

There was one recent issue of a commercial jet leaving chemtrails that had an immediate effect on people and it was very well-documented. However, it was a flight out of LAX that turned around to make an emergency landing and, per FAA protocol, dumped their excess fuel on the way in. Unfortunately, not according to protocol, they dumped over a long swath of the south side of the city, managing to hit half a dozen schools — and their students and staff — at the same time.

And… wow. I think I made it to the end, or at least way too much for y’all to read with only two stupid conspiracy theories, but I’ve got at least twice as many more. If you have any you want debunked, and/or if you want more of this, let me know in the comments, and thanks for reading!

Why astrology is bunk

I know way too many otherwise intelligent adults who believe in astrology, and it really grinds my gears, especially right now, because I’m seeing a lot of “Mercury is going retrograde — SQUEEEE” posts, and they are annoying and wrong.

The effect that Mercury in retrograde will have on us: Zero.

Fact

Mercury doesn’t “go retrograde.” We catch up with and then pass it, so it only looks like it’s moving backwards. It’s an illusion, and entirely a function of how planets orbit the sun, and how things look from here. If Mars had (semi)intelligent life, they would note periods when the Earth was in retrograde, but it’d be for the exact same reason.

Science

What force, exactly, would affect us? Gravity is out, because the gravitational effect of anything else in our solar system or universe is dwarfed by the Earth’s. When it comes to astrology at birth, your OB/GYN has a stronger gravitational effect on you than the Sun.

On top of that, the Sun has 99.9% of the mass of our solar system, which is how gravity works, so the Sun has the greatest gravitational influence on all of the planets. We only get a slight exception because of the size of our Moon and how close it is, but that’s not a part of astrology, is it? (Not really. They do Moon signs, but it’s not in the day-to-day.)

Some other force? We haven’t found one yet.

History

If astrology were correct, then there are one of two possibilities. A) It would have predicted the existence of Uranus and Neptune, and possibly Pluto, long before they were discovered, since astrology goes back to ancient times, but those discoveries happened in the modern era, or B) It would not have allowed for the addition of those three planets (and then the removal of Pluto) once discovered, since all of the rules would have been set down. And it certainly would have accounted for the 13th sign, Ophiuchus, which, again, wasn’t found until very recently, by science.

So…stop believing in astrology, because it’s bunk. Mercury has no effect on us whatsoever, other than when astronomers look out with telescopes and watch it transit the Sun, and use its movements to learn more about real things, like gravity.

Experiment

James Randi, fraud debunker extraordinaire, does a classroom exercise that demolishes the accuracy of those newspaper horoscopes, and here it is — apologies for the low quality video.

Yep. Those daily horoscopes you read are general enough to be true for anyone, and confirmation bias means that you’ll latch onto the parts that fit you and ignore the parts that don’t although, again, they’re designed to fit anyone — and no one is going to remember the generic advice or predictions sprinkled in or, if they do, will again pull confirmation bias only when they think they came true.

“You are an intuitive person who likes to figure things out on your own, but doesn’t mind asking for help when necessary. This is a good week to start something new, but be careful on Wednesday. You also have a coworker who is plotting to sabotage you, but another who will come to your aid. Someone with an S in their name will become suddenly important, and they may be an air sign. When you’re not working on career, focus on home life, although right now your Jupiter is indicating that you need to do more organizing than cleaning. There’s some conflict with Mars, which says that you may have to deal with an issue you’ve been having with a neighbor. Saturn in your third house indicates stability, so a good time to keep on binge watching  your favorite show, but Uranus retrograde indicates that you’ll have to take extra effort to protect yourself from spoilers.”

So… how much of that fit you? Or do you think will? Honestly, it is 100% pure, unadulterated bullshit that I just made up, without referencing any kind of astrological chart at all, and it could apply to any sign because it mentions none.

Conclusion

If you’re an adult, you really shouldn’t buy into this whole astrology thing. The only way any of the planets would have any effect at all on us is if one of them suddenly slammed into the Earth. That probably only happened once, or not, but it’s what created the Moon. So probably ultimately not a bad thing… except for anything living here at the time.