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Handling odd questions and conspiracy theorists

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#1 Skywatcher2011

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Posted 06 November 2011 - 06:28 PM

Being in California, its inevitable to run into a few oddballs at outreach events. I've done a few events recently and find myself fielding a lot of strange questions. Some recent ones:

Is the moon hollow?
Can you see the flag on the moon with this?
Ever seen a UFO?
If sunspots are cooler parts of the sun, could we land there?


And then there are the conspiracy guys.

Hey, I heard we never really landed on the moon!

and the of course,

Is there really a secret base on the dark side of the moon?

Please tell me I am not the only one getting these sorts of questions.

#2 Jason B

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Posted 06 November 2011 - 07:45 PM

I have never gotten the secret base one or the hollow moon one but I have gotten all the other ones and then some. When that happens, I just do my best to lighten the moment a little (without offending the person that asked ) and answering the question. So far so good as I have only had one really uncomfortable situation in all my years at Fox Park and that one was pretty much unavoidable....

#3 Skywatcher2011

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Posted 06 November 2011 - 08:04 PM

Oh, do tell about the Fox Park incident!

I'm the same way, I try to take a light-hearted approach to weird questions. I try and remember that I am dealing largely with people who have little to no understanding of astronomy, let alone general science. Its an unfortunate reality that our science education is sub par in the US. And it doesn't help that the media perpetuates wild conspiracies and sci-fi nonsense.

#4 Skylook123

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Posted 06 November 2011 - 08:43 PM

I try to treat the question seriously, since it is serious to one half of the participants in the conversation. BUT, I try, with respect and without condescending, to guide from the assumption to the reveal of the accepted truth.

I've gotten all those, and a doozy I'll tell in a moment, but never have gotten a negative termination and even have been thanked for treating the questioner with respect.

My last reasonable count of contacts with visitors at my scope sits around 13,000 over the years; over 9,000 at the Grand Canyon Star Party alone. My toughest single night was at a private religious school, where a team of high school students wanted to do the creation thing. I was showing and teaching the genesis of planetary nebulae, and when I talked about the generation of carbon and oxygen as part of the end of life of an average star, they asked Who Created The Oxygen. Luckily, I was able to rope-a-dope the amateur debaters with the comment that if you find a creator in the laws of physics, and the laws of physics are followed by whatever description we give, can you accept that? The bit at that bit of sophistry and stopped the interrogation.

Now, my favorite off-norm event was early one evening at the Grand Canyon Star Party. As usual, I had a line of about 30 or so at the 18", which was on M57. It was up in the east at a comfortable standing height for most visitors. I'm giving the end of life of an average sized star spiel and getting the OH Wow at the Ring at around 250X. It was an unseasonably warm night, with most of us in shorts and sandals. I notice a customer in line in a flowing black ensemble, sort of like Stevie Nicks in concert. Not Goth, but doggone close. About age 20 or so, she eased on up to the eyepiece in her diaphenous garb and looked for about three times as long as the average viewer. No reaction. Then she looks at me and says "Do you believe in angels? Have you seen angles with this?" OH OH. I look over her head at about 25 smirks in the crowd. Let's see the smart guy handle this one. "Well", I said, "I certainly don't know everything, I certainly haven't seen everything, and I try to keep an open mind." She says "Apollo astronauts reported angels on the way to the moon." I reply, "Yes, I know there have been a number of unexplained sightings in the space program." She looks back into the eyepiece. "But have you ever seen one?" "No, not personally." She looks back again. "Can you point this to where one might be?" "Not really, since I don't know where that might be." She backs off from the eyepiece and starts walking away, muttering "I KNOW there are angels; I KNOW there are angels."

Dead silence for five seconds, when a eerie voice from the crowd is heard "DOO DEE DOO DOO, DOO DEE DOO DOO." The crowd erupts.

#5 magic612

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Posted 07 November 2011 - 12:34 PM

Sometimes the way a question is asked will determine how I respond. I haven't gotten all of these, as I am somewhat new to more public outreach, but being in sales for my "day job," I have learned that how someone asks a question matters. For example, the "Is the Moon hollow?" question is predicated on being a "yes/no" answer. There is no, "Why, what, where, when, how" etc. at the beginning. I think for that one, a simple, "No, it isn't" suffices, but said respectfully, of course.

