To the British Film Institute and their Lunacy Weekender, devoted to the 40th anniversary of the moon landings.
Saturday lunchtime saw a debate devoted to 'Was The Moon landing Faked' with two academic heavyweights. Prof Simon Wessely is a Psychiatrist who heads Kings College London's Military Health Research Unit, whilst Dr Mark Miodownik is a Scientist who heads Kings College's Materials Research Group.
The Case Against
In many ways this was an odd debate. The case against the moon landings being real was presented, not by a panel member, but by some video clips from a film called Stranger Than Fiction. This (very briefly) stated the case of Bill Kaysing, the father of theories rejecting the moon landing, before handing the floor to the two panel members.
Mark Miodownik Steps Up
Dr Miodownik quickly got into debunking mode, arguing it is possible to debunk each part of the case put forward by Kaysing et al. For example he argued the US flag flutters on the footage as it had a stick inserted in it. With no atmosphere, it naturally swung as the astronauts forced it into the ground. There are no stars in most photographs because of the short exposure used to take the photographs. The footprints shown are there because moon dust is different to other types of substance. In time the final part of the 'conspiracy theorists' case - that there is no wreckage left behind on the moon, will be debunked, as technology emerges that will allow pictures to be taken from ever greater distances.
Miodownik also went on the offensive, pointing out that the moon rocks returned cannot be faked - they are unique, and cannot have fallen to earth - they have been brought here. His position is that any theory or event can have its problems or contradictions (even Einstein's). What convinces him is patterns, a volume of information that you can fit knowledge around. All the evidence he concluded pointed one way - that man landed on the moon.
Simon Wessely States His Case
Although a psychiatrist, Wessely quickly (and correctly) rejected any view that conspiracy theories are a mental health issue. His was a humorous and hard hitting speech - typical was his point that a great crime had been committed in taping over vital recordings in the 1960s - not the moon landings, but Doctor Who!
It is also entirely possible for people to build a strong case, often writers of considerable intellect, and be totally and utterly wrong. Ludovic Kennedy and Paul Foot both argued James Hanratty was innocent of the A6 murder for which he was hung - a position that was only dismantled by the development of DNA testing.
A Hardy Perennial
Wessely took the trouble to list the development of alternative theories about the moon landings. Kaysing's book first appeared in 1974, yet sales only took off in 1978, after a film called Capricorn One. Life came to imitate art. Where Wessely was strong (and here he also gives us an insight into 9/11 'truth' activists) is he cites an interview with Kaysing where the latter argued he always felt the moon landings were 'wrong'.
This of course contrasts with the perennial statement of 'truth' seekers that they are dispassionate seekers of truth, who by chance decide to look into an issue, and on the way just happen to discover that the facts, as stated by the establishment, don't add up. As Wessely puts it, normal people simply don't act like that.
Intellectually Wessely cited Richard Hofstadter's The Paranoid Style In American Politics, and argued that unlike mental illness, which is experienced individually, conspiracy theories do bring people together. He argued several common factors are to be found - adherents look to the past to bolster their theories (e.g. by citing Operation Northwoods, or alleged fore knowledge of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour) Secondly there is always an expert - or someone pertaining to be an expert - taking on the establishment. Often these 'experts' are oddly lacking in the qualifications they pertain to use. David Ray Griffin, doyen of 9/11 experts has plenty to say on the scientific reasons for the collapse of the twin towers, but it should be stressed he is a Doctor of - divinity.
Thirdly this crusader always brings the wrath of the state upon himself by fighting for truth. Here it is easy to recall David Shayler, who before finding he was God, claimed to have survived almost as many assassination attempts as President de Gaulle!
These theories help to make their adherents feel more important - different from the herd (Look at the references to 'sheeple' on truth forums) although paradoxically the secret state is often seen as having omnipotent powers. Real life, Wessely concludes, is simply not like that - look at Watergate.
There were 11 questions from the floor, the most significant of which was from an American visitor who raised the rather obvious point - this was not really a debate, as the view that the moon landings were faked was not represented. Miodownik countered this by pointing out that no scientist can be found who holds that view.
He's probably right, although coherent advocates do exist (Marcus Allen of Nexus magazine, despite his considerable faults, is one example) This intervention allowed a couple of guys sitting behind me, who had mumbled and muttered throughout the presentations, to pipe up.
Interestingly neither sought to directly reject the landings thesis, but instead presented the view that the photographs taken by NASA are a mystery - the company whose cameras where allegedly used, deny their equipment took those pictures. This, the questioner insisted was the elephant in the room (nudge, nudge) or as he preferred to term it, the elephant on the moon!
Of the other questions the most interesting pointed out that usually conspiracy theories are around unpleasant or horrific events - 9/11, 7/7, political assassinations etc - this is a theory, unusually, about something that was arguably a positive.
Both speakers - and several questions from the floor - stressed the fact that it is hardly surprising people do not believe governments any more. That does not mean however, that we should believe anything - which is the point I had hoped to make, if I'd been able to speak from the floor!
We increasingly have trends within our society that believe anything that appears on the Internet, and for whom concepts of scientific or political research are alien. Its time to take such individuals on - and this meeting should have done so, by inviting an activist who believes no one landed on the moon, and having a proper, open debate. As such, this event was not a giant leap forward for mankind, but instead a small step sideways.