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General Astronomy >> Outreach

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Skywatcher2011
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Loc: Californa
Handling odd questions and conspiracy theorists
      #4901329 - 11/06/11 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.


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Jason B
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Re: Handling odd questions and conspiracy theorists new [Re: Skywatcher2011]
      #4901486 - 11/06/11 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....

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Skywatcher2011
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Re: Handling odd questions and conspiracy theorists new [Re: Jason B]
      #4901517 - 11/06/11 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.


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Skylook123
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Re: Handling odd questions and conspiracy theorists new [Re: Skywatcher2011]
      #4901589 - 11/06/11 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.


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magic612
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Re: Handling odd questions and conspiracy theorists new [Re: Skywatcher2011]
      #4902573 - 11/07/11 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.

Quote:

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."


Quote:

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."

Quote:

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."

Quote:

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.

Quote:

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.


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Skywatcher2011
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Reged: 10/02/11

Loc: Californa
Re: Handling odd questions and conspiracy theorists new [Re: magic612]
      #4905235 - 11/08/11 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.

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Skylook123
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Re: Handling odd questions and conspiracy theorists new [Re: Skywatcher2011]
      #4905369 - 11/08/11 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.

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Jason B
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Re: Handling odd questions and conspiracy theorists new [Re: Skylook123]
      #4906136 - 11/09/11 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...


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GeneT
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Re: Handling odd questions and conspiracy theorists new [Re: Skywatcher2011]
      #4906982 - 11/09/11 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.

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Skylook123
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Re: Handling odd questions and conspiracy theorists new [Re: GeneT]
      #4907092 - 11/09/11 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.


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desertstars

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Re: Handling odd questions and conspiracy theorists new [Re: Skylook123]
      #4907368 - 11/09/11 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.

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frolinmod
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Re: Handling odd questions and conspiracy theorists new [Re: desertstars]
      #4908896 - 11/10/11 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...

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GeneT
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Re: Handling odd questions and conspiracy theorists new [Re: Skylook123]
      #4908899 - 11/10/11 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.

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tedbnh
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Re: Handling odd questions and conspiracy theorists new [Re: GeneT]
      #4908924 - 11/10/11 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.


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GeneT
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Re: Handling odd questions and conspiracy theorists new [Re: tedbnh]
      #4910370 - 11/11/11 01:16 PM

Quote:

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.






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rdandrea
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Re: Handling odd questions and conspiracy theorists new [Re: Skywatcher2011]
      #4910385 - 11/11/11 01:29 PM

Quote:

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




Only if you do it at night.


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marcink
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Re: Handling odd questions and conspiracy theorists new [Re: rdandrea]
      #4910782 - 11/11/11 05:19 PM

Quote:

Quote:

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


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nighty
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Re: Handling odd questions and conspiracy theorists new [Re: marcink]
      #4910879 - 11/11/11 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


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Noisykids
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Re: Handling odd questions and conspiracy theorists new [Re: nighty]
      #4913437 - 11/13/11 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."

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amicus sidera
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Re: Handling odd questions and conspiracy theorists new [Re: Noisykids]
      #4914591 - 11/13/11 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.


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