Can you see the flag on the moon with this?


I once read a great way to approach these kinds of Moon questions (I may have seen it here, but I can't recall). This is another "Yes/no" question, but I do provide a bit more of a response. I say, "No, and here's why. The largest, ground based telescopes that professional astronomers use can resolve details on the Moon about the size of a large football or baseball stadium. The largest objects left over by the Apollo missions are about the size of a two car garage, so unfortunately, we can't see them in my telescope, which is not nearly as large as professional ones."


Ever seen a UFO?


Again, "yes/no," and my response is usually, "No, because I have always been able to identify what I have seen - usually it is a plane, satellite, the ISS, or Venus low in the sky."

If sunspots are cooler parts of the sun, could we land there?


Also yes/no, but deserving of a bit of explanation, "No, because although they are cooler, they are still many thousands of degrees in temperature, and also made of gas, so there's nothing solid to land on."

And then there are the conspiracy guys.

Hey, I heard we never really landed on the moon!


I actually enjoy getting this one. I ask them if the have seen the movies of the lunar rovers driving on the surface of the Moon. I ask them if they remember what the dirt did as they drove - it goes straight up off the wheel, then comes right back down. I ask them if they have ever driven on a dirt of gravel road, and what the dust does there, and how it behaves - it makes a huge dust cloud, doesn't it? I have had a person or two say, "Well, yeah, but they could have just created a huge sound-stage with a vacuum in it and done the same thing." I have gone into more detailed explanations at that point, but some people cannot be convinced, so I let them believe what they wish. :)

Is there really a secret base on the dark side of the moon?


My response to that is, "How good is the government at keeping secrets?"

Usually that works. :grin:

#6 Skywatcher2011

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Posted 08 November 2011 - 08:45 PM

Great responses and not too far off of the sort I give! I think what makes the outreach events so much fun are the oohs and aaahs of the crowd but the strange questions do add another layer of fun into it.

#7 Skylook123

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Posted 08 November 2011 - 10:17 PM

If you have twenty people at the scope, it is my experience that if one person is curious enough to ask the question, five other heads in the crowd will perk up for the answer. There is a need for reasoned answers to questions, no matter how off the mark they seem to be. You can't always sway the victim of concrete thinking (mind is all mixed up and permanently set), who is looking for validation, but the value of a serious response is with others in the audience who may need a bit of calibration as well.

#8 Jason B

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Posted 09 November 2011 - 10:18 AM

My odd situation at Fox was one that would violate our TOS to discuss but did involve a very religious based group of home schooled children. I could do or say nothing that they would not argue with.

I always try to take every question serious no matter how out there. Earlier, when I said I try to lighten the moment, I never do it in a way that is offensive to anyone. Just try to take the sting out when they get an answer that they were not expecting/hoping for...

#9 GeneT

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Posted 09 November 2011 - 04:44 PM

I just let these statements roll off like water off a duck's back. I change the discussion to the object we are looking at, and give them some interesting information.

#10 Skylook123

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Posted 09 November 2011 - 05:37 PM

My situation was somewhat like Jason's, except they were not home schooled; they were high schoolers pumped up by their Christian Academy background to be nearly street corner preachers. It so disarmed them when I manipulated their concept that it stopped them in their tracks. It is difficult to try to have them learn something when they are not interested in the eye candy nor the science facts. There were on a mission of self-validation. I gave them a comfortable escape for themselves. If they wanted to introduce the concept of an all-omniscient presence responsible for all that we see, then I led them acknowledge this presence in the laws of nature, and their responsibility to learn the manifestation of these laws. They ended up darn close to being science groupies so they could find their creator's presence in the works. Rookies. I felt relieved when no adult teachers or parents showed up to get the A Team involved in the discussion. The kids were ready for a verbal joust, and I think they were stunned a bit at the outcome. I think I was the one astronomer who treated them with respect as long as they showed the willingness to engage in a conversation. I've had some at the Grand Canyon Star Party that were so dogmatic I did not engage, but changed the topic.

My toughest verbal opponents just might be my younger sister and brother-in-law; they are convinced that the earth is hollow and that UFOs are the vehicles of an underground civilization that enters and leaves the underworld through a hole near the North Pole. And about twenty other fringe beliefs.

