I caught MythBusters last night (note that the episode description for that episode is not up as of this posting — original airdate 27 August 2008) to see their take on some of the common claims of moon hoax conspiracy theorists. [Trailer here.] As always they did a lot of things right and some things wrong. My thoughts after the fold.
I’ll start with what they did right.
1) They covered some of the most basic arguments for the moon landing being hoaxed: the astronauts in shadow shouldn’t be so bright in the pictures, the flag shouldn’t be “waving”, footprints shouldn’t leave clear imprints in dry sand, and the videos of the astronauts are just slow-mo. Those are pretty common and easily tested, so kudos.
2) They proved that there’s man-made technology on the moon by demonstrating that a laser pointed at a retroreflector returns a signal that is distinct from a signal returned from a generic point on the moon’s surface. Pretty hard to refute that unless you’re completely deluded (yes, I know, some people are that deluded).
3) They explained why their results made sense (i.e., the scientific principles behind why the astronaut is illuminated, etc). I won’t go into these here, as Phil Plait already did a great job of this. Explaining why something is is as important as explaining why it isn’t. So…awesome.
What they did wrong.
They ridiculed. It was mostly subtle, but it was there. I get that they aren’t trying to convince the true believers, because you pretty much can’t. However, I hear lots of otherwise intelligent people express doubts about the moon simply because of a poor understanding of science, not because they’re crazy. I’m sure they would benefit from a show like this, but I doubt they’ll like it much if it makes them feel stupid. I get that the myth is perpetuated by conspiracy theorists, but it’s believed by relatively innocent (albeit somewhat ignorant) people. If this show was aimed at the fence-sitters and not-quite-convinced, they probably should have toned it down a little so as not to be too off-putting. When battling the conspiracy theorists, ridicule away — it’s not like they’re going to change their mind anyway. But we want more people interested in this stuff, so in the context of a show on Discovery aimed at the mainstream, nicer is better.
My partner coyly pointed out to me that what the MythBusters essentially did was demonstrate convincingly how the moon landing could have been faked — retroreflector notwithstanding. For example, they set up a perfect replica of the moon’s surface and found that yes we can see the astronaut in the shadow. Say I’m a conspiracy theorist. You know what I’m thinking? “Ok fine, we were wrong about why the picture was a fake, but you just showed how they did fake it.” I don’t know how to solve that problem, except that the subsequent demonstration with the laser blew everything else out of the water anyway. But all I could do was sigh because I know he’s right.
Ultimately it was a good job. It could have been improved with them providing other resources for more information (such as Phil Plait’s site) — I didn’t see that, but I may have missed it. I also would have preferred a more reasoned and inquisitive tone. They myths are ridiculous, but their show is supposed to be “we don’t just tell the myths, we put them to the test”. It’s not a true “test” when you’re cocky about the results. From a conspiracy theorist perspective, that attitude just proves they’re not giving the hoax “theory” a fair chance. We want to eliminate that argument from their repertoire — the moon hoax has been given too much consideration already, let’s not let them so easily dismiss what’s been done by spoon-feeding them criticisms.
My nit picks are really nitpicky, so I hope I didn’t give a bad impression. I just have high standards. See it, love/hate it, read about the topic further. I’ve provided several links above. I won’t link to the conspiracy sites themselves in this case, but if anyone wants a laugh/cry just Google “moon hoax” and click away.