Saturday, December 5, 2015

Apollo, the last "good" hoax

Some of us enter the great Argument Room of the internet looking for something that fits in with our interest in science. The vast majority of professionals stay away from such arguments; they aren't career advancing, there's plenty of conflict closer to hand with people within their own field (few fields are free of ongoing controversy), and the argument itself is perpetual, more a Monty Python sketch then a purposeful debate that will end in a conclusion.

But sometimes the professionals do speak out, and that is to all our benefit, as that means describing their work and its philosophies and some of its challenges in a way people like me can understand.

Most of what little I know about engineering and a number of hard sciences comes courtesy of people -- engineers, aerospace professionals, also professionals in broadcast engineering, photography, photogrammatry, astronomy -- who saw the misinterpretations, mind-boggling stupidity, and outright lights being promulgated among the host of Apollo Hoax believers and chose to comment.

Again, correction is never going to happen. Or, rather; the people who write books, sell patent medicines or electrum bracelets, create videos for the "History" Channel, or push YouTube videos are never going to be convinced. Nor are many of their followers; the only thing more suspicious than a lack of response, in their eyes, is any response. Nor does any of this speak to the bulk of the crowd, who aren't aware that they actually have a dog in the race and thus take one view or another (more often than not, the conspiratorial view, as that is considered the least conformist) without any particular passion or even any particular attention.

I do believe, however, that the bad ideas are already out there, and they will taint everyone, the reasonable included, if there aren't counters floating around out there as well. And someone has to make those reasoned rebuttals. So I salute the Phil Plaits and the James Randis even as I (and they) understand how akin their books and blogs and other writings are oddly similar to tilting at windmills.

The hoax promulgators also have it easier in that it takes less words, less time, and a lot less math to express a bad idea than it does a good idea. When you get down to it, a lot of pseudo science (conspiracy beliefs included) replace a complex, difficult to understand, difficult to boil down concept with one that is simpler. (They also replace the random with the anthrogenic, the impersonal with the personal, and of course they prefer emotional statements over mathematical arguments!)

Unfortunately, the Apollo Hoax is dead. Really, the nerds won; unlike conspiracy beliefs involving Bigfoot or Mu, the Apollo Hoax was proximate to subjects the Nerd Horde was already primed to pontificate on; hard sciences, in particular, but also the space program.

But, really, the Apollo Hoax did itself in. It came out swinging with Bill Kaysing's book and from those first moments it had apparently decided its weapons of choice were, well, science. It came to the duel and when given weapons of choice chose the one it's opponent was already master of.

Every die-hard Apollo Hoaxie will eventually retreat to the ramparts of emotional argument and grand conspiracy and "were you there" ism. Discussions with them inevitably descend to attempts to game the discussion, then disruptive behavior, and finally angry exits. But their first entrance and their early work is framed in the form of testable scientific hypothesis.

Which is wonderful. Which is why I miss the Apollo Hoax.

Because not only are these testable hypothesis -- say, "Why weren't stars visible in photographs taken on the lunar surface?" -- they are also, to use the physics joke, questions posed in a frictionless vacuum.

Quite literally, in many cases! The nature of the project -- the alien setting, the specific physics of the situations, and the extreme mis-match between the naive expectations of the questioner and what actually arises in that setting -- conspire to create questions with very clear conditions and very clear answers.

You can argue endless whether someone "looked guilty and uncomfortable" in a press conference, but when you phrase something like "The Saturn V could not contain enough fuel to get to the Moon" you have created a simple and testable case. You've removed the engineering and all the second order factors and made what in reality is, well, rocket science into a first-order approximation. Into something as simple as plugging the weights of the system into the Ideal Rocket Equation and looking up the transfer delta-vee for the Earth-Moon journey.

And the questions weren't always physics. The peculiar conditions of the Moon, the alien look to those scenes, the emotional impact of photographs of men on the Moon, and the consistent impetus among all pseudo-science conspiracy believers to place images, and simplistic interpretation of images, foremost (since everything else takes more work and even -- shudder -- professional-level skills) means there are thousands of wonderful Apollo Hoax hypothesis that can be tested with simple geometry.

Can a flag lack a shadow? Can shadows converge? All of these are presented in specific cases which can be put to geometric analysis. (My favorite one was a Jack White, and a little hard to explain. LM, US flag, and high gain antenna photographed from some distance away, with the LM appearing in the center of the group from one photograph, and to the left of the other two in another photograph. Jack White believed this to be impossible. A quick sketch shows how it can be done -- and I leave that exercise to the reader).

The Apollo Hoax stood alone in having interesting problems you could work out yourself and learn a little science from, and putting this foremost in the argument (sure, you can calculate how large the Ark must have been, but that sort of work is ignored as pointless distraction by the people arguing various flavors of Biblical literalism.) And it offered a chance to think about space, to learn more about this fascinating project and the very real challenges they faced (and very clever solutions they came up with).

9-11 Truthers verge into science with their "melting steel" claims but they are incredibly angry people and no fun to talk to. Holohoaxers are just disgusting and don't deserve time wasted on them (sure, one could imagine a reasoned approach to holocaust denial, but scratch a hundred of them and somehow you come up with a hundred antisemitic white supremacists with fascist leanings). Anti-vaxxers are as angry as Truthers but a lot sadder about it (which I would be too, if I bought into it.) And so on and so forth.

If you wanted an argument, then the Argument Clinic is right next door to Getting Hit on the Head Lessons. But Apollo Hoax was something else, a weird mashup between a debating club and word problems in a maths text, like an impromptu orals for a graduate degree in some oddly interdisciplinary science, and that room is rarely open these days.

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