#11 desertstars

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Posted 09 November 2011 - 07:49 PM

My policy is to refuse to engage. Odd questions that sound that way because the asker barely knows enough about the subject to form the question (such as that sunspot question cited above), those I take seriously, and answer to the best of my ability. I slam the door on people who want to have a religious or conspiracy theory discussion. That's not why I'm out there. It's also not what the majority of the visitors to such an event have come to hear. My refusal to indulge people looking for an argument is always phrased politely, but is also expressed in no uncertain terms. Nothing like a little passive resistance to keep you in control of the line at the eyepiece.

#12 frolinmod

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Posted 10 November 2011 - 04:12 PM

Many years ago I was showing people Jupiter through my telescope. After looking through my telescope, a lady who very much reminded me of "Nancy" made the following statement, "How do you know that's really Jupiter? I don't think that's really Jupiter! How do you know that's really Jupiter?" Images of brains in vats popped into my head. I got the impression she was a solipsist. I can't stand solipsists. I was dumbfounded, confused and responded rather lamely with a dumb look on my face, "Huh? What do you mean, "how do I know" that's really Jupiter?" At that point her husband literally dragged her away as if for her own protection. I so much wish I had a more thoughtful response. Being dumbfounded just doesn't cut it...

#13 GeneT

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Posted 10 November 2011 - 04:12 PM

To the 'believers', I just say 'look up at God's creation.' I never engage in religious discussions at star parties, or when doing outreach.

#14 tedbnh

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Posted 10 November 2011 - 04:28 PM

Sometimes you can tell a smart-aleck. If one of them asks the question,

"Can you see the flag on the moon?"

I always answer, totally straight faced,

"No, it is after 5pm. They take it down."

The laughter comes from the friends of the smart-aleck that he (it is always a he) was trying to impress.

#15 GeneT

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Posted 11 November 2011 - 01:16 PM

Sometimes you can tell a smart-aleck. If one of them asks the question,

"Can you see the flag on the moon?"

I always answer, totally straight faced,

"No, it is after 5pm. They take it down."

The laughter comes from the friends of the smart-aleck that he (it is always a he) was trying to impress.


:lol: :lol: :lol:

#16 rdandrea

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Posted 11 November 2011 - 01:29 PM

If sunspots are cooler parts of the sun, could we land there?


Only if you do it at night.

#17 marcink

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Posted 11 November 2011 - 05:19 PM

If sunspots are cooler parts of the sun, could we land there?


Only if you do it at night.


And in the winter, when it's colder :grin:

#18 nighty

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Posted 11 November 2011 - 06:26 PM

I love the odd questions. The one about the secret base on the moon is fun because i say Ssshhhh, you know we are not supposed to talk about that. always gets a laugh

Terry

#19 Noisykids

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Posted 13 November 2011 - 10:13 AM

i wasn't planning on doing any outreach when one night i was walking home with my 4" dob, but tom the neighborhood drunk was out and making a racket when i walked by. i put the scope down and got saturn in the eyepiece. it was tilted so the rings were spectacular and i invited him to take a look. when he stood up he said, "wow, that's really real."

#20 amicus sidera

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Posted 13 November 2011 - 09:25 PM

Interesting comments here. In almost half a century of observing (much of it in public areas), I have invited countless individuals to view through my own telescopes, as well as those instruments I was responsible for at both public and private observatories.

Some of the individuals posing the more odd and unusual questions seemed to be under the influence of narcotics, some the effects of alcohol, some suffering from an apparent mental imbalance. One also encounters the jokers and mischief makers who are trying to act the fool, for both the amusement of their friends, and one's discomfort. These types of individual seemed a bit rarer before the Internet became popular, which has provided endless fodder for the easily deceived. The Internet being what it is, there is now very easy access to wild and bizarre ideas, as well as a great number of charlatans peddling their wares to the gullible and ignorant.

However, I have met many more individuals who, by contrast, were and are quite earnest in their questions and statements which were of an unusual nature. These people are usually seeking answers to things that do not "add up". It is the response to them that I am addressing below.

Over the years, I have had many of these rational, down-to-earth people ask me if, for example, I thought we went to the Moon, or if I believed in, or had seen, UFO's, or if I believed that a God had created the universe. Many did not phrase these in the form of a question, but as a statement of belief.

To be disingenuous with these individuals is to do them a disservice. If asked my considered, personal opinion, I give it, with the caveat that it is just that, my opinion. I do not recite facts and figures, or try to change their minds... I simply give them the aforesaid opinion. If they wish to discuss the matter further, if possible I find time later that evening, or at a later date if it seems warranted.

These individuals have an inherent right to their opinions, as does everyone, posters here included. They are asking an apparently educated person, with an impressive telescope, for his or her opinion on matters that they feel are perhaps beyond their ken. However, and this is key: they are asking these opinions of a demographic (amateur astronomers), the majority of who, in my experience and opinion, maintain the scientific "party line" as if their lives depended upon it, per the following:

Demonstrably slanted and prejudicial views on subjects such as UFO's that they have not studied in depth;

Disdain for so-called "conspiracy theories" whether or not they have researched them to determine what merit, if any, they might possess;

A near-total rejection of anything and everything regarding Deity or a Creator.

This is unfortunate for the individuals asking these questions, and I believe that they are ill-served by the answers they are receiving from the vast majority of amateur astronomers.

We do not know all that there is to know; far from it.

As Burnham in his Handbook quoted Avvaiyar: "What we have learned is like a handful of earth; what we have yet to learn is like the whole world".
Given that, for example, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the treatment for many diseases was bloodletting, and that the postulation of germ theory was greeted with laughter and derision by the intelligentsia of the time, it would be a wise man who refrains from dogmatic, reflexive responses on a subject that he is not intimately familiar with.

It has been said that the hardest words for a man in a position of knowledge to utter are "I don't know"... while for those with wisdom, such a statement is obvious, and as natural as breathing.

#21 frolinmod

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Posted 14 November 2011 - 12:03 AM

This is unfortunate for the individuals asking these questions, and I believe that they are ill-served by the answers they are receiving from the vast majority of amateur astronomers.

If you enjoy being served large doses of "woo" with your astronomy, I freely admit you're somewhat less likely likely to get it from an amateur astronomer than from the public at large. How much less likely is debatable, hence the Cloudy Nights TOS.

#22 magic612

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Posted 14 November 2011 - 10:33 AM

Over the years, I have had many of these rational, down-to-earth people ask me if, for example, I thought we went to the Moon, or if I believed in, or had seen, UFO's, or if I believed that a God had created the universe. Many did not phrase these in the form of a question, but as a statement of belief.


Certainly how a question is asked - or statement is made - determines my response. Body language and facial expressions can speak volumes as well. A sincere and earnest question is easier to discern from a facial expression than, for example, questions posted on an online forum. And I think many of us here are responding to the questions received from the "jokesters" or those looking to get a reaction from us.

To be disingenuous with these individuals is to do them a disservice. If asked my considered, personal opinion, I give it, with the caveat that it is just that, my opinion. I do not recite facts and figures, or try to change their minds...


When asked for facts, I will offer them if I know them. When asked for an opinion, I will offer one. I am always respectful of others opinions, and preconceived ideas ("There's no way we put men on the Moon!"). But that doesn't mean I can't make reasoned, respectful arguments based on facts and evidence. ("We have pictures from the LRO of the footsteps on the Moon, look at how the dust is kicked up from the lunar rovers compared to Earth, etc.) I don't think it is a disservice to help people understand what we as amateur astronomers know to be true.

I think it is fair to say that the Moon landings and evidence / facts for them are not at all comparable to the once widespread practice of bloodletting to cure diseases, for example.

However, and this is key: they are asking these opinions of a demographic (amateur astronomers), the majority of who, in my experience and opinion, maintain the scientific "party line" as if their lives depended upon it, per the following:

Demonstrably slanted and prejudicial views on subjects such as UFO's that they have not studied in depth;


I think it is important to distinguish how these subjects are brought up. For example, the question I cited in my post above was, "Have you ever seen a UFO?" My response is perhaps simplistic, "No," because it is true. It is not an opinion, that is factually true: I personally have not seen an object I cannot identify. This is not to say UFO's do not exist, or that I am talking about something I have not studied in-depth. It is saying, "I personally have not seen an object in the sky I could not identify as being a planet, satellite, airplane, or other recognizable phenomena." That may sound like, "The party line," but it is in fact predicated on the way the question was asked.

On the other hand, if asked, "Do you BELIEVE in UFO's or that aliens exist?" I would have a different response. I would certainly still offer than I had never seen one, as I have been able to identify things in the sky I have seen, but that the universe is so vast and large it is certainly possible that aliens exist and that they have spacecraft capable of reaching Earth. That could lead to a nice discussion about the vast distances in space, and our relatively paltry efforts so far at physically exploring the universe around us (Voyager just left the solar system not all that long ago).

How the question is asked makes a difference in how one responds.

Disdain for so-called "conspiracy theories" whether or not they have researched them to determine what merit, if any, they might possess;


I am not sure what this refers to, as the suggestion is rather vague. There are, in fact, many conspiracy theories about the U.S. space program (particularly the Moon landings), many of which have been repeatedly debunked by solid scientific evidence, facts, photos, the astronauts who went there, etc. I have personally read up on this subject, knowing that I will get questions about it. I am not sure what good it does to enable believers of these theories, as they often only need the tiniest shreds of evidence to continue their belief, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

I am not sure how it is a "party line" of some kind to offer up solid evidence that rejects many of the factually inaccurate conspiracy theories out there. "You can't see the stars in the sky of the Moon pictures, therefore we didn't go to the Moon!" is easily debunked by a simple explanation of how cameras actually work with respect to sunlight vs. the much dimmer starlight. Is that a "party line"? I don't think so, but perhaps you could share some of the conspiracy theories you think have merit that amateurs treat with disdain...?

I don't believe it is fair to ascribe "disdain" to facts being used to counter demonstrable conspiracy theories.

A near-total rejection of anything and everything regarding Deity or a Creator.


I can only speak for myself in this situation, but as a believer of theistic evolution, I have no problem speaking with clarity about both God and science, as I see no inherent contradiction between the two. :)

This is unfortunate for the individuals asking these questions, and I believe that they are ill-served by the answers they are receiving from the vast majority of amateur astronomers.


I don't think people are ill-served to be spoken to respectfully and with factual information. Part of what makes human existence so rich is that we can, and do, disagree about many things. I find I learn a lot by arguing (respectfully and civilly, of course) with others. As someone with a significant amount of knowledge that I work very hard to pass along to others about the night sky in an easy-to-understand way, I think it is important to distinguish between what is factually known, while - as you rightly point out - acknowledging what is unknown. And on the flip side, while genuine believers of conspiracy theories need some time and respect to discuss matters more fully, I'd suggest jokesters are actually well-served by being verbally slapped down with a simple, witty put down. ;)

And I, for one, am not afraid to say, "I have no idea!" when I cannot answer a question. I did just that a few weeks ago when someone asked me how far away a star cluster was, and the distance eluded me.

#23 amicus sidera

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Posted 14 November 2011 - 01:41 PM

Thank you, magic612, for your excellent, well-reasoned reply!

I am in complete agreement with you on almost all major points, and I applaud you for having the courage and perspicacity to have no fear of saying, "I have no idea". What I was trying to transmit in my post (and all, please forgive me if I have failed to do so) was my contention and opinion, born of direct experience, that there exists, to a greater or lesser degree, certain prejudicial attitudes among some, not all, amateur astronomers. I have been guilty of these attitudes myself in years past. "Disdain" would be the most accurate and succinct word to describe the attendant emotion/attitude. These attitudes pertain to discussion of certain types of anomalous phenomena, as well as beliefs that contradict current scientific dogma.

It was not until I started researching, both in written works and in the field, those things that exist at the fringes of knowledge and belief that I realized that in many cases I had been inaccurate in much of my knowlege and many of my assumptions regarding a given subject. While I am of the opinion that the vast majority of "fringe" literature is wholly without merit, there are some worthy and studied works regarding anomalous events that are quite enlightening.

As regards UFO's and related anomalies, one could do no better than to read the works of Hynek or Vallee, the former being a respected astronomer. Hynek's opinion of the subject changed considerably over the course of the years - one might be quite surprised at his later conclusions. Keel fits into this "worth reading"category also, although his style of writing and scarcity of references may cause some to view his work rather perjoratively. One thing to be realized from these works is that the phenomenon, by its very nature, may never be breached by science.

One could argue back and forth all day (if one was so inclined - I am not) as to whether the Moon landings ever took place, or if they took place in the manner put forth. Countless books and Internet essays have postulated both for and against the landings having occurred as NASA delineated. I have seen many studied as well as specious arguments coming from both camps, and have concluded that there are still many legitimate, unanswered questions remaining... hence, it appears to me that those who evince belief in the "authorized version" of events are just that - believers. They are entitled to that, certainly, but it is a belief nonetheless, no matter how reasoned and logical the basis for their belief appears to them to be. For a belief to be factual, it must be verifiable, and statements by NASA and astronauts, and opinions by scientists in general, amateur astronomers or the man in the street do not constitute verification. As is often said (and quite correctly) of the UFO subject, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof"... sending men to the Moon and back would certainly qualify as an extraordinary claim. Where the evidence of one's own eyes is lacking, one should be extremely reluctant to take such matters on faith.

As regards religious issues, in keeping with the TOS I will say very little, except that I can sympathize with one of the previous posters who was in effect being proselytized by a group with a differing belief system. However, the reverse analogy holds true, and we as amateur astronomers should be on our guard that we do not become proselytizers of our own beliefs, no matter how sincerely held.

To all reading this, I hope I have clarified my position, and further hope that no matter your beliefs, that you have clear, dark skies under which to reflect upon them, and a long line of eager eyes awaiting their turn at the eyepiece.

#24 Jason B

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Posted 14 November 2011 - 01:57 PM

Hey guys,
I think we have done an outstanding job of keeping this thread TOS friendly. Thanks!

These situations can be tough and I am glad to see I am not alone!

To all reading this, I hope I have clarified my position, and further hope that no matter your beliefs, that you have clear, dark skies under which to reflect upon them, and a long line of eager eyes awaiting their turn at the eyepiece.


I think this is a great way to look at things!

#25 magic612

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Posted 14 November 2011 - 04:08 PM

Thank you, magic612, for your excellent, well-reasoned reply!


Thank you, and I appreciate the constructive and civil dialogue. :)

One could argue back and forth all day (if one was so inclined - I am not) as to whether the Moon landings ever took place... hence, it appears to me that those who evince belief in the "authorized version" of events are just that - believers. ... For a belief to be factual, it must be verifiable, and statements by NASA and astronauts, and opinions by scientists in general, amateur astronomers or the man in the street do not constitute verification. As is often said (and quite correctly) of the UFO subject, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof"... sending men to the Moon and back would certainly qualify as an extraordinary claim.


There are unanswered questions about many things that are still understood to real and/or true. But that does not negate that those things occurred or are real/true, either. I was not alive for the first Moon landing, and very young when we last set foot there. At the risk of taking the thread OT, there are several things that convince me of it's veracity, that are difficult to claim otherwise:

- We left mirrors on the surface, so that lasers could be pointed at the Moon to accurately measure its distance. If the mirrors are NOT there, how do we measure the laser? I am not inclined to believe so many scientists are "in" on such a "cover up."
- How does one explain how the dust looks from the lunar rovers while driving? Shouldn't it be possible for someone to replicate this using 1960's technology? Why has no one done so to date?
- The LRO has taken photos of the lunar landing sites. If this is a "cover up" to "prove" that we went when we didn't, I cannot fathom how thousands of government employees - past and present, at this point - have managed to keep this secret. If you can explain that one, I'm all ears.

At some point, yes, this comes down to believing others. I have never measured the speed of light myself, but I accept that scientists have done so, and done so accurately. Much of what we believe for distances in the universe, red-shift, size of the universe, etc., is predicated on this. Certainly, if the speed of light has been inaccurately measured all of these years, almost all of astronomy is wrong. But I tend to find it hard to believe that so many scientists could measure the speed of light and either A) be wrong or B) cover up the 'real' speed of light.

And so it goes with conspiracies. I hope that clears up why I am comfortable believing what I do about astronomy. My religious faith is another matter entirely, and not suitable for discussion here; again, theistic evolution is what "works" for me there.

To all reading this, I hope I have clarified my position, and further hope that no matter your beliefs, that you have clear, dark skies under which to reflect upon them, and a long line of eager eyes awaiting their turn at the eyepiece.


To echo Jason, thanks for this and the same to you as well. :)






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